Unsettling "off-the record" Issue...Not Quite Settled

The Journalist

The previous issue of The Journalist of 18th July caught the attention of newspapers and radio stations. The cover story, ‘Government Briefs Out the Press Conference’ also put pressure on senior government officials. One official claimed that there was no intention to hide from the media. Another shrugged off criticism at a background briefing, declaring: “What is 'off the record' briefings? I don’t understand!”

The Secretary for Environment Edward Yau even rang the hosts of Commercial Radio programme, The Tipping Point on July 19 in reaction to the report of The Journalist.

Edward Yau declared that in the past three years, he responded to reporters’ queries 52 times at ‘stand ups’ (it means briefly answering reporters’ question in public), 6 times at press conferences and he spoke on 73 radio programmes.

However, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Mak Yin-ting pointed out in the same radio program that press conferences were necessary and could not be replaced by ‘stand up’ occasions because reporters did not have enough time to raise questions at public venue as only a few questions could be asked.

The guest host of The Tipping Point, the ex-Secretary for Commerce, Industry & Technology Bureau Joseph Wong said that 6 press conferences organized in three years was not enough, because apart from the press conference on the policy address annually, he actually only held 3 press conferences, it meant one press conference per year. “It is a bit little,” according to him.

Wong also said, “The trend is that the government officials arrange fewer press conferences and the number of ‘stand up’ increases.” He hoped that the government officials could engage with the public through news media and promote a new political culture of openness. However, Yau did not make any promises.

On the same day, the Secretary of Transport and Housing Bureau Eva Cheng coincidentally held a background briefing to explain the additional measures to regulate the sale of property. As we understand it, she denied that she was holding an ‘off the record’ briefing. However when reporters requested her to speak on the record, she insisted that she be quoted as ‘spokesman of Transport and Housing Bureau’.

Eva Cheng played the role of the Information Officer, but she earns much more than her junior colleagues. How do other Information Officers feel about that?

The Secretary of Development Bureau, Carrie Lam had a tea-gathering with reporters the next day. She explained that officials asked to be quoted as “spokesperson” because they were “concerned that her junior colleagues would suffer from insomnia if they were quoted by reporters. It would affect their mental health if they were under too much pressure.”

Although these government officials insisted that they had reason to do so, the number of “off the record” briefings had decreased from mid-June to early September. Apart from typhoons, seizure of counterfeit goods and anti-smuggling missions, the government held nearly 20 press conferences.

“Matter of different interpretation”

The problem has partly improved but it is still far from ideal because some controversial policies with enormous public concerns, such as the land supply for columbarium, the sale of remaining Home Ownership Scheme flats and additional measures to regulate the sale of property were still announced through “off the record” briefings rather than the press conferences.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association met the Director of Information Services Michael Wong on 9 August to discuss this issue. Wong said the government had no intention of replacing press conferences with “off the record” briefings. He agreed in principle that important policies should be announced at press conferences. As to whether a policy is regarded as important or otherwise, the government and the media may have different interpretations, but he said the gap could be narrowed through interaction.

Wong also pointed out that, after The Journalist voiced out the media’s concern over ‘off the record’ briefings, certain officials had acknowledged the worry. Some reporters also asked officials during the “off the record” briefings why the officials did not hold a press conference. He said that officials had adjusted in accordance with reporters’ requests, thus demonstrating that civil servants and principal officials reacted positively to their appeals and the media could “listen to their words and watch their deeds.”

The Journalist suggests that reporters look at whether government officials are abusing background briefings. We will, meanwhile, continue monitoring developments. Let’s see when “off the record” briefings are stopped and government officials begin to announce policies in a fair and open setting.