Saturday, January 22, 2011

Shall we boycott the Star?

Mama advised that you should count 10 in descending order if you are angry. I let you read the whole piece and you make your own decision.

(theStar)REMEMBER a blog called Sime Darby Watch (SDW)? It has been completely wiped out when the mysterious blogger he never revealed his identity on the blog abruptly called it quits in April 2009. It's therefore hard to pinpoint when it was created, but early 2008 seems to be a safe bet.

One news report puts it as March 2008. That was not long after the completion of the mega-merger that saw Sime Darby Bhd, Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd and Golden Hope Plantations Bhd becoming a single entity we now know as Sime Darby Bhd.

It was apparent that the blogger had not come from the old Sime Darby. In fact, he explained that the blog was “for employees of the now-defunct Kumpulan Guthrie and Golden Hope to voice their views and concerns”. The blogger clearly had access to a lot that was going on at the new Sime Darby and was decidedly critical of its management, which was dominated by executives from the old Sime Darby. He often brought to light major developments and issues at the company that had not been publicly available.

SDW was easily the most well-known among the blogs that targeted local businesses. Sime Darby was (and still is) one of Malaysia's biggest companies, and the merger had enlarged it further although not everyone thought the exercise was a good idea. And as a government-linked company, there was (and still is) a political dimension to many of its actions and decisions. These factors guaranteed a ready audience for dirt on Sime Darby.

The blogger's ability to consistently expose alleged wrongdoings and his writing skills in lambasting his target, also helped SDW garner a significant following.

No other anti-corporation blogs have so far come close to SDW's influence. Most have been short-lived, seldom lasting beyond a handful of entries after the bloggers had run out of things to say or have simply exhausted their motivation to blog.

However, another blog has recently surfaced, promising to go on “for months to come to weed out corporate misconducts (sic) as a service to the taxpayers and Malaysians in general”. The blog's title, zarinahtakesapaycut, is a swipe at Securities Commission chairman Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, but the principal target is actually professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The anonymous blogger has been prolific so far. The blog kicked off on Dec 1 last year with four postings. Until yesterday, there have been 34 more. That's an average of one posting every 36 hours! He has also been persistent (and somewhat pesky), compiling an email list to ensure that all those on the list including this columnist and some colleagues are notified whenever the blog has a new entry.

The blogger definitely knows a thing or two about grabbing attention. The headlines for the blog entries are usually cleverly crafted and compelling. The blogger has been creative and resourceful in generating angles and themes that suggest that the blog is constantly introducing fresh information and highlighting new players and developments. For example, a Dec 31 entry cited a May 2009 article by this columnist to back up the blog's claims about PwC.

The truth is, zarinahtakesapaycut is a relentless attempt to discredit PwC by harping on the same few issues. The bias is obvious. Only the hopelessly clueless will think that the blogger is being objective. Even so, we can't dismiss the blog with the wave of a hand, partly because the blogger is insistent in bombarding readers with details.

This is not the place to dwell on how much of the blog is factual. The point here is that the blogosphere has become part albeit a small one for now of the corporate landscape. However, we have yet to properly understand how we treat the information we get from the blogs. The idea of regulating blogs is an incendiary matter and we may not even have to go there but there ought to be more discussion and engagement within the business community about this subject.

How can we not be ambivalent about these anonymous bloggers who attack listed companies, Big Four firms and business regulators? On one hand, we are thrilled by the pugnacious muckraking and the whiff of scandal, and we cheer the notion of the lone guy, armed with a PC and Internet connection, going up against the deep-pocketed, soulless corporation? Yet, can we really afford to ignore the questions about the bloggers' motives and integrity, and the veracity of the information they put up in cyberspace?

Sure, we can agree that everybody ought to take the content of these blogs with a pinch of salt, but that does nothing to address the lack of fairness and transparency that can occur. Besides, if the bloggers are indeed accurate and have revealed stuff that the companies had intended to hide, our scepticism may well work against us. And what if the bloggers are way off the mark, or worse, are deliberately spreading lies? In such cases, sometimes, no amount of salt can undo the damage suffered by the targets. And when the businesses suffer, their stakeholders (such as the minority shareholders) feel the pain as well.

Yes, legal action is an option, and yes, the mainstream media isn't perfect either. We know this, but what we need to learn next is how to effectively deal with irresponsible blogging. In business, as in politics, one of the worst things that can happen to us is when our ability to choose what to believe in, is weakened by bad information.

● Deputy executive editor Errol Oh doesn't have a blog.

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