SPH Media saga: Audit committee, legal advisers brought in to further investigate inflated circulation data
"Of particular concern" was how 49,000 average daily copies were recorded as circulation numbers but not distributed, says SPH Media in a statement.
SINGAPORE: The board of SPH Media Trust has tasked its audit and risk committee, with the help of legal advisers, to further investigate cases of inflated circulation numbers and decide on what steps should be taken.
The media company, which publishes news titles such as the Straits Times, The Business Times and Lianhe Zaobao, came under scrutiny earlier this month after it was reported that daily circulation numbers were inflated by between 85,000 and 95,000, or about 10 to 12 per cent of the reported daily average circulation.
In a statement on Friday (Jan 20), SPH Media gave a breakdown of the discrepancies, which were uncovered during a review that covered the period between September 2020 and March 2022.
Preliminary findings showed that 49,000 average daily copies of news titles - or 5 per cent of total daily circulation then - were recorded as circulation numbers but not distributed. This is a matter "of particular concern", said SPH Media, adding that the majority of these were digital copies.
Another 5,000 average daily copies were recorded after contracts had lapsed.
In addition, 17,000 average daily copies were recorded as a result of a failure to check that reported circulation numbers were accurate against actual usage tracked in the system.
There was also a possible discrepancy of 19,000 average daily copies, which included a barter arrangement with another publisher. SPH Media did not name the publisher.
The audit committee will look into the issues "more fully" and commission legal advisers to assist in the investigation, said SPH Media.
The committee is chaired by Mr Max Loh, former managing partner of EY ASEAN & Singapore. The other members are Ms Lim Mei, co-head of corporate mergers and acquisitions at Allen & Gledhill, and Mr Philip Lee, vice-chairman of global banking for Southeast Asia at HSBC Singapore.
They will report their findings directly to the board.
In a statement, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) said it has asked the SPH Media board to share the findings of the audit committee, and expects "full cooperation" on the matter.
"MCI is undergoing its own review of whether the inconsistencies would have affected the decision to fund SMT (SPH Media Trust), and the amount the Government committed to fund," it added.
"We have not disbursed any of these funds to SMT to date. We will share our findings in due course."
SPH Media Trust began operations in December 2021 after it was hived off from Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to become a not-for-profit entity.
The Government then said it would set aside up to S$900 million in funding support over five years, to help the new entity make essential investments and sustain its operations during the transition period.
Questions surrounding the inflated circulation numbers will be addressed in Parliament "in due course", said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, who is in Davos for the World Economic Forum.
The Workers' Party has filed several questions on the matter for the February parliament sitting. The questions include whether action will be taken against SPH Media over the discrepancies, as well as the conditions under which public funding to SPH Media will be removed or reduced.
DATA ACCURACY, ACCOUNTABILITY
SPH Media noted in its statement on Friday that it had taken action in December against the employees involved.
"As a result, four of these staff have since left the company and three were served warning letters," the company said.
To ensure data accuracy and accountability, SPH Media said it will strengthen the separation of duties among employees, with enhanced checks and balances.
For instance, the company will ensure that staff who are reporting circulation numbers do not have the rights to create or change entries in the customer database.
It will also ensure more frequent internal audit reviews, as well as improve the accuracy of customer details.
SPH Media said that circulation data reported in previous annual reports, when it was still known as Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPHL) and listed on SGX, was in accordance with the rules set by the Audit Bureau of Media Consumption Singapore.
The audit bureau ceased operations in 2019 as digital media and advertising grew and quantifying print circulation became less relevant.
“To obtain data on reach and readership, SPHL commissioned surveys conducted by independent third-party research agencies such as GfK,” said SPH Media.
It added that in light of the changing media environment, the company is reassessing the methodology for the reporting of circulation data.
SPH Media said it is also "pressing on with other transformation efforts" and "updating its policies and practices to ensure accountability”.