The Vice Tightens: Putting Spot News on the Spot

“Dang Fat Cho”,  Spot news reporter
Translated by Melanie Wan

Next year will be a critical year for Hong Kong media working on spot news. The Fire Services Department will formally launch a Third Generation Mobilizing System of radio communication. Like the system adopted by the police, the new digital system will block interceptions, hence cutting the lifeline of spot news reporters who rely on information tapped from ambulance calls. It is a matter of survival. In future, the sound of ambulance calls ringing out in newsrooms will become a sound of the past – no more on-the-spot reports of road accidents, assaults and homicides will be possible, the sources of spot news will sharply decrease, not to mention the graphic photos that usually accompany such reporting.

We need to vigorously express our views not only because news sources are diminishing and this will inevitably affect the whole industry. More important, vital important information concerning the public will be screened off. Society will appear to be “calm and peaceful” without spot news. But, in reality, will this lower the crime rate? Will Hong Kong people be safer and happier? More worrying: will we get the kind of harmonious society we want, building on the people's right to know about ordinary citizens being exploited? Most media outlets have already “taken sides” as far as political news is concerned. Is Big Brother now reaching out to switch off spot news?

Let me cite a clear and relevant example. A couple of months ago, instances of tampering with HSBC ATMs were exposed by the media. People were being cheated, defrauded. But it was only after the media had exposed these cases that things began to move. The police, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and the bank itself seemed ready to ignore these incidents. They had gone to the extent of holding back new measures to enhance ATM security. In fact they had delayed these measures for two years. Media exposure spurred immediate action and the new measures were in place shortly afterwards. This is a very serious problem. Why should the vulnerable general public be kept in the dark? On what grounds should the police, HKMA and the bank decide what you and I ought to or ought not to know?

Spot News Highlights Important Social Issues  

On the first day in journalism school we are told by our teachers that news can be divided into two groups: general and spot. The former are political, economic and education news, etc. Spot news includes those incidents that break out suddenly, like car accidents, homicides and robberies. In fact, spot news has a major social element: in 1990’s there were news stories about gangs spiking drinks and robberies in lifts. In the new millennium, there were street crimes where old people were targeted; cheated of large sums of money by exploiting their dreams, tricked into buying medicines    or electronic machines that were really fakes. In more recent years, ketamine abuse has been widespread in schools. These are all important social issues, which have made headline stories. As a result the general public’s awareness has since been raised, and people have learnt to protect themselves.

What is ridiculous is that even when the problems have been exposed by the reporters, the authorities will act to play it down. Take ketamine abuse for instance; it was first uncovered and reported in 1998 as a new soft drug. It has outgrown other drugs to become the most abused drug by youngsters. The standard answer you get from the police and the Customs when challenged by the media on the seriousness of the problem is “With more investigations, we shall be able to make more arrests.” However, the figures tell it all. If you think you can simply rely on the administration to tell the truth about the social problems, you have to be a little too simple, or naïve”

Before the coming of the “ice age”, the major sources of spot news were from intercepting radio communications of the police and the Fire Services Department. With a little bit of luck, reporters will arrive at the scene of a crime or an accident even earlier than the police, hence are able to take the first photos. For spot news, time is crucial. It is all about the first photos taken of the scene at the earliest time possible. As we all know, a picture worth a thousand words.

Spot news saw its golden age in the 1990’s. Apart from the competition between the motorised crews of the “compass point” daily and the “fruit” daily, other newspapers were also drawn into the battle. During that time, reporters would compare the content and photos in the newspapers the next day to find out the winner and the loser, which was exciting indeed.
The First Step Towards Control of Spot News

The police launched the Third Generation Command and Control Communications System in late 2004 to replace the analog radio system with a digital one. The media could no longer intercept police communications, marking the decline of the spot news coverage. They now can only look to the information released by the Police Public Relation Bureau (PPRB) for news, in order to stay at their jobs. The Police have essentially controlled all information dissemination. Worse, PPRB is employing delaying tactics: the news it hands out is never early, no earlier than one hour after the incident. If there is anything at the scene that the police want to hide from the media and the public, it now has sufficient time to “clean things up”.

According to figures collected by the Hong Kong Journalists Association between 2004 and 2005, it was found that after the launching of the digital communication system, “the more serious the incident, the longer the delay in news disseminated”. In one homicide case, PPRB delayed the release by six hours and twenty one minutes. Even reporters got there right away, it was too late for any photos or interviews.

Another annoyance for the media: PPRB has been selective, releasing only minor car accidents or ordinary burglaries, which are simply “no big deal”. Serious cases are generally not on their information list, and it is always not easy to make a news story out of the trivia released. The media has more than once raised their concerns with PPRB, but there have been little improvement.
Following the blockage of information by the police, the media switched to intercepting the communications of the Fire Services Department which is still using an analog system. Thus ambulance or fire engine calls have become the most important source for spot news. These calls are always linked to fires, assaults and homicides. The media will have very good chance of getting a story out of it by chasing down the calls.

Total Control of Public Information by the Government  

Regretfully, the Fire Services Department will switch to the Third Generation Fire Dispatch System next year, hence blocking the media from intercepting their communications. The “official” sources for spot news hardly remain, which will make life very difficult for reporters. Fortunately, technological advancement has allowed many citizens to take the initiative to inform the media, feeding them with first hand photos. This has shed light on the gloomy future. However, the citizens are affected by their reading habits when determining which newspaper to approach, which will give those “popular” newspapers a competitive edge over smaller-circulation newspapers.

In recent years, the media have tried to present a broader picture to readers, using simulated pictures to explain what has happened, or to explain with side stories the cause and possible precautions. This approach will help to enrich spot news coverage, enabling them to survive a little longer.  

In this critical time, many spot news desks have frozen their manpower. Many reporters know that when the new communications system of the Fire Services Department is in place, news sources will wither, media outlets will cut labour. Lay-offs will be inevitable,.

Will “Hexie” Marks the End of Spot News Reporting? 

“Hexie” means harmony in Putonghua. Does a harmonious society necessarily bring peace?
No news is good news, according to some people. Even if there is none or only a few incidences of crime, does it necessarily mean that the society is safe and peaceful?

In fact, spot news coverage has decreased sharply in recent years. There are fewer, or essentially no, reports on serious robbery cases. However, is it true that sex crimes, indecent assaults, rapes or frauds never occurred? The general public may have to wait till after suspects have been arrested by the police, charged by the Department of Justice, and the case heard in court, before they learn that such a crime had taken place. That may take years. I hope you are not the next victim of similar crimes before it comes to light.

Perhaps in future, there will only be press conferences arranged by the police, championing stories of success like “XX thieves arrested, XX cases were stopped.” Or like what happens on the Mainland, where reporters are led by police to witness how crimes are stopped, and are then allowed to take photos as freely as they like. But will it be the true picture?
Who has the right to take away our right to know?