SPH Media tasks committee to further probe overstated circulation numbers

Media company has already taken 7 employees to task, with 4 leaving the company and 3 being served warning letters

A view of the SPH News Centre.
SPH News Centre. (PHOTO: Reuters/Caroline Chia)

SINGAPORE — SPH Media Trust's Board has tasked its audit and risk committee to further investigate overstated circulation numbers that were discovered in an audit last year and revealed earlier this month. It will then consider what further steps need to be taken.

The audit had covered the period between September 2020 and March 2022, where the circulation numbers in some months were found to be overstated by up to 90,000 average daily copies.

In a media statement on Friday (20 January), the media company gave more details to the discrepancies uncovered amid its circulation figures:

  • Of particular concern was an overstatement of 49,000 average daily copies - or 5 per cent of total daily circulation then - of SPH Media news titles recorded as circulation numbers but not distributed. The majority of these were digital copies;

  • 5,000 average daily copies were recorded after contracts had lapsed;

  • 17,000 average daily copies were recorded as a result of a failure to check that reported circulation numbers were accurate against actual usage tracked in the system;

  • A possible discrepancy of 19,000 average daily copies was discovered, which included a barter arrangement with another publisher.

SPH Media said the audit and risk committee will commission legal advisors to assist in the investigation, and report its findings directly to the Board.

The committee is chaired by Max Loh, former managing partner of EY ASEAN & Singapore, and comprises Lim Mei, co-head of corporate mergers and acquisitions at Allen & Gledhill, and Philip Lee, vice-chairman of global banking for Southeast Asia at HSBC Singapore.

According to CNA, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) said it has asked the SPH Media board to share the findings of the audit committee, and expects "full cooperation" on the matter.

"MCI is undergoing its own review of whether the inconsistencies would have affected the decision to fund (SPH Media Trust), and the amount the Government committed to fund," it added.

"We have not disbursed any of these funds to date. We will share our findings in due course."

Steps taken to ensure data accuracy, accountability

News of the overstated circulation numbers broke earlier this month, after several senior SPH Media employees left the company in December last year following the internal audit.

SPH Media said in its media statement that a total of seven employees had been taken to task over the matter. Four of these staff have since left the company, while three were served warning letters.

The media company added in its statement that it has taken steps to ensure data accuracy and accountability:

  • It will strengthen the separation of duties among staff, with enhanced checks and balances. For example, it will ensure that staff who are reporting circulation numbers do not have the access rights to create or change entries in the customer database;

  • It will ensure more frequent internal audit reviews, such that reporting is done based on established methodology and verified to be accurate;

  • It will enhance data quality and improve accuracy of customer details, which includes data cleansing and independent validation.

In addition to reassessing the methodology for the reporting of circulation numbers, SPH Media said it is pressing on with other transformation efforts.

"(SPH Media) is committed to upholding integrity in every part of our business," it said in the media statement. "(SPH Media) remains steadfast in its mission to deliver quality journalism."

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