An editor's confession (updated)

PN Balji, author of upcoming book The Reluctant Editor. (VIDEO SCREENSHOT: Yahoo News Singapore)

UPDATE: A lawyer passed me some information after I wrote this post, which I thought I should share so that readers will have a more complete picture of what happened. Essentially, it is about the contents of a Court of Appeal judgement that revealed the people who authorised the release of the police report to the media, and how re-publication in the media affects the quantum of damages.

I am adding this so that more facts are surfaced and fewer “spins” about the event can be effected. See the bolded parts. Also, relevant parts of the judgment can be found here.

I love reading books by journalists about their career in journalism. I look to them for inspiration and insights. I have just finished reading Alan Rusbridger’s Breaking News – The Remaking of Journalism and Why it matters now. He’s the ex-editor of The Guardian, which published the Snowden Files in 2013.

I am now reading Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth, an ambitious overview of the developments in The New York Times and Washington Post as internet upstarts Buzzfeed and Vice started biting into reader’s time. She’s the ex-editor of NYT.

When Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of the Singapore Press Holdings English and Malay language news division, wrote his OB Markers – My Straits Times story in 2012, I read it from start to end in more or less one sitting. He told stories that I thought journalists would take to their graves. Of phone calls and Istana meetings and dossiers compiled on so-called editorial transgressions. There was so much on the behind-the-scenes relationship between the G and the media. You can read my review here.

Mr Cheong was careful to characterise the relationship as a negotiation, rather than a master-slave relationship, although he was also clear about who had the upper hand. He ended on a positive note, perhaps too optimistically, that the media would be allowed to operate with less control under a political leadership which understood the demands and desires of an educated population plugged into the global information network. Note that he wrote the book in 2012.

Now I am looking forward to reading Mr PN Balji’s The Reluctant Editor, which will be out in June. The veteran journalist who has edited newspapers in both the SPH and MediaCorp stable has promised nuggets of information that had been kept from the public eye. He’s been giving interviews about his book including this one to Yahoo News Singapore.

He told Yahoo that Mr Cheong’s OB Markers was his inspiration. “It was the first book written by an established editor from SPH which actually said that there was government intervention, and he gave some examples,” he said. It annoyed the G to a great extent, he said, “because now it cannot tell people that we don’t intervene in the media”.

He added that if he could “bring some some more stories, expand on what Cheong Yip Seng has said, I think it would lead to a greater understanding of Singapore media and its interactions with the Singapore government”.

I think it’s very courageous of him to do so. I am less courageous.

A few months ago, he told my class of National University of Singapore undergraduates doing a module on Media Ethics about what transpired behind the scenes during the 1997 General Election, when The New Paper ran a front page story about Workers’ Party politicians Tang Liang Hong and JB Jeyaratnam filing police reports against People’s Action Party ministers. This incident was going to be in his book, he said. He was the editor then and I was his deputy.

I had suggested Chatham House rules, but Balji waved them away. Anybody was free to write anything.

It was another one of those stories that I thought journalists, at least the handful of us privy to it, would take to their graves. And no, it is not about the Toh Chin Chye saga in 1996, which was how I ended up being transferred from The Straits Times to TNP. Balji has said much about this boo-boo, which had led to front page apologies in every single SPH newspaper for a week. You can read about some of it here although I am sure there are more juicy details in his book.

First, some background: The 1997 GE was notable for the Tang Liang Hong affair. Mr Tang, now a fugitive in exile, had thrown his lot in with the Workers’ Party and stood for election, alongside the late J B Jeyaretnam, in Cheng San GRC. The PAP attacked Mr Tang as anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist and clearly did not want to see the WP slate anywhere near Parliament. Several PAP leaders fired broadsides at him.

The day before Polling Day (there was no Cooling Off day at that time), the WP held a rally which ended dramatically with Mr Jeyaretnam holding up a few pieces of paper in his hand. He said that police reports had been filed against 11 members of the PAP. He left it at that.

So everyone was all agog about the contents of the police report. Unless Mr Jeyaretnam handed them over to the media himself, there was no way journalists could have obtained them from other sources. The police do not release police reports on request.

Yet in the early hours of the next morning on Polling Day, Balji said he received a telephone call suggesting that he obtain the police reports from Central Police Station. Ask and you shall be given. This was a strange offer of a scoop offered to TNP, a newspaper which at that time was sold at lunch-time. (Afternote: Balji has since told me the phone call was from Cheong, our editor-in-chief at that time.)

Balji admits that the idea of a scoop stirred journalistic passions. Which editor would not welcome the chance to get one step ahead of its rivals, especially the broadsheet Straits Times, which had already gone to print by then? I was Balji’s deputy at that time, and actually called the cops for the reports. They said no. So, Balji made a telephone call and this time, we were told to wait by the facsimile machine. The clock was ticking away and we had already held the presses. So many of us crowded around the machine that morning to watch copies of the report slowly make their way into our presence. We printed them whole-sale on Page 1.

If Cooling Off Day was in place then, we would have breached so many rules and were at risk of libelling 11 people. To cut a long story short, we did not get into trouble, but Mr Tang and JBJ et al did. They didn’t win the election but did well enough to earn a non-constituency MP seat which JBJ took. But more importantly, JBJ was smacked with a massive law suit, 11 in all. That was when it began to dawn on us that we had been made use of to disseminate a supposed libel to an even wider audience, which could mean higher damages if the PAP side won.

The next event in this saga was the court case which meted out what former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong described as a “derisory’’ $20,000 in damages on JBJ for saying these words at that rally, “Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team.”

The PAP side appealed and the damages were upped to $100,000 plus $20,000 in court costs.

In a November 1997 judgment that concerned a separate set of PAP law suits against Mr Tang, a Court of Appeal comprising Justices M Karthigesu, LP Thean and GP Selvam noted that Mr Tang was not responsible for giving the media copies of the police reports, which would have compounded his libel. PAP lawyers had told the judges when it came to assessing damages that they were instead released by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and the late PM Lee Kuan Yew.

The judges said, “They (the PAP lawyers) would have offered the court all the relevant facts, but it did not occur to them at the time, as the matter was never raised. We accept their explanation. It is quite clear that the oversight was unintentional.”

As for the PAP’s act of making public the police reports, the court said, “It seems to us that it was a matter of political exigency to the PAP leaders that the reports should be made public to neutralise whatever effect Mr Tang sought to make out of them so that the voters could make their choice on an informed basis.”

Since neither Mr Tang (nor JBJ) had made public the reports, he can’t be responsible for the dissemination of the contents. The judges lowered the damages for the PAP leaders who had cited the police reports as aggravating factors in their suit against Mr Tang.

But as far as the JBJ court case was concerned, he had still defamed the PAP leaders by his announcement that police reports had been made. On appeal, the court awarded PM Goh $100,000 in damages in July 1998, citing among other factors how the earlier $20,000 award was “disconsonant” with past defamation cases.

The other 10 PAP leaders got onto the bandwagon later. But in April 2002, after Mr JBJ apologised to them, they accepted his apology and waived damages and cost.

There was no way JBJ could have paid them anything anyway. He had been declared a bankrupt the year before (he couldn’t pay damages for another law suit) and consequently had to quit his NCMP post.

All this time, Balji said, he wondered if he would be called to the stand by the defence to declare how he had obtained the reports. But JBJ’s lawyers didn’t summon him. Nobody talked about the content of the reports; just its announcement.

Some 20 years have passed since and the event still grated on him. It grated on me too. I was in court for the trial to do a “watching’’ brief, in case the newsroom was implicated in some way. It was an ache that I have carried all these years. Balji said the book gave him a chance to finally get it off his chest, to tell the truth. Like some form of atonement.

Playing it back, I wondered if we could have said no. Our journalistic instincts, scoop mentality and deadline pressure overwhelmed our ethics. We wanted to be first with the story. But we found that the fleeting euphoria was nothing compared to the stone that had been lodged in our hearts since. We did a terrible thing.

You can read it in greater detail in Balji’s book. I recall a review Balji wrote about another ex-editor’s book, Mano Sabnani’s Marbles, Mayhem and My Typewriter published in 2017, which he had described as a “let down’’. Mr Sabnani was brief when he could have been more expansive about the run-ins he had with the G, especially during Mr Sabnani’s three-year editorship of TODAY.

“That in itself is a sad indictment of the Singapore journalism story where many editors take their tales to their graves. Some, like Sabnani, have bucked the trend but are still only prepared to tell an incomplete story and leave readers wanting more. Isn’t our journalism also like that, leaving many to wonder if the bottle is half full or half empty?’’

Balji isn’t taking much to his grave.

I actually wrote most of this column right after Balji gave his talk but I balked at publishing it. I was worried about affecting his impending book publication and was too much of a coward to print the truth. I thought it best to wait till his book was out.

Why have I changed my mind? Because at this time when the national discussion is about the publication of truth and falsehoods and with an important Bill up for debate this month, I thought more people might like to have a better understanding about the relationship between the G and the media.

And before you ask, I’m still thinking about it.