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TheAge: Shrinking media cash-strapped and compromised
By Michael Backman

2/1/2002 12:35 am Wed

Shrinking media cash-strapped and compromised

Friday 7 December 2001

The closure of Asiaweek magazine last week caps off a bad year for Asia's English-language business media. It means there will be 80fewer journalists and others involved in exposing the triumphs and misdeeds of Asia's corporate and political leaders. It also means the Far Eastern Economic Review, the region's remaining English-language business weekly, faces less competitive pressure to prod and expose.

The Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal, Asia's only English-language regional daily, are owned by Dow Jones, of the United States. Asiaweek, although part of the Time Inc stable, did at least represent a challenge to the Dow Jones hegemony.

Though the Journal and Review have a common owner, at least they have had separate editorial control. Or at least that was the case until about two weeks ago, when the editorial functions of the two were merged, with the loss of 38 jobs.

So, in the past few weeks, Asia's three main regional print media business journals have become less than two.

But what of the local English-language media? The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's biggest-circulating English-language daily, has announced it is trimming its writing and editorial staff by 18. Robert Kuok is the paper's controlling shareholder. The trouble is, media is not Mr Kuok's core business. His interests lie in commodity trading, property and hotels. He also has vast business interests in China, so the independence of the Post is potentially compromised by its owner's other interests.

Singapore's media is strong on business reporting. Its journalists are paid well and highly skilled. But forget critical analysis of domestic politics - it is non-existent. Government-linked corporations own almost all Singapore's local media outlets, and editors have been known to offer up journalists for questioning by the government's Special Branch.

Singapore's Business Times and Straits Times do provide, though, some of the best coverage in the region on the political and corporate machinations in Indonesia, and its journalists regularly scoop the Dow Jones monolith.

English-language business coverage goes from bad to worse elsewhere in the region. There's chequebook journalism in Asia but it is the journalists who get the cheques. This happens across the region, from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, where journalists routinely accept envelopes stuffed with cash, to Japan, where journalists are treated to excessive hospitality. But that has long been the case.

What's new is that so many of the region's local English-language media outlets belong to parent companies that are seriously strapped for cash.

Two examples are Malaysia's New Straits Times Group, which publishes Malaysia's main English-language daily and business daily, and the Philippines' Benpres Group, which runs the ABS-CBN television network that includes a 24-hour news channel with the English-language Business Nightly program.

The New Straits Times Group became ensnared with the grossly indebted, but politically well connected, Malaysian Resources Corporation.

Benpres Group, too, is highly indebted and at risk of collapse. It borrowed heavily to invest in a water-supply business and tollways. ABS-CBN's cable division is at least $US3 million ($A5.8 million) in arrears for programming bought from News Corporation's Star Television. Last month, Star pulled its programming from ABS-CBN's services.

The cash shortage is compromising reporting. Ideally, the business media would not accept any advertising from corporations. But economic pressures mean that Asia's newspapers are more sensitive than ever to the interests of corporate advertisers.

The cash constraints are also harming Asian media's ability to do even basic research. Last year, Malaysia's New Straits Times wanted to interview me for a profile about a book I'd written. I was in Melbourne and the journalist involved was in Kuala Lumpur. Ridiculously, cost cutting at the paper meant she was not allowed to make an international telephone call.

Malaysia's other main publishing, group, Nanyang Press, publisher of the The Star English-language newspaper, is profitable, but it has other problems. In August, the diversified Hong Leong Group sold the paper to the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-largest political party in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling coalition. Journalists fear that the paper will now be under the government's thumb more than ever.

In Thailand, an arm of the Crown Property Bureau, the personal investment vehicle of the Thai King, controls the English daily Business Day. Consequently, it tends to seriously under-report the activities of other Crown Property Bureau companies, which include some of Thailand's most important companies. The Bangkok Post often provides excellent coverage, although it is 15 per cent owned by Robert Kuok's South China Morning Post.

In Brunei, the Borneo Bulletin is the English-language daily. A huge scandal continues to unfold in Brunei involving $US10 billion missing from the Brunei Investment Agency while the Sultan of Brunei's brother, Prince Jefri, was in charge of it. You would think the Bulletin would be having a field day. It's not. It is owned by Prince Mohamed, another of Prince Jefri's brothers.

In Jakarta, The Jakarta Post continues to limp along. But it suffers from poor circulation and attracts little advertising.

All of this does not augur well for strengthening corporate Asia. After all, the most valuable commodity in business is information, and in Asia there's still a great deal that goes unreported or unanalysed.