A call for a more constructive media ― Bridget Welsh
SEPT 24 ― Too much of the reporting on political events within Malaysia is based on fabrications, rather than analysis anchored in research and responsible journalism. There has been noticeable decay in the professionalism of journalists, either from selling out their principles to engage in partisanship, or through the lack of proper mentorship or training.
Some of this is a product of the growing competitive political environment, where formerly more reliable mainstream papers have compromised their integrity for their political masters, while in other cases, the drive to publish the story first and make it the most sensational has comprised the due diligence of proper reporting.
Simple things, such as checking facts and quotes, have gone by the wayside. Worse yet, it has become acceptable for some to publish shoddy work, and rather than be chided for this practice, it is openly encouraged and financially rewarded.
Readers sometimes take what is published at face value, rather than adopting a more discerning approach to what they are reading. Too much of the discussion of politics is tied to misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
It is a time of political transition in Malaysia. The incumbent party that has held onto power since 1957 ― 55 years ― is facing the most competitive polls in history. At a public forum on Monday September 17th in Kuala Lumpur, I explained why based on polling trajectories and fieldwork, the Barisan Nasional (BN) has not regained significant ground since March 2008.
I suggested, however, that voters alone will not decide the electoral outcome. Concerns involve the fairness of the elections. The impact of a widening unlevel electoral playing field is not yet known. We have also seen over the last three years since the March 2008 polls that the situation is very fluid, as Najib Razak’s administration reached a high in support last November and has been declining in popularity since the April Bersih rally, although at varied levels among different communities.
While most Malaysians have decided how they will vote, the middle ground is in flux and has the potential to move again as the campaign evolves.
As such, the election is difficult to call. My own analysis indicates that a third of the seats are extremely close. I pointed to the states of Sabah, Pahang, Perak, Johor and Selangor as the states with highly competitive seats, but argued that every seat will matter in the upcoming General Elections.
The campaign, candidate selection and use of state resources will also shape the final outcome. The majority of my other remarks focused on new trends in voting behaviour, issues that will be presented in future articles.
The quality of the media coverage of the forum raises concerns and provokes a call for greater constructive and responsible dialogue as Malaysia enters new uncertain political terrain. When the forum began, we asked the media to check quotes with speakers and to operate with professionalism.
Instead, a reporter from The Malaysian Insider (TMI) and subsequent media reports by journalists who were not at the event, have distorted the discussion, misquoted remarks and acted irresponsibly. None of the reports on the event have followed the request to check their facts and most of the reports of the event are second- and third-hand reports made from the original flawed report TMI report.
Initially, there were two areas of concern. First of all, the TMI media report of the event focused on the response to the last question of the night in the two-and-a-half hours of discussions, rather than covering the discussion in the meeting as a whole.
The mischaracterization of the forum as a discussion of “casting doubts about Pakatan” was from the onset a distortion. The article’s headline was misleading and not reflective of the proceedings. This is a troubling trend in Malaysian reporting ― a focus on sensationalism rather than substance.
The issues that were discussed covered a range from human rights concerns and Sabah politics to the rising environmental movement and the role of morality in voting.
Second, the TMI report had a number of factual errors. For example, my position to the question whether “Can Pakatan Rule?” was not reported. I clearly stated that “Malaysians voters should decide.” Subsequent interpretations of this inaccurate reporting of my response have been misconstrued to imply that I support one side or another.
My remarks in the forum highlighted the challenges both sides will face in governing. I noted that whoever won the election would face a trust deficit among a share of voters, as Malaysian voters are polarized.
In another example of error, the TMI reporting completely misconstrued the discussion of Dr Mahathir’s legacy on Malaysian politics. My remarks discussed the challenges Umno as a party faced to reform, pointing out that it has not reformed since 2008, and arguing that this had to do in part with the legacy Mahathir left on the party.
I argued that both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Datuk Seri Najib Razak faced difficulties in carrying out reforms due to pressures from this legacy of constraint. The overall context of the discussion was left out of the report and mistakenly interpreted as praise for either Mahathir or Najib. The irony of the errors in the report by TMI is that they completely missed the key points of analysis.
To compound the original problems in the reporting of the forum, other journalists who were not at the event and also did not check their facts used it for their stories. In one column for The Star newspaper by columnist Baradan Kuppusamy, elements in the original article were embellished with such partisan gusto and mischief that it had evolved away from misconstrued reality to fantasy.
To suggest, for example, that the speakers buttressed “Najib’s reformist credentials” is factually incorrect. This is a complete fabrication. My own remarks centred on public concerns with corruption and public perceptions of the lack of substantive reforms. I never used the word “reformist” or “reformer”.
The focus of my remarks was on factors affecting voting behaviour and their possible impact on the next polls. The column is embarrassingly riddled with multiple factual errors, as the columnist was not present at the forum nor did he follow due diligence in checking the facts. It is a sad day when this sort of reporting is paid for.
In the initial TMI report, the reporter was inexperienced, and my original tack was to have a quiet word to encourage better practice. Also some of the original report did accurately account some of the issues that were raised, even if the context was not provided and the headline misleading.
The situation became even more egregious when reporters who did not bother to do any homework opted to use a flawed report as the basis of a story or in at least one case a fable. I understand that in the Malaysian context misreporting is common. It is unfortunately clear that fabrications are also becoming more common as well.
This does not take away from the reality that these practices are wrong and destructive. Media integrity and low standards of professionalism are serious problems and those that are hurt by them are ordinary readers. They are undermining the constructive discussion that is needed to strengthen Malaysia as it moves toward a better future. Malaysians deserve better.
* Editor’s Note: The Malaysian Insider apologises for misrepresentation and errors made in its report of the forum after checking with the reporter’s notes and recording. The news report has been corrected with the full quotes made by Dr Bridget Welsh in the forum to the question that was asked. Once again, our apologies to the speakers in the forum. Thank you.
* Dr Welsh asked that this comment be appended following the publication of her piece. “Thank you, TMI, for your professionalism, graciousness and constructive response.”