Below is the keynote speech delivered by Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin at the National Union of Journalists forum ‘General Elections 2008: Press Freedom’, organised to commemorate the May 3 World Press Freedom Day.
Someone related to me this description of Malaysian journalists. In the first few years of their career, they will be faithfully taking down notes in an interview. As the career wore on, both reporter and respondent would talk as much. By the third stage of an exhaustive career, the reporter would have stored up a reservoir of wisdom and views.
So when he or she goes out for an interview, the respondent whose thoughts are supposed to be sought, would hardly be able to speak. The reporter will do all the talking. This is the point when they start writing analyses and commentaries. This does not make them any less disillusioned, I am told, because reporters are desperately disappointed at being paid too little money to do too much work throughout their careers.
I must declare an inherent interest in journalism. My first grown up job was as an editorial intern for a UK magazine that calls itself a newspaper. I spent my first few months in London editing and fact checking stories that came in from correspondents around the world before being sent to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for a month to try and get a story from the frontlines. I am still uncertain whether my then employers actually wanted a story from Kabul or just wanted to get rid of me without any trace.
Back home at the height of the previous political exertions I co-hosted a television talk show called ‘Dateline Malaysia’. It did not last. The conversations that went on the show were deemed rather combustible for our faint hearts at the time. My co-host for the programme, as most of you know, does not suffer from a faint heart and is now a second-term member of the cabinet.
Since then, the Cyber Revolution has transformed the intensity of the journalistic word. It has empowered all comers. Not a soul can be conceivably disenfranchised from participating, or spared the wrath and scrutiny that is Internet journalism. I should know. One blogger described the current administration as ‘Kerajaan Anak Beranak’ on national television last Sunday. Many other punches have landed on markedly lower points of my anatomy. In fact I have read rather interesting comments on me in the wider media. I would like to think this has given me a modicum of legitimacy to be discussing journalism with you today.
I’m a 24-hour consumer of news
For almost a decade since I took this plunge into the realm of politics, I have come into contact with a range of personalities who inhabit the wide world of journalism. It is easy for me to develop a sense of affinity with journalist friends. They are as intense, driven and fiery. In my role as the deputy leader of Umno Youth, I have received frank views and opinions from members of the media. These views provide me with a different perspective – a different take on issues – and it’s a perspective which I hold in high regard.
Now as a freshman parliamentarian in a transformed political and media landscape, I hope to continue this quest of deepening my relationship with and understanding of journalism and the media. I shall consult widely to firm up some ideas which I could raise in Parliament on behalf of the media fraternity. I am thrilled to be meeting you today so that I could properly seek your guidance and consent to represent some of your thoughts and views in Parliament.
It shall be an enlightening pursuit, in part, because non-media people are unfailingly ambivalent about the workings of the media. Everyone complaints and fusses about the media but in the open and on the quiet they court journalists. Your daily editorial decisions used to be contentious and came about after much debate and deliberation; now what you put up as newsbreaks on the Net or as crawlers on TV creates the news cycle for tomorrow. Within an hour or less, the battle for public opinion is won or lost. Within minutes, I am the big, bad wolf and my political opponents magical tooth fairies.
I am a 24-hour consumer of news. Reporters say they could see me from the press gallery browsing on-line news in Parliament – which is actually contravening the Standing Orders. I am increasingly convinced that news organisations with the strongest talent-pool, supporting resources including training, and the most experienced writers will get the most hits in the long run for the simple reason that such news operations would be able to assign more reporters to cover a story and top writers to comment on an issue.
Reporters constantly engage political leaders, administrators and intellectuals in substantive discussions on important topics. The reporter’s depth or lack or it, would colour the tone of pieces they file. It is a given, therefore, that the more learned and articulate reporters with unending supplies of stamina will be more effective.
The combined on-line might of Utusan Malaysia, The Star, New Straits Times, Berita Harian and The Edge is frightful. These news organizations should be at the forefront of online news with their brand names, financial resources and critical mass of offline readers. Yet, we know that it is the so-called alternative Internet media that dictates the online news cycle.
RPK’s arrest will embolden online media
I think the election result of March 8 has accentuated this development. I think RPK (Raja Petra Kamarudin) being charged under the Sedition Act will embolden the alternative Internet media to carve out greater space for themselves in the Malaysian public consciousness. I think that it may be difficult for the so-called mainstream media to keep pace in terms of news value – regardless of the veracity of the reporting – under current circumstances.
All of this is happening in an environment of relative openness. While institutional restrictions still remain, it has been the policy of the present administration to allow for more space and more latitude as far as the press is concerned. This, I believe, has been largely welcomed. But today, the issue is one of credibility, or rather who appears to be more credible and independent.
Which brings us to the fundamental question for the media in Malaysia today: What kind of journalistic standards and ethics should we expect in the aftermath of the March 8th general election? There is an apparent state of flux which is why I believe a great-deal of soul-searching is necessary.
I shall cite an example. Someone from a Malay daily came up with this commentary-cum-poser the other day. I quote. “We are career journalists who are schooled in a tradition of being circumspect, only for us to hear all those emotive phrases on television.” This is again the reference to the ‘Blog’ programme on RTM1 where all sorts of accusations and allegations have been aired unplugged.
“Would we be able to get a fiery blogger to write for our newspaper, then?” he asked. I told him that I believed his daily subscribed to a set of convictions. It would, therefore, be fair to expect his newspaper to hold that line in its leading articles and editorials. Hardly any newspaper in the world has ever been conceived for the sole purpose of advancing the cause of journalism. It always carries with it a philosophy or ideology that guides its editing and reporting.
I told him as for the other aspects of his daily’s reporting, his editors should be free to decide including if they want to invite a fiery blogger to be a columnist. Apart from toeing the editorial line, a newspaper must always think about staying ahead of competitors in terms of readership and profitability.
Probably stepping out of party line
I have often wondered if we could ever see a neat demarcation of media publications and online news based on political persuasion – like the broadsheets and tabloids in the UK. This has become a possibility with Suara Keadilan securing a newspaper license. Hopefully, this will give them the burden of mainstream editorial responsibility just like the burden of political leadership they and their comrades carry in five states. It should make them more responsible.
At a time of reform being the all-purpose buzzword, what I really I wish to suggest today is for the media to move towards being independently regulated. Although I am not completely unsympathetic to the views of those who feel the present system of government regulation is necessary because of racial of religious sensitivities, I think that these concerns can still be addressed under independent regulation.
I think that politicians on both sides of the divide will protest against race hate and religious incitement from being published or aired. So, to me, in my infinite naiveté as a freshman MP, those very valid concerns are surmountable.
I hope that the media can take the lead in setting up some form of independent regulation, perhaps in the form of a Press Complaints Commission. I am happy to listen to counter suggestions since I am not too sure if there are at present internal means of addressing complaints and ethical issues with all kinds of grouses that one can expect from a more liberalized environment.
Let me give you an example of independent, or in this case self-regulation. In 2003, a bright New York Times reporter Jayson Blair had to leave after he was found to have fabricated facts and quotations in many news stories. After a rigorous internal investigation, the newspaper published a 14,000-word explanation of the episode on its front page and four full inside pages. The editor, Howell Raines, and his deputy also had to go.
The UK model of the Press Complaints Commission is an independent body that enforces the Code of Practices covering issues like accuracy of reporting, opportunity of aggrieved parties to reply, harassment by reporters and payment to criminals. We know of some American newspapers that appoint senior journalists as Public Editors who oversee the conduct of the newspaper which is also his or her employer.
I am sure you have your thoughts on how the role of the Home Ministry’s unit that supervises the reporting of sensitive issues and other licensing requirements could be taken over such a Commission. As I am sure all of you media practitioners are aware, this concept is not new. For example, the Swedish Press Council is over 85 years old. It is true that these are developed countries with mature democracies. But are we, too, not an almost developed country with an increasingly mature democracy?
I think we need to think through independent regulation carefully but positively. We can start by encouraging the home minister to abolish the annual KDN licensing requirement as he has announced. Next, the media – both mainstream and online – should strengthen its capacity building initiatives to ensure best reporting practices through rigorous training. We can then evolve and get into newer phases and experiments. We cannot, for example, rule out Governments of the future actually funding newspapers and have a council of eminent persons to appoint editors to run them.
Once we have thought through such a roadmap that is properly sequenced, that holds at its heart both freedom and responsibility in equal measure, I think we can and should repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act. We should not be afraid of this brave new world of journalism, but rather help strengthen it so that Malaysians will benefit from getting credible news everywhere – from the mainstream and otherstream media.
I may sound like I am stepping far beyond my party line. I probably am. But I have a personal reason for believing in these reforms. Much of what is known about me is a caricature conceived and disseminated in a medium that has become the entire truth for many Malaysians. Without these reforms the mainstream media may not be able to stem the crisis of credibility that we are witnessing today. Without these reforms truth is obscured and sentiment and innuendo reign supreme.
I do not profess to have the answers nor even to offer a thought starter. I just want to encourage you to talk about yourselves and your profession in the hope that your conversation can and will provide us with the solutions that still escape me.