Readers of the New York Times may have noted an odd correction/apology in the paper last week:
In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s op-ed page, agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In a February 15, 2010, article, Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.
What necessitated this rather back-handed apology?
When I spent a summer at the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong, my editor told me about the lengths the paper had to go to in order to avoid running afoul of libel laws in Asian countries. (Yay, more work for lawyers!) Articles that might portray the Thai king in a negative light, for example, sometimes would not appear in the paper’s Bangkok edition.
If taken to court in one of these countries, news organizations “face a near-certainty of losing,” Stuart Karle, a former general counsel of The Wall Street Journal, told the NYT.
The IHT (now owned by the New York Times) did run afoul with this Philip Bowring editorial, “All in the Family,” that mentions Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. On the day that the apology ran, the Times ran an article on its settlement with Singapore. In addition to running the apology, the paper paid the Singapore leaders $114,000.
It’s not the first time the NYT has mixed it up with the Lees:
The case stems from a similar one in 1994, when Mr. Bowring, a former editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review and a freelance contributor to The Herald Tribune, wrote a column in The Herald Tribune that also referred to “dynastic politics” in East Asian countries, including Singapore.
In that case, three of the country’s leaders threatened legal action: the elder Mr. Lee, who was prime minister from 1959-90 and remained a power in government; his son, who was a deputy prime minister at the time; and Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister at the time.
The Herald Tribune, then co-owned by the Times Company and The Washington Post Company, published an apology saying that it had implied that the younger Mr. Lee owed his job to nepotism, and the paper and Mr. Bowring promised not to do so again.
Singaporean leaders have a history of taking the offensive against news organizations for language that would be legally protected — or even considered relatively innocuous — in the United States, threatening legal action or restricting the sales of publications. They have won apologies and monetary payments in several of those cases.
The New York Times’s apology was a bit snide. At least, Philip Bowring doesn’t have to fly to Singapore for a personal caning.