Government briefs out the press conference

"The Journalist"

“No photos. No recordings. Please quote from source”.

Many journalists in Hong Kong should be familiar with this opening statement by the government information officers in their many off-the-record or background briefings on government policies. Indeed, journalists find that in recent years there has been a trend towards abuse of the background briefing by government officials to announce or explain government polices behind the scene, in closed-door and off-the-record briefings instead of holding a proper press conference.

Not Unique in Hong Kong

There is a long history in the use of background briefings, overseas as well as in Hong Kong when government officials ensure that their names and titles are not used or they are not directly quoted in news reports in exchange for in-depth discussion with writers and journalists on government policies.

Still, the rule on the briefing could be discussed between officials and media representatives. It is clearly understood that the use of the background briefing is only one of the means for government to deliver information, and usually editorial writers and editors are targets for background briefings on controversial policies during the colonial administration and in the early years of the Tung administration in Hong Kong.

However, the media industry has found that there is increasing abuse of such background briefings by the government in recent years to such an extent that the public’s right to know about government policies are being infringed and the government, as a result, is avoiding accountability. Government officials commonly invite frontline reporters to off-the-record background briefings on important government policies instead of holding a proper press conference to face the camera and to explain to the public new government measures.

Even advocates of government and corporate transparency, David Webb, found that never a day goes by without some anonymous Government person being quoted as a “source” or merely an “official” in the media.

All that matters in briefings

The Journalist did a quick search on WiseNews found that 2,784 and 351 articles quoted “source” can be found in Chinese newspapers and English newspapers in Hong Kong respectively, an average of 29.8 and 3.8 articles per day, over a three-month-period starting from March 2010.

Meanwhile, the results of a survey conducted by The Journalist at the same period of time shows that there were at least 12 background briefings conducted by different government bureaux and departments, on average of one background briefing held per week (See Table 1).

Compared to press releases from Government News and Media Information System, we found that there were 22 press conferences (See Table 2) held during the three-month period, or an average of 1.8 press conferences per week. Therefore, the ratio of government press conferences and background briefings was 6:4 during that three month period.

Many journalists have expressed worries that the government is using the background briefing or off-record briefing to replace press conferences to announce government policies.

From the survey conducted by The Journalist on government background briefings, those briefings touch on many and different aspects of government policies, such as a ban on idling car engines, measures to revitalize the secondary market of Home Ownership Scheme flats, legislative amendment to crack unfair trade practices. Most of the issues touched on during briefings are the controversial one with enormous public concerns.

Trivial Matters Become Press Conference Issues

Looking at press conferences over the same period, we find there were some regular department reports, such as annual report by the Hong Kong Observatory, and even some announcements on musicals and drama by Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and only few press conferences on significant issues such as political reform package and building collapse report at Ma Tau Wai.

Besides, there is a significant change in personnel in background briefing, from editors and writers to the frontline reporters in recent years. For such briefings frontline reporters from nearly all media organizations are invited, and usually they are contacted by information officers and informed that there would be a briefing at such-and-such a time and that ministers or department heads would be in attendance to explain new policies.

Something that most journalists are concern about is that the information officers will request that everything mentioned in the briefing be only attributed to a ‘source’, ‘official’ or ‘government spokesman.’

Still, some room for maneuver in these “background briefing rules” can be found. For example, Secretary for Transport and Housing, Eva Cheng, changed her mind and allowed journalists to quote what she said in the briefing on new measures regulating property sales, but unreasonable rules such as no photos and recordings were still enforced at that briefing.

There have been occasions when journalists successfully opposed such arrangements, usually by insisting that referring to an official response as “a source” simply did not make sense. On these occasions the anonymous source were allowed to be referred to as “a … bureau official” or “a source from … bureau”. Not exactly how things should be but for the moment, at least, it sufficed.

Important Issues Go Behind Doors

There are two key aspects to background briefings
  1. Promoting government policies
    Many government bureaux and departments hold a briefing on a new policy to brief the media on the same day the government submits a paper of this policy to the Legislative Council.  A common explanation used by officials for holding an off-the-record background briefing instead of an on record one is that the latter might offend legislators as traditionally government should respect the legislature and report first hand up-to-date information on government policies to the Legco first. 
    Officials of development bureaus, transport and housing bureau used to hold off record briefings.  For instance, briefings on seeking funding for revitalized historical buildings (Development Bureau), review on urban renewal strategy (Development Bureau), revitalizing the secondary market of Home Ownership Scheme flats (Transport and Housing Bureau), etc, are clear examples. 
    However, it is doubtful whether the government explanation about avoiding giving offense to the legislature is a logical one in the above cases as journalists also ask legislators to respond to the government briefings. 
  1. Refuting unfavorable information
    Some bureau and department use background briefings to refute unfavorable information about the administration. For example, wet market vendors threatened to start a hunger strike if government refused to comply with their demands on leases.  Officials from Food and Environmental Hygiene department held a briefing to respond to the issue, pointing out some misleading information provided by the vendors. 

Many frontline reporters say they are dissatisfied with the off record request by the government in these background briefings. They say they well aware that the government wants to use the media to “test the waters” about how the public would react to their new policies. They worry that government officials will just deny the media reports if the public disapproved of the government proposals and then put all the blame on the media for “inaccurate reports.”

Some journalists, nonetheless, believe such briefings can help them better understanding government policies. Most, however, see the briefing as a means to “manipulate” the media or influence the news angles of the media reports.

Journalists’ Grievances Aired

Many journalists noted that briefings are arranged in a very tricky way. Information officers inform reporters about a briefing 2 to 3 hours in advance, and the briefings usually start late in the afternoon and end in the evening. This ensured that reporters have almost no time to seek reactions and views of other parties as they have to meet deadlines.

The attitude of officials toward journalists’ questions at a briefing is obviously different from press conferences where they have to face the cameras. Some journalists have pointed out that some officials simply ignore critical questions raise at a briefing and keep repeating the line to take and the government’s position.

In sum the experience of frontline reporters shows that the Environment Bureau is one of those bureaus most seriously abusing the background briefing. No matter whether they are introducing policies about plastic bag tax or the ban on idling car engines, almost no press conference was ever held by Secretary for Environment, Edward Yau.
Response from the Environment Bureau (21/6/2010): 
During his tenure, the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Yau has held a number of press conferences in different forms, settings and locations to meet the media in an open and direct manner. For example, for many years, after the delivery of the Policy Address he met the media in a restaurant run by the mentally disabled and at the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre. On these occasions, he explained to journalists the policies and initiatives relating to environmental protection in the Policy Address. He also chaired a press conference on the Scheme of Control Agreements of the two power companies in the Information Services Department.  Prior to his departure for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last year, he met the media in the form of a tea gathering to brief them on Hong Kong’s strategies and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  
Whenever an important green policy is introduced, the Secretary always meets reporters either in the Central Government Offices or at the office of the Environment Bureau to explain policy details and answer media enquiries.
During all the aforesaid meet-the-media events, press members of various media organisations were invited to attend.   
As for ad hoc incidents and issues of public concern, the Secretary also calls and attends radio and TV programmes spontaneously to answer promptly queries raised by programme hosts and members of the public.

In most of the significant environment policies, only standup arrangements for the minister to say a few words and answer few questions from the press were arranged, without providing any information on the new policies to the reporters before or during such “impromptu” sessions. Then, reporters are told an off record background briefing would be held later and the minister would refuse to be put on record what he said in the briefing.

Apart from reaction at some public functions, ironically, the environment minister, who is the former head of government information services, seldom hold press conferences to announce new environment policies.

On rare occasions, for example, at a media gathering in a café, the environment minister allow reporters to quote him on record for the first time he took the office in 2007, which is about role of Hong Kong government on global climate talk before he headed to Copenhagen.

Foiling Government Manipulation

“The essence of these off record background briefing is to avoid public accountability, it reflects lack of confidence of officials,” Ma Ngok, associate professor of Government and Public Administration department, Chinese University of Hong Kong, says.

On the perspective of governance, the trend in the increasing use of off record briefing is an “unhealthy” way to collect public views towards government policies, Ma said. As the public can only have piecemeal information on those policies from the media, it cannot help to facilitate high quality discussion on policies.

“Surely government sees it as a way to manipulate the media, but I doubt its effectiveness,” he added. Ma said media might not take the government views especially if government clearly wants to implant it in their stories.

Journalism academic says it is damaging the credibility of media reporting if increasing numbers of reports are found quoting from sources or unknown officials.

“Journalists do not have a duty to serve the government,” To Yiu-ming, assistant professor of Journalism Department, Baptist University, said.

He noted that there might be difficulties uniting all the media to boycott these background briefings as their organizations have different stances and interests. He suggested that journalists should fight to point out that their information come from off-record government briefings, which could help readers to better understand their source of information.

In addition, journalists should stick to professional standards and ask critical questions at such briefings, in the same way as journalists do at press conferences, he said.

“Keep in mind to follow the issue after the briefing, and report any case of official denying what he/she said at a briefing,” To said.

Remarks from The Journalist

The use of off record background briefings by government infringes upon the public’s right to know about government policies. An open, transparent and accountable government should face up to the public, tell them what the government is doing and plans to do in the future instead of hiding in a room to announce its measures in an anonymous way.

The media, as the fourth estate of society, must be responsible for monitoring the government instead of being part of the government propaganda machine. This is the time for us to review whether we should continue to allow such unreasonable requests for off-record briefings and unite to find a way out and stop this practice.