Misquoted .... or not


Everyone will back the call for righteousness and freedom of the press. But some find it difficult to practise what they preach.

THERE is a Thai saying about the teeth and tongue which means that two persons, usually the husband and wife, are inseparable and dicta­ted by their respective roles.

They need each other but sometimes, they take each other for granted and they inevitably have quarrels – just like the teeth sometimes bite the tongue, deliberately or by accident, when we eat too fast. But the two need to co-exist.

The saying, in some form or another in other Asian countries, is often a description of a married couple but it can also apply to the relationship between the press and the politicians.

Both professions know that they need each other but they also get into conflict sometimes.

That comes to the point – the Penang DAP government is used to being on the offensive with its party leaders taking daily hard-hitting punches at the Barisan Nasional.

The party, long in the opposition, is known for its press statements and in recent years, its video parody of government leaders. No one is spared.

But the controversy over the purchase of the Chief Minister’s bungalow has put the DAP on the defensive, and it is not handling it well. It has suddenly found itself in a position which the DAP is not used to.

Two DAP MPs, Liew Chin Tong and Zairil Khir Johari, called a press conference to complain about the page one report in the northern edition of The Star (March 21). They said the content was correct but that the headline was “inaccurate.” In typical political rhetoric and fondness for superlatives, Liew described the headline as “politically motivated, extremely misleading and malicious.”

Liew claimed that the bungalow controversy was due entirely to the heading, “CM: No idea of value,” saying “it all arises from here.”

But of course, the claim was shot down barely two hours after their press conference. A video clip went viral showing Lim Guan Eng telling reporters that he did not know the value of his bungalow.

The video came from the Facebook page of Buletin Mutiara, the bi-weekly publication of the Penang state government, in a March 20 post.

In the video of the press conference at Lim’s upper-middle class bungalow at Pinhorn Road, Lim could be clearly heard saying: “Because you know, I’m not a property agent, I wouldn’t know what is the price. But that was the verbal understanding.”

Liew, in his press conference which was held a week later, had claimed that Lim had “never said he didn’t know the value of the house”.

Since then, the two MPs, presumably in disgrace, have not responded to the fiasco they created. Nor have they found it appropriate or decent to say they got it wrong.

In fact, the two had not even read the blog of their party elder, Lim Kit Siang, who had earlier posted that the The Star report was accurate.

It never rains but it pours. For the DAP, this has been a period when a series of events truly tested its crisis management ability – from Teresa Kok’s feng shui remark to M. Kulasegaran’s “cultural prejudice possible for Lim Guan Eng’s below market price bungalow,” to a junior party leader ordering a restaurant owner to take down an advertisement that was a parody of the controversy.

No wonder a gag order – or an advisory, according to party leaders – has been issued to stop further self-inflicted horrors.

But two factors have helped the Penang DAP brave the storm.

There are national financial issues that cloud the controversy, and make the purchase of the under-priced bungalow pale in the shadow of international headline-grabbing articles about leakages.

Then there is the almost hero-worshipping status of Guan Eng, whom his critics call Tokong or deity, which has put the CM on solid ground. Nothing has shaken him politically except that the party has found itself on unfamiliar ground.

No one seems to care that two wrongs don’t make a right, as the saying goes, when political allegiance turns emotional.

Pinhorn Road is named after Englishman Ralph Henry Pinhorn, an Oxford graduate, who was the headmaster of the nearby Penang Free School for 20 years (1904-1925), and was known for being a disciplinarian who believed the cane was the cure to all problems.

He would have thrown a fit, if he were alive today, to hear of claims that the seller and buyer of a house on a road named after him had no idea of the property’s value, nor do they care, for some flippant reasons.

The Chinese press, which literally campaigned for the DAP, in the 2013 general election now has an estranged relationship with the state government.

It has gone down to a very low point, and like the idiom of the teeth and tongue, the Penang Chinese media still carry on their working relationship but it has never been the same since.

But politicians in power, regardless of their political affiliation, do not care, really. The media is something they can use, that’s all.

There are of course, Barisan Nasional politicians who have denied statements that they have made, often claiming they are misquoted. It’s always easier and more convenient to blame the press when one makes a stupid slip of the tongue.

Well, they bite their tongue and then blame the media – it is like a standard operating procedure in the handbook of politicians.

A veteran journalist friend recalled that a former Cabinet Minister once called up to claim that he had been misquoted and demanded a correction. The reporter produced the recording to the minister to prove he was right.

But the sheepish minister, not wanting to admit he was wrong, pointed out to him that as an experienced journalist “you should understand what I was trying to say. I may have said it but I did not mean it.”

I recall that in 1979, at the height of the arrival of Vietnamese refugees to our shores, then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was widely quoted as saying that “the government would prevent Vietnamese refugees from setting foot on our shores by shooting them.”

If one reporter had got it wrong, we can understand but surely a whole troop of reporters couldn’t have committed the same error.

The then prime minister, Hussein Onn, had to defend him by saying that Dr Mahathir was not expressing the official stand. But it was the foreign minister, Ghazali Shafie, who came up with the best defence claiming that Dr Mahathir had actually said “shoo”, not “shoot”!

So, that comes to the point, if indeed Dr Mahathir had said “shoo and not shoot,” Hussein Onn would not have had to say the latter was merely making a personal stand when it became an international furore.

But in all fairness, the media too have made errors in their reports, putting politicians in hot water.

A poor command of the language, preconceived ideas, sloppiness and prejudices have resulted in bad reports and headings too.

But to err is human and to forgive is divine, as the saying goes. Politicians often insist on corrections for mistakes but seldom have I heard of politicians making an apology for their mistakes. Perhaps their ego is too big for them to say, “I am sorry.”

So for all the claims of righteousness and the freedom of the press, some find it hard to practise what they preach. In fact, some can’t even laugh at themselves – and Mr Pinhorn, who taught literature in PFS, would have chosen the word “pathetic” to describe the current handling of the episode.

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