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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
By MICHAEL BACKMAN
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
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
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
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
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.