Good or bad, just spill the beans

By Shaila Koshy (The Star)

INSTEAD of being the one doing the reporting, the media will be “reported” on in the coming months. Media organisations will come under public scrutiny, with a national integrity survey being conducted from now until the middle of September.

Since the media plays an important role in moulding perceptions and influencing opi­nions, the Malaysian Integrity Institute (MII) wants to find out how the media is perceived by the public.

About 11,000 households will participate in the survey while 4,000 respondents from corporations and the public service will only answer questions on topics ranging from corruption and the public service delivery system to the well-being of society and level of courtesy.

So why has the MII included the media in its third integrity perception survey?

“Whether you like it or not, the media plays an important role in our lives; it helps to mould perception, the mindset of people to a certain extent and how the public perceives certain issues,” says MII president Datuk Dr Tap Salleh in an interview.

“So we thought it was a good idea to find out how the public perceives the media.

“We hope to give the findings to the public, the Government as well as the media organisations. It is up to the individual organisations – government or privately owned – to look at the findings,” he said.

On whether the survey on the media indicates the constraints which the media has to work with, for example an annual publishing permit that is subject to approval by the Government, Dr Tap says: “We do not mention the constraints in the survey. We just want to gauge how the people perceive the media. If the media feels that the people need to be informed about the constraints, then the media needs to inform them. You have the forum to do so.”

On investigative journalism that is sometimes curtailed by the right to information, he adds: “To me, that’s where you have to educate the public. Not just your organisation, but it is a responsibility that goes across the board to promote democracy.”

While acknowledging the legal constraints, he says that this is the best time for the media to act.

“You can’t abolish everything at once. But with the current mood of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, I think a lot of things will change. I’m not talking about seeing quantum leaps but certainly some change.

“The people know basically what their rights are. It’s a question of the media leading that belief. Otherwise there is no champion.

“We don’t want to be going to the streets; in Jakarta, you can pay people to demonstrate for you. That’s not the type of democracy we’re talking about.

“I believe the media is critical to educating the public, not just the government media but the private sector media. It is being done now but it can be better. For one, less politics would be better. The media is too involved in political party happenings.”

He adds that the media should make sure that the public understood democracy as a principle.

“I like what Obama said in Africa recently – democracy is not just elections but what happens in between them. Elections every five years is only one of the elements of a demo­cracy. There is so much more to it. The media must educate the public of this.

“You’re not a politician but even if you support a political party, you can still promote democracy. Change can be orderly; it does not have to be chaotic.”

Dr Tap is of the view that the media should promote democracy, not political parties.

“Why is it that you report more on political happenings than the substance of an issue? I cannot understand … Let’s take a policy – the abolition of teaching of Maths and Science in English.

“Okay, it is a political decision but it is a policy that affects everybody. Why can’t we write intellectually on the policy? The issue is more about the quality of the teachers than the medium of instruction.

“When I was doing my PhD in Bath (England), I went looking for a school for my then five-year-old son. At one school, the principal said her school’s basic course would ensure that my son would be ahead of his class in Mathematics later.

“A principal of another school said that my son would be taught to read in his first year. When I asked whether he would be taught any arithmetic, she said no.

“She said that when a child had learnt a language and been inculcated with a love for reading, all the education in the world would be open to him.

“These are issues the media should write about,” says Dr Tap, adding that his son is an avid reader.

Acknowledging that print media owners “need to sell newspapers”, he says they also must raise the intellectual capacity of the readers.

“In Monash (University, Australia) in my first year, we were encouraged to take Philosophy 101. It teaches you to argue in terms of good, bad, right, wrong, black, white and grey.

“You read about the Greek philosophers and have discussions on ‘legally right and morally wrong’ and Sophie’s choice – should you kill one to let another live. I don’t think any university in Malaysia offers Philosophy 101.

“Plato talks about a good person – but what is a good person? These are the things I always thought that the media should be promoting.”

But the trend is that readers prefer bite-sized news these days and the Internet hits of online newspapers show that the top read items are related to sex and scandals.

“I read the Guardian and the Daily Mail online every day. The hits on the Guardian are the same. We understand you have to sell your newspaper but the readers of The Star have some level of intellectual capacity or they would buy something else. I hope so, anyway (laughing).

“Salacious news attracts people but if you inject articles that develop your readers’ mind or make them think of others, that would help. I always think of that quote: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’”