Not Being Strait Forward: The SPH circulation scandal & its impact on Singapore’s media scene explained

Headlines from Wake Up Singapore, Straits Times and Channel News Asia. Image via Midjourney
Headlines from Wake Up Singapore, Straits Times and Channel News Asia. Image via Midjourney

What happened?

If you’re in Singapore, you’ve probably heard or read something about the recent scandal involving SPH Media Trust (SPT), the city-state’s largest media company, inflating their circulation numbers by 10-12 per cent. But if you’re not a media industry insider, you may be wondering what the big deal is and why this even qualifies as a scandal. 

But SPT, which owns most of Singapore’s major newspapers including The Straits Times, The New Paper, Lianhe Zaobao and Berita Harian, is seen as the standard bearer for mainstream news and journalism in Singapore. Beyond the implications of corporate malfeasance, SPH’s reporting and disclosures on the matter call into question its journalistic integrity. 

Given its cozy relationship with the government (which is funding SPT with taxpayer money to the tune of SG$900 million over the next five years), you can understand why the company’s less than straightforward reporting on the matter thus far has earned significant ire.

As Bertha Henson, a media critic and veteran journalist who worked at SPH Media for 26 years, wrote in a scathing opinion piece that the scandal “… strikes at the very core of journalism as well as [SPT’s] business practices. It demonstrates whether it has the gumption to turn the spotlight on itself, even as it puts others under the microscope on a daily basis.

When and how did it go down?

Credit must go to our fellow independent media outlet Wake Up Singapore for breaking the news. On Jan 8, they published an article with the headline “3 senior executives to leave SPH Media Trust over alleged discrepancies in circulation figures”, 

Citing unnamed sources, WUS said that the executives’ departure was decided around Dec 23, 2022, after the discrepancies were found during an internal audit.

The next day (Jan 9), the Straits Times published an article, “Senior SPH Media staff taken to task or have left company after review finds issues with circulation data” that essentially confirmed WUS’s reporting. 

The ST report, citing an unnamed (!) SPT spokesperson noted that the discrepancy amounted to around 85,000 and 95,000 daily average copies across all of SPT’s titles, representing 10 to 12 per cent of its daily average circulation.

It also noted that some copies of their publications “were printed, counted for circulation and then destroyed; as well as double-counting of subscriptions across multiple instances”.

However, the article did not name any of the executives who left the company or were “taken to task”, nor explain what exactly “taken to task” means.

Why do circulation numbers matter? 

Advertisers pay media outlets to reach certain audiences, so the logical implication was that SPT executives were inflating circulation numbers so that they could use that falsified data to charge advertisers more money.

However, the ST published another article on Jan 10, based on a statement from SPT CEO Teo Lay Lim to advertisers, that the company’s ad rates were based on independent third-party readership data, not on circulation numbers.  

“Our media rates and advertising packages are based on reach and readership of individual titles, and our SPH Media solutions as a whole,” she wrote.

The story also quoted an email from SPH group editor-in-chief Wong Wei Kong to his staff saying the disclosure of the inflated figures “…was painful, but necessary to put right what was once unknown, but now known. There is no choice – we cannot possibly continue reporting numbers that would now be questioned.”

The quote suggests that SPT disclosed the discrepancy on its own for the sake of transparency. But the timing of the disclosure, the day after WUS published their article breaking the news, calls into question when (if ever) SPT would have let the public and advertisers know about it otherwise. 

Advertisers and politicians ain’t happy

SPT’s statement that circulation figures weren’t linked to ad rates clearly didn’t placate advertisers. 

Goh Shufen, the president of the Association of Advertising and Marketing Singapore (AAMS), released a statement yesterday saying the trade body was “disappointed that such an incident has occurred. Absolute transparency is needed from a major newspaper group that not just generations of Singaporeans, but so many local and multinational businesses have grown up with.” 

Shufen also responded to the claim that the discrepancy did not affect ad rates by writing, “Circulation not being the basis of promoting advertising sales does not exonerate the practice of falsifying circulation figures.”

It also raises the question of why the company’s executives would risk so much to inflate circulation figures if it wasn’t to increase ad rates, another issue that SPT’s internal reporting has failed to address.

Marketing experts told Channel News Asia that the scandal could erode the trust of readers and business partners in SPT, while some lawyers said that advertisers could sue platforms for falsifying circulation figures.

Opposition political parties have also spoken out about the scandal.  The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) called for an independent inquiry into the matter. 

“The news on misrepresentation of subscriptions by SPH Media is disconcerting. This is particularly serious as up to $900M of taxpayers’ money will be used to fund it over the next five years,” the post reads. 

The Peoples Voice (PV) party, has also called for the establishment of a Commission Of Inquiry into SMT’s conduct. In a Telegram post, PV’s leader Lim Tean said that the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) and Singapore Police Force (SPF) needed to investigate the scandal as a criminal matter.

 “Printing copies to be counted as part of the circulation and then destroying them, setting up of a special project fund to buy back your own paper so as to make it appear that your circulation was more than what they were-are these not fraudulent practices? So what is the CAD and SPF waiting for when there have been admissions of criminal activities? It’s analogous to a drug abuser admitting to taking drugs but the CNB not arresting the person. Or do the CAD and SPF think that their primary role is to harass and arrest Opposition Politicians?”

While the legal and commercial implications for SPT could be dire, it’s also entirely possible that this scandal ends up amounting to very little if the company continues to prioritize protecting its own interests rather than being forthright with the public and its own reporters. It may fall on the shoulders of Singapore’s scrappy independent media outlets to lead the way again.

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