At the Economist this week
As in Britain, also in Malaysia. Was there ever a real Merdeka Day?
The popular press in Britain — the Sun, Mail, People, Daily Star, Express, News of the World — has an obsession with sex and scandal, with celebrity exposés such as the Ryan Giggs story. If that seems a trifle below the belt, Malaysian newspapers and broadcasters have been no better, as recent coverage of the sex video have shown.
The cartoon above is from the Economist, accompanying a Bagehot column on press freedom, privacy laws and press regulation. It highlights an obvious sickness in popular journalism, in Britain or elsewhere, as in Malaysia.
The only difference is that Malaysian journalism serves political owners, and their business associates, and the advertiser.
The real scandals in Malaysian society continue unchecked, unreported and unexposed — scandals of corruption and of abuse of power at all levels, from the Cabinet down to your local town council, among businessmen and politicians, among businessmen and civil servants, school principals and teachers, hospitals and doctors and nurses, judges and lawyers — and among journalists, too. It permeates all Malaysian society.
Why does this go on?
The Economist quotes the editor of the Daily Mail as saying:
“If mass-market papers are not allowed to write about scandal as well as dry public policy, he said: “I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations, with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.”
Translation: if we are not allowed to write about sex scandals, we lose sales and therefore democracy will collapse.
British editors are no less capable of cant than Malaysian editors who, with a straight and ernest face, are able to talk about their role in democracy, the pernicious effect of rigid media laws, while ignoring the everyday decisions they make, unknown to the public, that props up a corrupt system.
If mass-circulation British newspapers dug into and exposed political, government and business scandals and discussed public policy issues with the same ferocity as they do to exposing footballers cheating on their wives, there would be less reason to be concerned.
But they don’t. And similarly, neither do Malaysian newspapers.
Malaysian media serve two masters: their political owners, and themselves. Sex sells newspapers. So Metro and Kosmo regularly “expose” celebrity gossip. Scandal sells newspapers. So The Star and Utusan and NST and BH and TV3 and RTM go to town with sex video exposés. They serve their owners, they sell newspapers, the bosses get datoships, hobnob with the powerful, and become well off.
But the crony deals with government contracts go unexposed. The kickbacks from dubious projects go unexposed — until somebody in control wants to expose a business or political rival — the corruption at high levels of the police force and the military goes unexposed, while the mata-mata on the street is busted for a RM50 traffic offence bribe; the moral corruption of a morals police causing the deaths of innocent civilians goes unexposed while whistleblowers like Irene Fernandez are put through years of harrassment though potential scandals in the police, Rela, immigration and customs are hushed up.
The corruption of Malaysian society and Malaysian morals — aided and abetted by Malaysian media — goes undiscussed, except at little-attended public forums organised by well-meaning societies and pressure groups.
While editors sometimes posture about the need for media law reform, questions about their own moral standing remain unasked. Reporters routinely fiddle their expenses claims, routinely accept gifts, souvenirs, junkets, and discounts from businesses. Politicians and businessmen routinely hand out sweeteners: editors make deals or are offered deals because of who they are. Some reporters spend half their lives travelling on junkets, many of which are questionable for the news value from the trip. Wives or family members of publishers and editors are in a position to get lucrative projects, because of who they are.
“Everyone” knows what’s going on. But “everyone” turns a blind eye — because quite a few of the “everyone” also want to be in the same position eventually.
The cesspool of British politics and British journalism is little different from the cesspool that is Malaysian society and Malaysian journalism. And our politicians, of both sides, and our journalists wallow in the cesspool with equal relish. And if they appear not to, find out if they have a sponsor or patron.
» BAGEHOT: Britain’s feral press: a plan
Offer investigative journalists new protections, hang celebrity snoops out to dry