Drawing the line between privacy and public interest

Karaoke entertainment operator K Box Singapore outlet at Broadway Plaza in Ang Mo Kio.
Karaoke entertainment operator K Box Singapore outlet at Broadway Plaza in Ang Mo Kio. PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

WHEN an e-mail by "The Knowns" landed on the morning of Sept 16, purporting to have exposed the personal data of some 300,000 customers of a local karaoke bar chain,  the instant reaction in The Straits Times newsroom was to verify. Despite its moniker, the sender, or senders, was not known. And the newsroom of a national broadsheet does receive thousands of e-mails daily, some with credible news tip offs, others simply sharing their views and the rest containing what can at best be described as factually-challenged assertions.

In an e-mail titled A Warning To Singapore Government, the hackers said it was releasing the information as it was unhappy that toll charges will soon be increased on this side of the Causeway. Reporters at the  local news desk reached out to the authorities immediately. Three bodies were contacted: the Infocomm Development Authority, the Personal Data Protection Commission and the Police. 

Not surprisingly, they could not confirm the veracity of the e-mail on the spot. We waited, contacted the K Box company and combed through its membership database ourselves.

It became apparent that the content was most likely to be accurate because our journalists found their personal details of addresses, e-mails, and phone and identity-card numbers on the list. Clearly, some of us in the newsroom like to unwind with a song or two after work.

We started working on stories on the incident, for both print and online. Granted, the checks mentioned above caused The Straits Times to be slower in this instance with the news compared to its rivals and other websites. But reliability and trustworthiness remain the lifeblood of a newspaper and even in this age of fast breaking news on digital platforms, the three cardinal rules of journalism remain unchanged: accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.

Nonetheless, problems started to arise as we tried to find out more. A reporter was working on reactions of K Box members whose information has been leaked and she gave the feedback that none of them wanted to be named in our stories. That goes against the rulebook, which maintains that we usually put not only a name to those whom we spoke to, but also his age and occupation. The reason is because of credibility.

Readers must know that when they come across a view or opinion expressed in this newspaper, it is genuine and not manufactured. It is for this same reason that the paper's Forum pages insist on letter writers carrying their names in full. But exceptions are made in our stories, when personal safety, legal constraints and occupational compromises come into play. In this instance, the reason cited by the newsmakers was fear that it could encourage further privacy intrusions.  An editorial call was made that the concern was valid and we would run a story without the respondents' full names and details. Problem No 1 solved.

The second one, which is trickier, popped up soon.  While the K Box database was leaked, the expose was initially a limited one. The hackers had placed the membership list on a website. It is believed to have sent a hyperlink of the website to only mainstream and social media outlets. But the link was quickly tossed out in public. Socio-political site The Real Singapore took a screengrab of the e-mail from the hackers and uploaded it on its website and Facebook account.

Should The Straits Times report this trail of exposures? We could have opted for omission. But it would leave readers none the wiser as to how the database went from the e-mail accounts of journalists to the  public domain, a doubt which could impact the integrity of the reporters and editors.

The decision was to include the factual chain of events and report how the leak went viral. It is important to inform our readers that the perpetrators did not publish the information publicly. It was subsequent actions which opened the doors.  After the report was published, some readers wrote in to criticise The Straits Times for mentioning The Real Singapore website and its report of the leak.

But we have stuck to the facts and took pains not to publish the link to the leaked database on any of our platforms.

There is a fine balance between privacy and public interest. When faced with the pace and pressure of producing content daily for a national broadsheet, it is hoped that we get it right more often than not. More than just The Knowns, it is a relentless challenge to deal with the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns - to quote former US defence chief Donald Rumsfeld - in the fast-changing terrain of Singapore.

But one thing is clear. We now know who are the warblers in the newsroom who aspire to be the next Celine Dion or Jay Chou.