The New Paper Toh Chin Chye story blunder ‘worst crisis that can happen to a newspaper’ says former CEO P N Balji

P N Balji

P N Balji

The former chief executive of The New Paper, P N Balji, has described as “‘the worst crisis that can happen to a newspaper” the time that the Singapore tabloid mistakenly published an untrue story about the arrest of revered former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye.

Talking at the launch of his new book on crisis management We have a problem, Balji recounted for the first time in public how a departure from Singapore Press holdings standard operating procedure led the paper to publish as its lead story the news that Dr Toh, who was one of the founding fathers of the ruling People’s Action Party, had been involved in a hit-and-run incident while driving a panel van.

Balji described the incident, which happened in January 1996 when he was CEO of the masthead, as “one of the saddest moments in my journalism career, and one of the worst things that can happen to a journalist.”

Telling the story at the event on Thursday evening, Balji shared how the reporter who filed the piece – which was headlined “Ex-DPM Toh Chin Chye arrested” had relied on a single source, had not been officially confirmed, and the story had not been placed on SPH’s schedule of stories for the day.

The piece alleged that Dr Toh hit a 17 year-old motorcyclist, who later died in hospital, and fled the scene.

“It was such sensational story. The problem was, it was not Dr Toh Chin Chye, but another Toh Chin Chye. The name was right, but it was not the former deputy PM,” Balji said.

“How did it happen? Because the reporter – who was an extremely good crime reporter – had a source in traffic police, and that source had always been right… accept for this time.”

“I remember talking to the reporter and he told me that he went back to check with the Sergeant [and asked] ‘Is it the DPM?’ And the Sergeant said ‘yes’.”

“There were three standard operating procedures that were not followed,” Balji explained, “One – and I believe this still exists at SPH – you must get an official spokesman to confirm or deny [the story] or give a comment. But the journalist was so sure of his source.”

“The second is, The New Paper is an afternoon paper. There was the fear that if he [the reporter] goes to the police spokesman, the spokesman might leak it to other papers and he’d lose the story.”

“Only a journalist would know what it’s like to get scooped,” Balji said.

The third risk the paper took was to avoid putting the story in SPH’s publishing schedule for fear others would run with it.

“The schedule goes to the [SPH] editor-in-chief, who would I’m sure have asked: ‘Toh Chin Chye? It cannot be. Hit and run? It cannot be. Driving a panel van? It cannot be.’ But he didn’t see the schedule,” Balji recalled, which amused his audience at the event at the National Library of Singapore.

“We can laugh about it now, but it’s a real issue, if you’re the sort of journalist who pushes the OB Markers [“out of bounds markers”, a term used to describe topics are permissible for public discussion in Singapore] to get a scoop,” Balji said.

After the story was published on a Saturday afternoon, “all hell broke loose,” Balji remembered.

Not only did The New Paper run a front page apology, but every SPH newspaper also published an apology.

The New Paper paid compensation of around US$300,000 after a negotiation process, Balji noted.

“At the time the executive chairman [of SPH] was Lim Kim San, who was a confidante of Lee Kuan Yew, and who knew Toh Chin Chye very well, I’m sure they must have done some negotiating,” he said.

Balji was in India on pilgrimage at the time the story broke, a circumstance he joked was “divine intervention”.

When he returned to Singapore, the newsroom “was like a morgue,” he recalled, and he was worried that the paper would lose circulation after losing credibility among its readers. But its circulation was “hardly affected,” according to Balji.

After the incident, Balji recounted how the newspaper’s reporters were reluctant to chase stories and obsessively checked every detail of their work for accuracy – “because one more mistake [from the newspaper] could have been fatal,” he said.

“There was fear in the newsroom among the reporters, the sub-editors and the editors,” he said.

“I had never seen The New Paper newsroom like that. It was always such an exciting newsroom to work in. I thought to myself that we have to break this [environment of fear] somehow.

One month later, in February 1996, The New Paper ran a story about the grandson of the late property tycoon Ng Teng Fong that Balji said helped to restore confidence.

TNP ran the piece about the attempted suicide based on a tip from a source that “had always been accurate” but without official confirmation of the identity of the subject of the story.

“There was a big conference among the editors. I said we should write the story, go back to the source, and explain that we’re still trying to recover from the Toh Chin Chye affair; one more mistake and we can all just walk out of the office, they’ll be no jobs for us,” Balji said.

Before publishing the story, TNP spoke to a final source, Professor Tommy Koh, who didn’t confirm the news outright, but gave the paper’s editors enough to be confident that the facts were correct.

“I took a calculated risk to go ahead with the story, although we didn’t have 100 per cent confirmation. I was confident that Tommy would have told me the story was wrong if it had been wrong,” said Balji, who added that he’d written a letter of resignation on the day the paper broke the news in case it turned out to be inaccurate.

“From then onwards the newsroom, bit by bit, became confident that we could still take risks, but they must be calculated risks. And we turned the corner,” he remembered.

Balji was behind the launch of Mediacorp’s TODAY newspaper as well as the introduction of The New Paper, and he co-launched news site The Independent in 2013.

We have a problem was co-authored by the former CEO of Mediacorp Woon Tai Ho, lawyer Eugene Quah and digital strategist Keith Nakamura. Balji and Woon joined reputation management firm RHT Digital & Media a year ago.

L-r: P N Balji, Eugene Quah, Woon Tai Ho and ZZZ at the event in Singapore

L-r: P N Balji, Eugene Quah, Woon Tai Ho at the event in Singapore


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