The New York Times published an intriguing apology a few days ago. It reads in part:
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.
What the apology did not mention, but what was noted in a separate piece, is that this “correction” came as part of a settlement in which the New York Times Company also paid these two men (and a third leader) a total of $114,000, plus legal costs. It’s the second time that Bowring has been threatened with legal action by these three men; the first also involved a piece he wrote for the International Herald Tribune, owned by the Times Company.
It sounds like Bowring might have merely stated a fact: that there is a political dynasty in Singapore, with members of the same family rising to positions of leadership in the country. I’d like to go back and see just what Bowring wrote, but I can’t—the paper removed his piece from the website. What is most concerning here isn’t that the Times Company paid off some Asian leaders after the threat of a lawsuit. It’s the note at the beginning of the apology that Bowring had some sort of “undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore.” Does this simply mean that after the first settlement, he agreed not to use the words “political dynasty” in reference to Singapore? Or is it something more involved? An “undertaking” certainly sounds like more than just an agreement not to use two words. Neither story addresses this issue. But it’s troubling to think that a regular contributor to the country’s top newspaper (or its global affiliate, the Herald Tribune) might be tainting his work by making deals beforehand about what he can and cannot write.