Decision to fund SPH Media Trust remains unchanged: Josephine Teo

Despite discovery of circulation discrepancies, Communications and Information Minister said the funding reasons remain valid

Speaking in Parliament on 6 February, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo said the reasons which spurred the Government's decision to fund SPH Media Trust still remain valid even today.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday (6 February), Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo said the reasons which spurred the Government's decision to fund SPH Media Trust still remain valid even today. (PHOTO: MCI/Screengrab)

SINGAPORE — There has been no loss of public funds and no change to the government's decision to provide funding to SPH Media Trust (SMT), even after the media giant's recent discovery of inflation of its circulation figures.

Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo made these points in Parliament on Monday (6 February) while answering more than 20 MP questions regarding SMT's inflation of circulation figures.

"SMT’s internal review of circulation numbers reinforced our assessment that the media landscape had become highly unfavourable for news organisations, even if they had substantial reach and were trusted by the public," she said.

"I emphasise: This does not make it right for anyone to overstate circulation numbers. But it reaffirms the need for restructuring."

This marks the first time Mrs Teo has addressed the matter in Parliament since the daily circulation numbers of SPH Media titles, which include national broadsheet newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, were found to have been inflated by up to 95,000 copies, or about 10 to 12 per cent of the average daily count.

The Straits Times reported last month that several practices were used to inflate circulation, including instances where copies of SPH Media titles were printed, counted for circulation and then destroyed, as well as double-counting of subscriptions.

No Government funds have yet to be given to SPH Media Trust: MCI

According to Mrs Teo, from September 2020 to March 2022 - when SMT's circulation figures were found to have been inflated - no Government funds have yet to be disbursed to the media company.

She explained: "The parliament was informed in May 2021 that the government supported the restructuring of SPHLs media business into SMT. Subsequently, in February 2022, Parliament was informed of the funding that the government was prepared to commit to supporting SMTs capability development for five financial years from FY 2022.

"Up to now, we have not dispersed any funds."

In assessing the funding required, Ms Teo pointed out that circulation numbers were not a primary factor and that the level of funding deemed necessary to invest in technology and capability development remains relevant.

She stressed that the government had assessed that it would provide up to $180 million of public funds annually to support SMTs transformation for five years starting from FY 2022.

Ms Teo said: "The funds would be useful for technology development, for example, product development for the digital space, newsroom tools like content management resources and data analytics as well as IT infrastructure."

"They will also be used for talent development, training journalists for the new operating environment, including equipping them with digital skills and multimedia capabilities."

The need for accountability

Mrs Teo also responded to MPs' questions about the time frame and financial implications of the overstated circulation numbers and how, when, and to what extent SMT discloses details of its review.

She advised SMT to address these concerns, noting that the concerns were legitimate.

"The government cannot speak on behalf of SMT, and it is premature for us to say more at this juncture," she said.

"This is especially as the board has tasked its audit and risk committee to conduct further investigations into the circulation discrepancy."

Mrs Teo also fielded questions by MPs on ensuring public funds' accountability by citing readership, reach independent audits, and regular progress reports as accountability measures for SMT.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as SMT's total reach and engagement and specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and youths, are used to determine how much funding is given to SMT.

"SMT's KPI performance and financial statements must also be audited by independent external auditors before submission to the government," she said.

Funding will be disbursed only if it provides satisfactory regular updates on where and how funds have been used and future business plans on a half-yearly basis.

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