SPH Media gets audit comm to investigate inflated circulation figures more fully

Four staff involved have since left the company, while three were served warning letters.

Matthias Ang | Fiona Tan | January 20, 2023, 04:32 PM

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SPH Media Trust's (SMT) board has asked its audit and risk committee to further investigate more fully the overstated circulation numbers that were discovered in an audit last year, and consider what further steps should be taken.

In a statement on Friday (Jan. 20), SMT said the committee will focus investigations on the preliminary findings that some 10 to 12 per cent of daily circulation figures in some months had been overstated during the period audited - between September 2020 and March 2022 - by up to 90,000 daily average copies.

SMT had earlier taken action against the staff involved in end-December 2022. As a result, four of these staff have since left the company, and three were served warning letters.

Breakdown of the preliminary findings

SMT added that based on the preliminary findings of the review, it found that the overstatement could be attributed to the following factors:

  • An average of 49,000 daily copies (5 per cent of total daily circulation during the period in question) of news titles being recorded as circulation numbers but not distributed. SMT said that this was of particular concern and noted that the majority of these were digital copies.
  • 5,000 average daily copies being recorded after contracts had lapsed,
  • 17,000 average daily copies being recorded as a result of a failure to check that reported circulation numbers were accurate against actual usage tracked in the system, and
  • A possible discrepancy of 19,000 average daily copies, which included a barter arrangement with another publisher.

Committee to investigate the issues more fully & commission legal advisors

The Committee is chaired by Max Loh, the former Managing Partner of EY ASEAN & Singapore, and comprises Lim Mei, Co-Head of Corporate Mergers and Acquisitions at Allen & Gledhill, and Philip Lee, Vice-Chairman of Global Banking for Southeast Asia at HSBC Singapore.

SMT added that the Committee will focus its investigations on the aforementioned daily circulation figures that have emerged from the preliminary findings.

The Committee will also commission legal advisors to assist in the investigation and report its findings directly to the Board of SPH Media Holdings.

Separation of duties among staff to be enhanced

SMT also outlined the following measures that it was taking to ensure "data accuracy and accountability."

This includes strengthening the separation of duties among staff, with enhanced checks and balances, such as ensuring that staff who are reporting circulation numbers do not have the access rights to create or change entries in the customer database.

In addition, SMT will ensure more frequent internal audit reviews such that reporting is done based on established methodology and verified to be accurate.

SMT will also enhance data quality and improve the accuracy of customer details, through means such as data cleansing and independent validation.

The media company added:

"In addition to reassessing the methodology for the reporting of circulation numbers, SMT is pressing on with other transformation efforts. SMT is focused on updating its policies and practices to ensure accountability. SMT remains steadfast in its mission to deliver quality journalism."


Socio-political site Wake Up Singapore (WUSG) released a report on Jan. 8 evening alleging that three senior employees had left SMT due to discrepancies in circulation and/or subscription numbers.

One day later on Jan. 9, SMT put out a statement to The Straits Times (ST).

Numbers inflated

The organisation confirmed that circulation numbers had been inflated by between 85,000 and 95,000 copies daily across all of its publications, based on the findings from an internal review.

Publications under SMT include ST, Lianhe Zaobao, Shin Min Daily News, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu, among others.

The inconsistencies in the data account for about 10 to 12 per cent of the reported daily average circulation and stemmed from:

  • counting lapsed contracts in circulation data;
  • including copies that were printed, counted for circulation, and then destroyed;
  • multiple instances of double-counting subscriptions;
  • and injecting a project account with additional funding to purchase fictitious circulation.

Additionally, "certain circulation numbers were arbitrarily derived", ST reported.

Staff involved taken to task or left organisation

The organisation said the review looked at the time period from September 2020 to March 2022, but did not state how long these practices had been going on.

Following the internal review in March 2022, SPH Media said the staff involved had either been taken to task or had left the organisation.

ST reported that they were senior employees, but did not provide their names or list the number of employees affected, or elaborate on what "taken to task" meant.

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Top image by Lee Weilin