September 28, 2022

When a news business is worth saving

3 min read

TWO years ago, several bumiputra companies, including public listed ones and government-linked companies, received a letter from then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s office.

The letter, signed by the Prime Minister himself, requested these companies extend support to Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia, which was in dire financial straits.

At that time, it had registered total losses as a group at over RM68.5mil.

The letter from the Prime Minister’s Office was, in essence, a cover note that accompanied another letter from Utusan’s chairman that appealed for the Prime Minister to compel each of these companies to allocate a certain amount of funds – RM2mil to be exact – in advertising revenue for publications under the Utusan group to help pull it out of the brink of closure.

And just when one thought Utusan’s race-baiting was limited to its seditious headlines, this letter also laid blame of its financial situation on the media and advertising agencies that “were controlled by non-bumiputra, ” which had refused to recommend or allocate ad-spend with this publication.

The Utusan executives at the time perhaps did not realise or refused to acknowledge that print in general was on the decline. It did not help that its editorial policies – which blamed the Chinese, Christians and the DAP for everything that ails the Malays – had spooked media agencies and their clients that declined to be associated with a publication that pushed such a divisive agenda.

After all, a senior editor had admitted at a forum organised by the National Civics Bureau that it was acceptable to spin facts to benefit the ruling party.

However, Utusan’s circulation, which was at just over 144,000 in the last audit in 2016, was a concern where eyeballs and spending power were concerned, as were its readership profile.

Before it was delisted on Aug 30 this year, the Utusan group’s share price was hovering at about five-and-a-half sen – far below its all-time high of RM7.66 in 2000.

But the letter to the Prime Minister was not only a cry for help, it was also an appeal to Umno and the government then for a quid pro quo.

Utusan and its editors and journalists – many of whom are professionals and passionate writers – were put in a position where they had to compromise their ethics and reputations at the behest of their political masters.

For example, there was Hatta Wahari, the then National Union of Journalists president who was suspended for staging lone protests against Utusan’s racist and politically slanted editorial policies.

It is ironic that he had packets of noodles thrown at him by several of his colleagues – the same people who now find themselves at the wrong end of karma, having lost their livelihood following the shutting down of this once proud institution that had played a pivotal role in shaping the nationalism that led to our independence.

But one can heave a sigh of relief for the Utusan staff left out in the cold by those who should have provided security for them and their families. Tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary’s Aurora Mulia Sdn Bhd has now acquired 70% of Utusan Melayu Bhd, including its publishing licences for both Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo!.

There were assurances that staff who had been let go would be absorbed into the new outfit.

It is certainly good news for them, but whether it is good news for journalism in general is a story for another column.

Syed Mokhtar also controls Media Prima (TV3 and New Straits Times Press).

With online media now being labelled the new “mainstream” for misplaced praise and being picky with its coverage of the current government, one does need an alternative platform to call the bluff of Pakatan Harapan if and when it is called for.

But if it is business as usual and the agenda remains to be politically slanted and create bogeymen, then it will be a matter of time before another PN17 company is announced.

After all, people are already self-reliant in searching for news, many via dodgy sites and forwarded WhatsApp messages.

To this end, the custodians of entities such as Utusan must run it as a respectable media business, not a propaganda platform. This will also help ensure that the lines between real and fake news are not blurred.

Former journalist Terence Fernandez is a media and communications consultant. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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