Freebies for journos – integrity on the line

Pushing the envelope of ethical journalism?


The way expensive gifts were thrown at journalists at the Premier Media Night on Thursday borders on ‘envelope’ journalism, yet Prime Minister Najib Razak who was in attendance has the gall to tell journalists how to do their job while the expensive gifts were dished out.

The golden cow consists of lucky draws for a brand new Peugeot 408 costing over RM100,000 on-the-road. Other freebies include bicycles and motorcycles, plus electronics such as two iPhone 6 (64 gigabyte) smartphones, Samsung Tab 4 tablets, and Samsung LED televisions of various sizes up to 75 inches, as well as a goodie bag for each guest consisting of an umbrella, crackers, a mug, a notepad, a flashlight, and a book on Islamic inheritance.

Najib Razak very taken up by the top prize of a Peugeot 408 at the Premier Media night.

Najib Razak very taken up by the top prize of a Peugeot 408 at the Premier Media night.

Altogether there were more than 600 prizes up for grabs last night for the gala attended by about 1,000 media practitioners, bloggers, civil servants, ministers, and Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor. However, journalists from independent news portals like Malaysiakini were not invited.

I suspect there were not more than 300 working journos that night, the rest were made up by civil servants, bloggers, PR practitioners and hangers-on. The whole gala media night could cost over RM300,000 including the banquet and lucky draws. That works out to be RM1,000 per journo.

Well, that’s close to what is known as envelope journalism. It doesn’t matter if the gifts were sponsored, they still probably fall into the category of envelope journalism. It’s a different thing altogether when one bought a ticket to attend a charity or gala event and won a lucky draw. That is clear.

The envelope journalism phenomenon was virtually unknown among local journalists once upon a time but was a common practice in neighbouring countries where journalists are usually given an envelope stashed with cash for covering a press conference or interview. The one who takes the envelope understands that this entails a good write-up of a cover-up of some bad news or both.

Soon local journos caught the disease as media handlers and PR practitioners began to keep blank envelopes in their drawers as stock-in-trade. Sometimes these envelopes are given overseas so as not to attract unnecessary attention. There are variations of envelope journalism, of course, expensive corporate gifts or lucky draws being some examples. It’s hard to draw the line but a journalist intuitively knows what exactly is envelope journalism when confronted with one.

I was shocked at the extent envelope journalism has afflicted the profession when I returned to journalism post-retirement. A few years my nephew asked if I could do him a favour by putting in a bit of PR for his client. Since it was a harmless and short piece or PR, I did that for him. When the piece appeared he asked how much his client should pay me! Shocked, I asked him where he got the idea and his answer was that he thought this was standard practice. So I told him no more favours from then on.

I remember a time when I was general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) three decades ago when a PR manager of a multinational tobacco company asked my advice how expensive a gift should his company give to a journalist. My reply was the question should be how inexpensive the gift should be and that it should not be in cash. Maybe a corporate diary or pen would suffice provided the nominal value should not be more than RM20 (at 1984 value).

The NUJ later suggested a guideline to newspapers that their journalists can keep gifts with a value of not more than RM50. Anything more, he or she should surrender it to the company to be used as lucky draw at the company’s annual dinner for all staff. As for cash envelopes they should be surrendered to the immediate editor who would then advise the company which gave it to take it back failing which it would be given to a charity of the company’s choice. I have not known of any newspaper company adopting this advisory.

Now back to the RM100,000 car at the Premier Media Night – surely it’s too big to fit into an envelope but it borders on envelope journalism.

Now for Najib’s advice to the media that night, according to Bernama, he said: “As the government, we consider the media as a partner. If we want to build our country, make it the country of our dreams, and bring it to the pinnacle of success that we can be proud of, then the role of the media is very important.”

I suggest for next year’s Premier Media Night to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, the PM’s speech writer should also add that more importantly, the press should not be tainted with the scandal of envelope journalism and that only a press free of censorship and controls can only be a partner in national building with the government in any significant manner.

Lifted with apologies from Malaysiakini
» Media mega-draws reek of envelope journalism