Recollections & Reflections

IT’S been just over a week since the two newspapers in the Utusan Melayu Group ceased operations, with their printing permits sold to another company, but while there was talk that the papers will be back on the streets, nothing official has been forthcoming from the new owner.

There have been all kinds of reactions since the announcement last week about the closure but as was commented last August it was just a matter of time.

Former newspaper editor A. Kadir Jasin was one of those who had something to say, with him putting the blame on Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the successor to Dr. Mahathir Mohamad as Umno president/prime minister after Mahathir quit in late 2003. Ironic to think that Kadir had openly declared in front of senior executives at a management briefing in 1987 at the height of the Umno Team A-Team B dispute that circulation was never his Berita Harian’s priority. But as any newspaper owner will tell you, first and foremost it starts with circulation which then has a strong bearing on whether you will get advertising support and also help revenue-wise, although it must be pointed out that even if sold at double whatever its sale price, a newspaper will be lucky if it can cover cost. Kadir was allowed to buy Berita Publishing from the NSTP Group in 2000 for a token RM1 lock-stock-and barrel, taking with him established titles that included Her World, Jelita and Malaysian Business. The first he offloaded much earlier to another publisher but after 15 years Kadir decided that he could no longer continue publishing his magazines. It was a business decision, just the way the two Utusan titles had to go.

To blame Pak Lah, as Abdullah is popularly known, is most unfair because the Malaysian mainstream press has always been political and many were majority owned by Umno for decades, which also meant that the Umno president always had the last say over contents.

Mahathir dictated to the press like no other

Those who have been in the profession long enough will tell you that interference had been there from the time Mahathir became prime minister the first time in 1981, something which his predecessor Hussein Onn was never known to do. If something was not to his liking, one of Mahathir’s press officers would call the editors to tell them what his boss thought should be done. Even a simple and harmless coverage on what was poorly filtered and treated tap water in the Klang Valley a year or two before he quit Mahathir found unsavoury. The New Straits Times was told by his press officer in no uncertain terms that Mahathir didn’t want the world to think that Malaysia was a dirty country. Gosh…. The next day the rival Star spread the same issue over two pages, with a few pictures thrown in. A few times a year there would be briefings for editors by Mahathir himself, briefings meant to provide the direction to the editors. A senior editor from the NST who mentioned about how certain types of coverage affected circulation negatively was tersely told “not to talk about circulation with him!” This at a time when the circulation of the NST was sliding further and further.

The NST suffered badly due to its lopsided coverage of the Umno crisis in 1987 and also following Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal from the Cabinet and Umno in 1998, both periods when Mahathir was PM4. Pak Lah was never in the equation. Or Najib Razak for that matter.

Johan Jaafar, an editor of the Utusan Group for about five and a-half years in the 90s and thus involved just that long as an editor of mainstream journalism, has also been commenting, clearly disagreeing with the decision on the two papers, blaming Umno. To Johan the decision to sell the permits was purely a business deal that ignored the welfare of the staff. Much as one sympathises with the fate of employees who have already lost their jobs, how could the owner think of staff welfare when the company was bleeding profusely and being chased by creditors wanting their money back? Keeping the permits alive gives some hope to some of the employees who may find work with the new owner.

Umno may have messed up Utusan, especially when the party managed to get the editors to blatantly slant the coverage in its favour but it was also Umno that delayed its demise maybe for a good 15 or 20 years. Thus those who were in Utusan’s employ during this period should instead feel grateful that it provided them jobs that allowed them to put food on the table.

There are many observers who agree that reading habits also have had an effect on the print media in Malaysia, similar to the situation in Britain since 2010. While most of the major titles in Britain remain in business, almost all have declined in circulation by half since then. Where previously the working-class tabloid The Sun held top spot, it has been taken over by the Metro free paper, which surprisingly has been able to basically hold on to its circulation, bucking the trend to show higher circulation in 2017 and last year. The other paper there that has been holding on to its numbers is the afternoon tabloid, the Evening Standard but not the others.

That The Sun remains popular is proof enough that even a trashy, gossipy paper can sell. Maybe people have enough of the serious coverage on politics and governance and just want a light-hearted diversion. My argument is that it is not necessarily quality journalism that sells, as expounded by some. How popular a newspaper is to the public depends on a variety of factors; similarly the reasons why people find a newspaper objectionable. Politics is just one reason.

Pro-establishment press in Malaysia can never attract the numbers

In Malaysia it is rather clear that any press that is hardline in its slant for the establishment will lose ground, just as any media platform that is critical of the centre is bound to be popular. However the latter cannot expect to get much advertising support in this small country, where people who matter can’t avoid each other and where too many things are tied to the government.

The bottomline though is still money and in print journalism, big bucks. For something like Utusan Malaysia in its most recent form, you are talking about maybe at least RM5 million in operating cost a month.

That’s what those critical of the decision to put the two titles to the grave have failed to show – money. Talk is cheap; free in fact.

Amongst the politicians, Umno secretary-general Annuar Musa may have summed it most honestly and realistically when he asked everyone not to be nostalgic because the decision by the current controlling owner of the group was purely a business decision. No more, no less.

by Aziz Hassan

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