From Watchdog to Player...

Chris Yeung

Let's be frank. When veteran journalist Yau Shing-mu was appointed to be a deputy minister with the portfolio of housing and transport about two years ago, there had been no high expectations among journalists and the society at large over his dip into the political waters, or, to cynics, mud-field. Few people seriously believed he could breathe fresh air into the inner-circle of power in Lower Albert Road, not to mention making any real impact on policy-formulation and the political process of the SAR. From a narrow perspective, there are probably not too many working journalists and journalism students who have read too much into the significance of Yau's appointment on the development of the journalism in Hong Kong. Hopes, if any, among journalists there is a vast tract of greener pastures in the city's political world for journalists, who aspire for a change for one reason or another, are probably wishful thinking.

Thanks to the leaks by government officials masquerading as 'sources,' 'people familiar with the situation' and the like, media and society at large have been given advance notice that the first batch of second- and third-tier ministers could come from the media, among other much expected sectors including academia, business and political circle. By widening the pool of political appointees, Chief Executive Donald Tsang was anxious to convince people of his commitment to grooming political talents and beefing up his team. While journalists are widely seen as an unsurprising pick for the post of political appointees, government officials in charge of the selection process have never explained the strategic thinking behind the idea of co-opting journalists into the ranks of officials subject to public accountability. Specifically, officials, both in public and off-the-record media sessions, have not shed light on their expectations of the role and contributions of appointees with journalistic background in enhancing the quality of governance.

Sensitive Grasp of Public Sentiments

Interestingly, the media itself has not shown any strong interest in playing up the media angle in the appointments, judging from their coverage of the appointment of Yau and several others with journalistic background. True, the appointment story was swiftly dominated by controversies over such issues as foreign nationality and salaries which erupted one after another as soon as the names were announced. But if media has not delved into the media angle of the appointments in their coverage, it is plainly because they found no strong, juicy story there. First, Yau, whose last job before joining the government was executive chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Times, is by no means a controversial figure in the industry. Secondly, media also found it hard to offer some insight into the government thinking behind the appointments of candidates with journalistic background. Nor have the journaliststurned-officials been able to illuminate the public discussion. Speaking of his appointment, Yau said his journalistic experience of analyzing a situation after listening to what people said would help him perform in his job.

Superficially, there are good reasons for the Tsang team to set their sights on journalists in beefing up his cabinet. Journalists are supposed to have a sharp, sensitive grasp of public sentiments and changes in the society. The extensive network of contacts seasoned political-beat reporters have built up among major players and stakeholders (government, political parties, business and professional elites, NGOs, media and society at large) can be a valued asset for them to get the political job done. Veteran journalists, who presumably know well the rules and culture of the media industry, are in a better position to play the game of media politics. As Yau said, the fact journalists' work involves getting different sides of the story means they can give an objective picture that is closer to the truth of an issue.

Limited Room for Political Manoeuvrings Real-life politics, however, have proved to be far more complex and harsh, aggravated further by the hasty introduction – and expansion – of the official accountability system as the bitter row over universal suffrage lingers on. The lack of elected mandate has become an 'original sin' of the Tsang administration, crippling any attempt by his team to gauge public opinion and feel the pulse of the society. For obvious reasons, public opinion is sharply divided and often self-contradictory when it comes to contentious, complex issues such as the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong rail link. A deputy minister with sharp journalistic sense and analytical skill may help the team understand the dynamics behind the controversy and fight the public opinion battle. The key to resolving the socio-political dispute, nevertheless, still lies with the problem-solving ability and capacity of the whole political and administrative team.

Much have been said about the notion of 'no-forever-friends, no-forever-foes' in the world of politics. Yau probably has learned a bit more about the fragility of friendship built on the basis of his journalistic background when he changed job. He was in hot water after legislator Leung Yiu-chung accused him of refusing to have face-to-face talks with a group of taxi drivers who planned to stage a slow-drive near the airport. It is not clear whether Leung held higher expectations of Yau, whom he had known for a long period of time, in that he, unlike other bureaucrats, would be more forthcoming in meeting with people he tried to help. Yau explained he had passed on the demands of the unionists to his colleagues in the Transport Department, who deal with taxi unions. Critics said the case shows Yau's lack of political sensitivity and muddled thinking about his role. When a transport dispute swiftly became a mini political crisis, a political minister is expected to step in to put out the fire before it escalates. Not surprisingly, Yau's decision to leave it to the bureaucrats to handle the dispute invited charges that he was shirking responsibility. It says something about the limited room for political maneuverings faced by officials who are accountable – regardless of their background - in handling issues without upsetting the established rules and work process within the government machinery.

Inherent Conflicts with Core Values

The idea of co-opting journalists into the governing team to help strengthen the public relations work borders on myth. It runs the risk of over-playing the role of political appointees with media background in a public opinion battle. The soundness of policies and their consultation political process remain the most important factor in winning public support for the relevant policies. Now that the government's spin-doctoring work has been seen from a negative angle, even a proactive media strategy and work could become counter-productive. Criticism that Donald Tsang has adopted the same 'friend-foe' strategy towards political parties when dealing with the media has deepened feelings of doubt and cynicism among journalists towards the appointment of their fellow colleagues into the ruling team. Put bluntly, few will feel thankful to Tsang for opening up a new career path for journalists.

This is not only because of the uncertainties about the notion and operation of the so-called 'revolving door' for journalists, academics, professionals and the like to take a break from their career development to take up political appointment and move elsewhere thereafter. For journalists, it hinges upon inherent conflicts with some core values of journalistic work. They include independent thinking, impartiality and 'telling-the-truth.' Those potential conflicts are clearly not easy to be reconciled. They could only be lessened if journalists play an advisory role as, say, political strategists or advisers to the ministers working behind the scenes.

In view of the essence of the official accountability system, political appointees need to possess either political skills or knowledge and expertise about certain policies and, ideally, both. From that perspective, the venturing of some veteran journalists into politics has and will prove to be difficult. Like it or not, media and the public have largely given their verdict on the 2008 appointments. Practically speaking, it will be difficult for the public to pass judgment on the performance of individual political appointees and form a view on, for instance, whether or not it is a good idea to appoint a few journalists into the ruling team. Journalist friends may find their political journey a rewarding, eye-opening oncein-a-lifetime experience. Ordinary journalists and citizens should be pardoned for feeling unsure about whether the new appointees have and could make a difference.

Chris Yeung, a veteran political journalist, is currently News Director of Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes in his personal capacity and would like to declare interest about his long-time acquaintance with Yau Shing-mu and some other ex-journalists in the Tsang team.