Watching the watchdog

If people use the mass media to inform themselves about their society and about the performance of their politicians, and if they use this information to direct their political choices and participation, then inadequate or inaccurate information is liable to result in misconceived political acts. (Street, 2001: 257)

Malaysia’s 13th General Election (GE13), held on the 5th of May 2013, was the continuation of a historical arc that begun at the 2008 general election (GE12), when the Barisan Nasional (BN), Malaysia’s ruling coalition for the past fifty-six years, lost the states of Penang and Selangor (and Perak temporarily) to the Opposition, as well as their coveted two-thirds Parliamentary majority. This was an unexpected shock to the system that immediately plunged Malaysia into an anticipatory political fervour. After 5 years of delays, civil unrest, and an increasingly unified opposition, with their term stretched to the far edge of expiration (and several state assemblies pushed beyond this point), BN failed to counter Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) message of ‘Ini Kali Lah!’, returning their worst result ever. The BN not only failed to recover a two-thirds majority in Parliament but lost the popular vote for the first time, with only 47.38% support compared to PR’s 50.87%.

The anticipation and tension leading up to and extending beyond GE13 (with widespread accusations of electoral fraud and BN retaining power through systemic gerrymandering and malapportionment), was apparent not just within civil society but also within academia, surely going down as not just the most anticipated but the most researched election in Malaysian history. Non-governmental organisations, too, were on high alert, with extensive scrutiny of electoral processes and authorities. One of the main areas of interest and contention in political, academic, activist, and civil society alike was that of media bias.

The ‘Watching the Watchdog’ GE13 media monitoring project, a collaboration between the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus’s Centre for the Study of Communications & Culture (CSCC) and the Malaysian Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), brought together the intersecting goals of data-based media freedom advocacy and critical media and politics research. With much of Malaysia’s mediascape controlled by BN and its constituent parties through a combination of political/regulatory mechanisms (most notably, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act), and the economic domination and control that exists in a state of symbiosis with these regressive and often selectively-mobilised pieces of legislation, most Malaysians have resigned themselves to newspapers and television news broadcasts full of what is best described as ‘running dog’ journalism, with little of the ‘watchdog’ functionality one expects from a free and independent media.

Several scholars, notably those from the Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Communication, have delineated the political-economic power structures behind this state of affairs (e.g. Mustafa & Zaharom, 1998; Wang, 2001; Zaharom, 2002), and there has been content analysis carried out at both the academic level (e.g. Abbott, 2011) and by NGOs (such as CIJ’s previous monitoring exercises) in an attempt to map the extent of the actually-occurring political bias in the Malaysian media. However, these content analyses have been relatively limited in scope and/or conducted at the article level.

The ‘Watching the Watchdog’ project both expanded the scope of these previous studies (monitoring twenty-seven print, televisual and online media in 3 languages, English, Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin, across Semenanjung and Bornean Malaysia) (see Table 1).

Table 1 Media monitored by WtW project

Table 1: Media monitored by the WtW project

The project utilised a conservative sentence-level methodology, with references to politician and political figures or political parties and coalitions only ‘codeable’ as non-neutral in tone when linguistic data such as emotive or descriptive vocabulary (such as ‘liar’ or ‘experienced’) was present. Some overarching ideological frameworks were accepted as normative – such as economic growth being (in the abstract) something generally perceived as positive – but issues such as hudud were not ‘coded’ as inherently negative, despite this being, in many cases, what was inferred. The methodology was designed to remove as much ‘coder bias’ from the results as possible; to be able to be applied effectively by a cohort of over seventy coders or research assistants; and to provide a granular measure of bias.

References to politicians and political figures were disaggregated into (1) individuals being talked about/mentioned and (2) individuals being used as sources. This allowed us to see which politicians (and political parties/coalitions) were given the highest proportion of unmediated access to the media – who, effectively, is able to use the media as their personal soapbox, and who is not. We used this disaggregation to track not just positive and negative mentions but to track source-level attacks – i.e. who was conducting attacks when used as a source, and which politician or party were they attacking?

The project monitored the month leading up to the election plus slightly beyond polling day – from the 7th of April to the 7th of May. Only election news articles were coded/analysed – no opinion columns or reader comments or contributions were included, with the one exception of the newspaper’s daily editorial if they ran one. Five interim data reports were released in the two weeks leading up to polling day, with two final overview reports on the media’s coverage of (1) politicians and political figures and (2) political parties and coalitions split by language/location/medium, as well as twenty-seven individual publication reports, released to the public on the 17th of September 2013. The full cohort of reports can be downloaded from Scribd.

For the most part, our results statistically corroborate the copious anecdata available. Within the newspapers and television news broadcasts monitored, in both Semenanjung and Bornean Malaysia, in English and Bahasa Malaysia, there was consistent bias in favour of BN and against PR. The volume of coverage dedicated to each coalition and its constituent parties and politicians varied from media to media, with some media groups, surprisingly, dedicating significantly more coverage to the opposition (although for the most part, BN received more coverage overall). However, once coverage volume was contextualised with the data on tone, this unexpected skew was explained – PR may have sometimes received more coverage overall, but they always received much higher proportions of negative coverage and attacks in comparison to BN, who always received the highest proportions of positive coverage. This was true for both coverage of political parties/coalitions (see Table 2) and politicians/political figures (see Table 3).

Table 2 Distribution of tonal coverage of political parties & coaltions

Table 2: Distribution of Tonal Coverage of Political Parties & Coalitions

Table 3 Distribution of tonal coverage of politicians and political figures

Table 3: Distribution of Tonal Coverage of Politicians and Political Figures

These tables show the proportions of tonal coverage within each media group (e.g. Bernama’s coverage consisted of 36% positive mentions of; 39% neutral mentions of; 17% negative mentions of; and 9% attacks on political parties/coalitions), as well as the ratios within each tonal category with regards to their split between BN and PR (e.g. Bernama’s 36% positive coverage was split between BN and PR at a ratio of 1: 0.045 respectively). The top 5 most unequal ratios within each tonal category are shaded grey, with these ‘most unequal’ ratings then extrapolated across horizontally to show ‘repeat offenders’ with regards to unequal distributions of tonal material – i.e. political bias. It is notable that a very pronounced pattern of these ‘repeat offenders’ emerges, as does the overwhelming bias in favour of BN and against PR. The only media groups who do not conform to this bias pattern are the Mandarin newspapers and the online media.

The sourcing practices of all the media groups, with the exception of the online English media, were further cause for concern. Table 4 below shows the ratios of use as source distribution between BN and PR politicians (e.g. Bernama used BN sources 88.81% of the time and PR sources only 3.19% of the time). BN sources are used at much higher rates than PR sources – a fact that is likely attributable to multiple factors, including the vast electoral machinery at BN’s disposal. Causation aside, when paired with the extremely negative or attack-oriented Malaysian political environment, and the tendency for these sources to be attacking the opposition (as can be seen in the individual publication reports), this skewed direct access to the ‘media soapbox’ is another major contributing factor to the lack of a free, fair, and balanced Malaysian mediascape.

Table 4 Distribution of Use of Source

Table 4: Distribution of Use as Source

The findings below were particularly notable:

  • The extremely pronounced bias present in Bernama’s news wire releases: Bernama has not been monitored previously; it runs on taxpayer funds; and it is a common news source for many, if not all, other Malaysian media. As such, its pronounced bias is cause for extra concern.
  • The relatively balanced coverage provided by the online media we monitored: Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider (TMI) both regularly come under fire for being pro-opposition. Certainly, once one takes opinion columns and reader comments and contributions into account, this is likely the case, but in terms of their core news output, they are doing a professional job of maintaining balance in an extremely difficult environment.
  • The relatively balanced coverage provided by the Mandarin newspapers we monitored; these papers, too, have sometimes come under fire as being pro-opposition. I am unable to speak for their opinion columns and reader contributions, but their core news content also does a professional job of maintaining balance in a difficult environment.

There have been reoccurring and predictable arguments against the significance of our findings. Firstly, that the internet, and particularly social media have equalised the playing field, so it doesn’t really matter than the mainstream media are in such a state (just look at all the votes the opposition got!); and secondly, that PR has its party organs, such as Keadilan and Harakah. I’m not sure if these criticisms are na├пve, deluded, or strategic, but my response is as follows.

The argument that the internet has equalised the playing field is misguided on several levels. Firstly, not everyone has internet access (roughly 35% of Malaysians are still offline), and huge differences exist in terms of the quality and quantity of the access that does exist. Older, poorer, rural populations continue to be BN’s main vote banks, as has been definitively shown by the voting data from GE13. These populations (following global trends) are much more likely to have no/poor quality/limited internet access. This is no coincidence. It has nothing to do with innate intelligence, and everything to do with access to competing opinions and ideologies. These populations have and continue to consume primarily BN propaganda masquerading as news, whereas wealthier, younger, urban populations are constantly bombarded with and socialised into consuming a multitude of competing and critical perspectives.

That is not to say that factors such as party allegiance and political leanings derived from factors such as family background, ethnicity, and religion do not have any impact on the interaction between media and audience – they do. But they are secondary factors, part of the interpretive framework audiences apply to the primary information received from the media. If the primary information pool is limited and biased and audiences do not have well-developed critical media literacy skills, then their resulting decisions are likely to be similarly biased – particularly when set within a developing context and against a meta-discursive background of stability versus the unknown.

As for the rising importance of social media – certainly, the opposition appear to be savvier in terms of utilising Web 2.0 platforms than BN, likely because they have had to learn or perish. However, much of what circulates on Facebook and Twitter is in reaction to news stories emerging from the mainstream media. While recognising the importance of citizen journalism, social media, and micro/blogging, high quality ‘traditional’ journalism is still central to the facilitation of a vibrant mediated public sphere. Furthermore, socially mediated political debate often tends towards ‘cyberbalkanisation’ – and in an already heavily polarised and increasingly bitter political environment, is this really what is needed? A more diverse and balanced mainstream media environment would feed into engagement across difference – rather than opposition supporters clustering around Malaysiakini and TMI and circulating in one social media loop, and government supporters clustering around the sites of Utusan et al and staying within their own respective media enclaves, only emerging to ridicule and malign one another. It would also help foster meaningful debate between religions, races, classes, and between Semenanjung and Malaysian Borneo – all important conversations to do with the core issues of national identity and community.

The same argument applies for party organs like Harakah. Party organs and news media perform different roles, and the former cannot substitute for the latter. News media should facilitate informed political participation and hopefully understanding of (if not agreement with) our socio-political community; party organs are for the express purpose of party advocacy, and are intended to ‘preach to the choir’. When the vast majority of the mainstream Malaysian ‘news’ media, labelled and sold as such, is actually more akin to a BN party organ; when the only media functioning as anything like professional news journalism organisations are in Mandarin or are online? It’s safe to say that something is seriously rotten in what aspires to be the “best democracy in the world” (Najib Razak, September 18, 2011).

The media are key to the democratic and electoral integrity of any political system, and “[f]reedom of information is a fundamental feature of a democratic society” (Street, 2001: 170). Malaysian citizens who relied on English and Bahasa Malaysia newspapers and/or television as their media source/s during the GE13 campaign (either by choice or as a result of only limited options being available) were not provided with fair and accurate information with which to construct informed voting preferences, with clear voting patterns emerging along these strata of info-communicative diversity and scarcity, and the media used more as a tool of division than of reconciliation. Although gradual improvements in internet penetration and demographic shifts may benefit the opposition, BN continues to possess many structural advantages and despite lacking agility overall, is capable of adapting to the shifting terrain. With Malaysia already turning its attention towards GE14, the national media continue to be the arena in which political struggles play out. In media as in politics, only time will tell whether entropy or stasis will prevail.

Tessa J. Houghton is Assistant Professor in Media and Communication / Director of the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.


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