July 10, 2013
Pak Kadiaq’s Cautionary Tale
by Terence Netto@http://www.malaysiakini.com
Politically-aligned ownership of media outlets is the graveyard of quality journalism and a sure road to delusion of those who sit in the seats of authority.–Terence Netto
COMMENT: Former New Straits Times Group Editor-in-Chief A Kadir Jasin’s disclosure that it was Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who personally ordered the consignment to political oblivion of Anwar Ibrahim by the NST after the latter was decapitated in 1998 brings to an instructive close the case against politically-aligned ownership of media outlets.
When the Straits Times Group, majority-owned by AC Simmons, a Jewish businessman domiciled in Singapore, was bought over in November 1972 by PERNAS, one of several government-owned corporations (the GLC acronym was not yet in vogue) set up under the New Economic Policy (NEP) to expand Malay equity ownership in the private sector, the speculation among senior journalists in the Kuala Lumpur office of the ST who were sceptical of the exercise was:
How long before this whole affair comes to grief? How long before politically-aligned ownership of media outlets would be deemed to be worse than the prior situation where ownership resided in the hands of politically unaffiliated businesspersons, more interested in profits and the public esteem stemming from being known as the publisher of a quality paper than in politics?
Twenty-six years to be exact.It took this length of time before the corporate ownership of the newspaper group, the leading one in the country before Star Publications gained pole position in the 1990s, devolved into party ownership (UMNO’s) and, finally, as per Kadir’s disclosure (right) on Monday, was subsumed under the personal fiefdom of an autocrat at the top of the political totem pole.
The assumption of the redoubtable A Samad Ismail, the then Berita Harian editor and principal figure behind the move to ‘Malaysianise’ the ownership of the Straits Times group (renamed New Straits Times after the takeover) was that his stellar stature as a political journalist-cum-Malay literary paladin and the good sense of then Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein and deputy Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman would provide a sufficient buffer against cotton-picking types among the lesser lights of UMNO.
Samad was entitled to his presumption. He was a confidante of Razak’s and doubled up as speechwriter on major policy addresses by the PM and Ismail.
Not in the business of making soap
Samad, arguably the best journalist on either side of the Causeway in both the English and Bahasa streams, duly had occasion to assess his own clout.
In 1975, UMNO Youth firebrand Suhaimi Kamaruddin paid a visit to NST Managing Editor Samad. Just then UMNO Youth was rising to the menacing levels of its eventual status as a powerful pressure group, thrusting on behalf of speedy implementation of the NEP.
The purpose of Suhaimi’s visit to Samad was to inquire into reports he had received that Malay journalists were not given enough berth within the NST stable to rise within its ranks.
Samad instructed the personnel department to prepare a list of the company’s hires over the preceding few years, with the academic qualifications of the non-Malay recruits juxtaposed with that of the Malay hires. The latter’s were comparatively lower.
Shown the evidence that tended to refute his hypothesis, a chastened Suhaimi slunk away in embarrassment after the visit to Samad (left) whose epigrammatic quip – “We are not in the business of making soap” – on another occasion, when an executive hired from Lever Brothers had attempted to assume primacy for marketing considerations over editorial ones, had the effect of checking the threat of editorial’s supercession by marketing, a practice no quality publishing group ought to allow.
But disaster struck Samad in June 1976 when he was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) as a suspected communist, a detention that had more to do with a complex power play within UMNO in which then Home Minister (Tun) Ghazali Shafie acted as a stool pigeon for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, an old adversary of Samad’s from the early days of the People’s Action Party (PAP) formation in the 1950s.
Graveyard of good journalism
The tragedy in Samad’s arrest was that it came just when he had assembled a team of journalists that arguably would have raised the standard of journalism in the NST stable to hitherto unmatched heights.
This point is debatable, but the consequent elevation to public discourse that would have come on the heels of a national newspaper’s mounting quality would have checked the rise within Umno of ersatz intellectuals like Mahathir (right), who were able to ascend within the party because of a dearth of competitive quality.
The collateral damage from Samad’s removal from an arena where he was formidably good was a devaluation of the role of the Fourth Estate in a fledgling democracy, a diminution of the power of quality journalism to raise the level of public discourse, with consequent room, the lack of which allows for the ascent by default of the mediocre and the meretricious.
There is a lesson here for Pakatan Rakyat: forsake all notions of taking ownership of media outlets when and if you come to power.
The story of the Straits Times‘ metamorphosis into the New Straits Times is the saga of a good newspaper that was set to be a better one, brought low by an initial decision to allocate ownership to the economic arm of a political party – a recipe for the intrusion of a pyramiding influence that eventually results in power centring on individuals who call the shots from behind the official editorial seats.
Politically-aligned ownership of media outlets is the graveyard of quality journalism and a sure road to delusion of those who sit in the seats of authority.