Gifting Reporters with Expensive Problems

Chong Hiu-yeung - General Secretary, HKJA
(Translated by Chow Hang Tung)

Few, if not none, Hong Kong media outlets have set down detailed guidelines for journalists about acceptance of gifts. Journalists mostly decide by themselves, based on their own moral codes. However, due to the frequent change in personnel on the frontlines, the strict self-discipline of the past may not have passed on to newcomers, and these days some public relations agencies, corporations and individuals have gone down the slippery slope of giving out weightier and more expensive gifts. This phenomenon is worth reflecting on and calls for caution.

Organisers of press conferences usually prepare press releases and background information for reporters. In some cases, especially those of a commercial nature, there would also be refreshments and related gifts for journalists. Those could include freebies such as pens, coasters, key rings or stationary bearing the organisation’s name. Sometimes there might be gifts related to the event itself, such as replicas of ancient artifacts or sample products. If the value of the freebies is not high and within the upper limit set by the news media, accepting those gifts would have been fine as they would not make others look down on journalists.

iPod Souvenirs to Mark Listing
However, listed companies and PR companies are becoming more and more generous these days, and are giving out more and more expensive gifts at press conferences. Some even include lucky draws at tea receptions for journalists, often handing out expensive prizes, and journalists attending those meeting have felt that it was inappropriate. For example, on September 23 last year, Wynn Macau Limited held a press conference about the listing of its new stocks. The souvenir they gave journalists was an 8G iPod Touch. Not only was the iPod unrelated to the topic of the press conference, it also had no relationship at all to the business of the company. Why then did the company lavish so much money on gifting journalists? The worst part was that some journalists did not realise that there was such an expensive gift in the press kit, and brought it back unwittingly to their company. More troublesome was that they then had to spend time coping with it. If others questioned them about the gift, it could have meant big trouble.

The prize draw is also getting more and more popular. In early February, Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation Limited announced the results of the first Top Ten ".hk" Website Competition. Apart from inviting journalists for lunch, the company also arranged a prize draw during the meal, with the first prize being a personal computer.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Domain Name Registration Company Ltd (HKDNR) responded that there were friends and partners of the industry who also attended the function and the lucky draw, where a computer was given out as prize, was only for entertainment. The spokesman further noted that the function had been held for two years and no media had declined participation.. However, according to our information, at least one reporter did inform the company that it was inappropriate to hand out such expensive prizes to journalists. It is important, however, for our colleagues to be aware of the problem.

A prize draw was also held at a tea reception held by Ping An Insurance (Group) Company of China, Ltd. Although the prizes were only amusement park tickets and were not that expensive, journalists still could not help but ask: "Was that necessary?"

Apart from gifts and prize draws, it is also becoming more common for political and business figures and associations to hand out expensive red packets at Chinese New Year feasts. Especially since the economic situation improved last year, these people have been more generous in stuffing red packets this year. Although the majority still hand out $20 or $50 dollar laisees, some journalists received red packets of $500 dollars. If the journalists did not open the red packet on the spot, it could be difficult for them to return it afterwards, as it is often impossible to trace the giver.

It would have been understandable if the big red packets were accepted out of carelessness, yet if journalists join every random New Year feast just to get red packets, then it would be deplorable.

The Best Gift is Openness
As it is often tricky to give out cash, some political figures have turned to other kinds of gifts. There were reports that a Legislative Council member invited journalists for a cruise on his private yacht, and one gave out alcohol as gifts at a New Year tea reception. We also heard that government officials had given cookies to journalists after a New Year feast. It might not be wholly unacceptable if there was no ulterior motive and the gifts were of a purely friendly gesture; the important thing is that the journalists should not mince words because of the gifts when writing about the same people in the future.

Of course there are huge differences between the media circle in Hong Kong and in mainland China; one being the attitude to bribery and corruption. For example at press conferences on the mainland, the organisers often give out "transportation fees" to journalists covering the events, with amounts ranging from several hundreds to a thousand RMB. Hong Kong journalists rarely accept them and would return the money to the officials, winning applause from all circles on the mainland. We hope that the media in Hong Kong can maintain such professional conduct. We further hope that companies and PR personnel would reduce their gifts to journalists, thus helping the industry maintain a good journalistic culture. After all, an open attitude and a willingness to provide information are the best gifts a journalist could wish for!