On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Hard-pressed press has no intention to mislead

Rightly or wrongly, some Malaysians perceive the local media,  particularly the mainstream dailies, as docile and pro-government.

But when some foreign magazines base their reports on rumours and hearsay, these same readers would regard the content as gospel truth.

On the other hand, vernacular newspapers are regarded as bold but the accuracy of their reports are sometimes suspect and they often quote unnamed sources.

Last week, two major English dailies reported on their front pages that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad needed more time to choose a clean person to take over as the new Selangor Mentri Besar.

Two Bahasa Malaysia dailies and another English tabloid reported instead that the Sultan of Selangor did not consent to the choices made by the Prime Minister.

So which is which? The Sultan clarified in a statement that there was no disagreement between him and the Prime Minister while Dr Mahathir said he did not hand in a list of candidates to the Sultan, so the question of a consent did not arise.

Surely, reporters from different dailies cannot be hearing different things from the same person.

Checking what a person said on tape is one thing. An equally important factor to consider is how the questions were phrased and asked, and in what manner or tone were the questions answered.

Was it said in jest or was his reply quoted out of context by reporters?

Sometimes, public figures make vague statements, leaving reporters with the chore of having to interpret what was said.

Further confusion arose when, approached by reporters, several Umno leaders issued statements questioning the Sultan's purported refusal to give his consent.

Their immediate response to the press is commendable but the point is their information came from secondary sources the reporters they spoke to. The politicians were not at the palace to hear Dr Mahathir or the Sultan.

The result has been a suggestion of differences between the Sultan and Dr Mahathir and an impending constitutional crisis.

Misreporting is a serious matter and, as Dr Mahathir said just last week, it's an abuse of power and corruption by the press.

Reporters are only human. They make mistakes and sometimes interpret statements and actions incorrectly, but there is no excuse for being careless. Last week's events are nothing new. Such reporting has happened in  the past.

I recall interviewing a senior minister at the height of a party feud. Being not very fluent in English, the minister often paused and broke off his sentences with “you know what I mean-lah'' during the interview.

Those who had been covering his ministry knew exactly what he meant but one reporter, though experienced, became a victim of misinterpretation because she was unfamiliar with the lingo of the minister.

It was a disaster. Her report, published on the front page the next day, prompted the minister to retort that “she obviously didn't know what I mean.''

In another incident, a minister was asked by a reporter to comment on Malaysia's stand on an international issue. Hard-pressed for time, the minister told the reporter “tunggu-lah.''

The article that was published next day stated that the minister was taking a “wait-and-see attitude'' on the issue.

In a more recent case, all the Malaysian newspapers quoted ministers and sources as saying that the Cabinet wanted a freeze on dealings with Singapore following an unwelcome remark by Senior MinisterLee Kuan Yew  about Johor's security situation.

There was much confusion when a Cabinet minister later issued an official reply, saying that the press reports were “less than accurate.''

The Malaysian press, one may say, is hard-pressed at times but it certainly has no intention of being misleading.