CNBC drops flagship show over paid Malaysian interviews

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 4 — International news broadcaster CNBC has confirmed cancelling its flagship show World Business as allegations of impropriety surface linking the programme to FBC Media, a British firm apparently paid millions of ringgit by Putrajaya and Sarawak to shine their images globally.

The satellite news channel said it has also started investigating FBC Media’s business practices, in what is seen as a bid to remove itself from being tainted by any possible scandal that could smear it like the phone-hacking allegations that ended the 168-year-old News of The World last month.

“In response to your question below, you are correct in that we have withdrawn World Business in the light of serious questions raised last week and we have initiated an examination of FBC and its business practices,” Charlotte Westgate, CNBC’s vice-president of marketing and communications, told The Malaysian Insider in an email last night.

The news of CNBC’s popular business news programme, under the eye of its managing editor John Defterios, being dumped was first reported yesterday by Sarawak Report.

In the story “CNBC Dumps FBC Media!”, the London-based whistleblower said the decision came on the heels of its earlier expose disclosing how Malaysia’s powerful ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians have been paying FBC Media millions of ringgit a year out of public coffers “to buy them positive publicity on the show”.

The Sarawak Report listed the ruling coalition politicians as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, his predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud.

“Allowing slots to be purchased in this way, deceiving millions of viewers who thought they were watching impartial programming, is a serious breach of broadcasting laws, for which broadcasters such as CNBC’s parent company, the American broadcasting giant NBC, would be held ultimately responsible,” Sarawak Report said.

CNBC’s Westgate, however, declined further comment on the case for the time being.

FBC Media is also said to have dealings with British national broadcaster BBC and US-based CNN.

The Malaysian Insider tried to contact both FBC and CNN to clarify Sarawak Report’s potentially damaging allegations, but have received no response at the time this report is published.

File photo of Defterios appearing on a TV programme. — Picture courtesy of cnnfan.orgFile photo of Defterios appearing on a TV programme. — Picture courtesy of cnnfan.orgAward-winning journalist Defterios, who recently interviewed Najib in London for CNN, had been criticised for lobbing softball questions compared to the hard-nosed probing befitting a 25-year veteran of his standing in financial news global affairs, raising questions over a possible conflict of interest.

A full transcript of the interview as released by CNN on July 14, just days after the controversial July 9 public rally for clean and fair elections organised by Bersih 2.0, showed Defterios failing to press his interviewee for details over the BN government’s response even as videos depicted policemen cracking down on marchers.

Below is an extract of the transcript:

Defterios: We have seen a bursting movement in Malaysia this last week, and some 20,000 protesters under the umbrella of electoral reforms. But what is really behind this? This is a generational gap? I mean, why such a high level of protest?

Najib: Well, John, it is basically politics. Because there is democracy in Malaysia. And we are committed towards electoral reform. And it will come up to see that we are all for fair and clean elections. And as you know, the last general election, you know, the ruling party lost five states. And we were deprived of two-thirds majority.

Defterios: So five of 13 states overall.

Najib: Five of 13 states and not a fair, clean election. We wouldn’t have lost five states. But we are committed to making better.

Defterios: Some would say you had (made) 1,600 arrests of some 20,000 protesters. Are you satisfied with the security response to that particular round of protests, yourself?

Najib: It was quite mild, you know, because although they were taken in, they were released after eight hours and they were treated very well. There was no undue use of force. And, you know, the demonstrators were dispersed using minimum force.

The former CNN anchor and correspondent was listed on the FBC Media’s website as president and board director of FBC Group Limited since 2000, group vice-president for content and media services of FactBased Communications S.R.L besides overseeing its factual programming.

His ties to the British-based media firm have yet to be made clear as the FBC website appears to have been stripped down to a mere one-page fact sheet about the company after the Sarawak Report expose earlier this week.

The full information appears to still be available on the Sarawak Report website.

Putrajaya and the Sarawak administration under Taib Mahmud was yesterday questioned by opposition PKR to come clean on the allegation they had paid FBC Media RM15 million a year from public coffers to produce programmes biased towards the BN coalition at federal and state levels on international media.

The Sarawak Report, in a story published two days ago, claimed insider sources revealed Najib “suggested” to Taib that he hire FBC Media to bolster his seemingly flagging popularity after the Sarawak chief minister appeared to suffer a publicity crisis due to allegations of extensive corruption.

Both have not denied the report since it was published by the whistleblower website. FBC Media's dealings with the Malaysian government came to light after supplementary supply Bills showed vast payments made for a "Global Strategic Communications Campaign".

The records showed that between 2008 and 2009, RM57.7 million was paid by the Prime Minister's office to FBC Media for the campaign.


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