Friday, 28 December 2012

My Straits Echo Press days

For a very long time, people used to think that I worked at The Star newspaper. This misconception arose because of my chess articles that had been appearing regularly in the newspaper since 1980 (give or take several stops and starts during this 32-year run).

But no, I was never a staff of this newspaper. I was only a contracted writer, a freelancer for them, with the sole objective of writing about chess. All this stopped in March this year when I was politely informed by the Star2 editor, incidentally an old friend from Penang who also happened to be an ex-colleague from my days at the Ban Hin Lee Bank, that this was an editorial decision to change direction.

(By the way, I do not know who were responsible for making this "editorial decision" jointly or individually but it occurred just a few weeks before the infamous Erykah Badu incident in the newspaper that saw this editor and another fella suspended before being transferred later to other duties in the organisation. Of course, this is another story altogether.)

So let me reiterate: I was never a staff of The Star. I was never offered benefits which the newspaper's management had given to their staff. When the newspaper listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange, I did not expect nor was I offered any pink form. When the newspaper celebrated its anniversaries, I did not expect nor was I ever invited to any of their functions in Penang. But I was invited once to a "meet the contributors" function in Petaling Jaya that I had to decline because I couldn't travel down from Penang on that day. And while the newspaper gave salary increments and bonuses to their staff, my once-in-a-blue moon adjustment came at the whims and fancies of the newspaper's management. Mine was strictly a contract to write a regular chess column for them. If I write, I get paid; if I don't write, I don't get paid. That was all: a very simple arrangement.

Having set the record straight, let me add that I did undergo a stint in journalism a long time ago, so I do know something about newspaper ethics. I'm proud to say that for six months of my life, from Dec 1977 till May 1978, I was working at The Straits Echo Press, a Penang-based newspaper owned by someone named KK Liew. We operated from a 2½-storey building in Penang Road (at the junction with Dato Koyah Road) and the editorial team took up the whole of the first floor. The ground floor was occupied by the advertising department at the front and the printing section at the back. Up the narrow staircase at the side of the building and we'd reach a landing with a long corridor. Down the corridor would be the newsroom.

Wilson de Souza was the chief editor of the newspaper but during my six-month tenure there, I don't believe that I ever had the opportunity to speak with him more than five times. Most of the time, my interactions were with the senior editors Cheah Cheong Lin and Sunny Lim. Of the two, Sunny Lim was practically the force behind the newsroom, breathing fire most times. On the other hand, Cheah Cheong Lin was a genial old man, more of a father figure to the reporters.

The chief reporter was the very loud G Ratnam and his two assistants were Allan Tan and Yang Yeoh. Like sentries, they would be the first persons anyone would come across after passing through the corridor so nobody, absolutely nobody, could sneak in or out without one of the three noticing.

Across from them was the reporter's desk, mostly empty throughout the morning but from the afternoons, would gradually be filled with people returning from their assignments and banging out their stories on the old battered manual typewriters. Newbies like me would cut our teeth at the magistrate and sessions courts. Months later, I was assigned to the police beat. I would remain there until I resigned to join the Ban Hin Lee Bank.

I always found the police beat interesting but it played havoc with my time because at any moment I would have to rush off when informers or even the police headquarters in Penang called us. Some were hushed up assignments when the police wanted to raid a place. I remember following them once up the hills in Paya Terubong to ambush some moonshiners but naturally, the latter were always a step ahead of the force.

All our stories would be submitted to the chief reporter or his assistants who were the first level of checking. Some of the stories went to the senior editors for a second level of checking if the chief reporter felt that our stories were skirting on some controversy or sensitive issues. Sometimes we'd be called in for a critique of our writing which could be rather uncomfortable but we understood that the senior editors were there to offer the check and balance necessary in a newspaper's newsroom.

Anyway, just next to the reporter's desk was the sub-editor's desk: a semi-circular table seated with five or six of them. They would either be subbing the reporters' work passed out from the chief reporter or senior editors or the news received from the teleprinters. Their other main job was to plan the layout of all the pages for the next day's edition.

There were two teleprinters in the office: one was connected to the Bernama news service while the other to the Agence France-Presse (AFP). Beside was a telex machine for inward and outward communication. The stories, after being sub-edited would be passed to a group of typesetting typists whose jobs would be to input the text and format it into columns according to the sub-editors' page layout.

The layout department would then prepare the page. In the days before computerisation, page preparation was always done by the manual and messy cut-and-paste method. Scissors, rulers and glue everywhere. After the final vetting through by the sub-editors, the pages would be sent for preparation of the huge film negatives, bromide print and ultimately, plate preparation. When everything was in order, the plates were passed to the printing section at the back of the ground floor.

I should also mention that the newspaper had its team of photographers. Five or six of them. And a small darkroom as well with standing space for at most two persons. It was always fascinating to see them develop their own rolls of black-and-white film and making their own prints.

This was then the set-up of the newsroom at The Straits Echo in the 1970s. The reporters and photographers worked two shifts. The morning shift was regular working hours from nine to six while the afternoon shift would mean that we would work until midnight or sometimes one o'clock in the morning depending on the evening's activities. The sub-editors would turn up at about three or four o'clock in the afternoon. Same with the typists and the layout staff. By one o'clock in the morning, unless there was some important late-breaking news, everything for the next day's edition would have been completed.

I never studied journalism formally but I sure learnt a lot during the six-month stint in practical journalism at the newspaper. I made good friends there and I still keep in touch with many of them despite the lengthening years.

One very important code of ethics that we lived by was to ensure balanced reporting. By balanced, I mean we had to make sure that our stories had to be honest, fair and objective. For news pieces, we were not allowed to be opinionated or make assumptions or presumptions. If there were two sides to a story, we would be required to present both views. If there was anything that couldn't be confirmed, we left it out. As journalists, we prided ourselves for our professionalism in our career. Click here for more.

Having said all this, I was taken aback to read a ridiculous claim yesterday by a lawyer which was representing Utusan Malaysia in a court case in Kuala Lumpur. This lawyer had the temerity to claim that newspapers do not have the “luxury of time” to ascertain the truth of their news reports.

What utter nonsense, what utter rubbish. This claim flies against journalism's code of ethics. This claim is an affront to the integrity of all self-respecting journalists in the newspaper business. How can anyone ever suggest that the newspapers are even prepared to print stories without verifying their correctness of their sources or without allowing both sides of a story to be heard by their audience just because the newspapers do not have the time to do so?

Real bullshit and cowshit spewing from the mouth of this man. Does he really believe what he says? Initially I wanted to say that this was no better than gutter journalism but I forgot: UM is already a gutter newspaper. Using its pages to line birdcages is already giving the newspaper too much face.

POST SCRIPT: As a tribute to some of the people from The Straits Echo that I have had the honour to know through the years, apart from those already mentioned above, I would like to name them: Tan Poh Soon, Gerry Teng, Tan Gim Ean, Siew Mee, Ong Thean Seang, Alfred Teh, Vivian Loh, Koh Su Chun, Patrick Ho, Kee Thuan Chye, Ooi Kee Beng, Ung Mah Pheng, John Meow, Amiruddin, Ong Ah Tee, Goh Seng Chong, Chan Looi Tat, Henry, Anthony, Tony, Kung and many others whose names I have unfortunately forgotten.

When The Straits Echo closed down subsequently - but not before they changed their name to The National Echo and moved their headquarters to Kuala Lumpur - some of these people moved on to other newspaper publications like The Star or The New Straits Times. Others sought their livelihood overseas either in the same industry or another. But deep down inside us, we appreciated that The Straits Echo was THE organisation that gave many of us the first real break in our lives.

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