Government's off-the-record briefings continue to flourish

Chong Hiu-yeung - General Secretary, HKJA

[中文][Jan 2011 - The Journalist] According to the information that we collected from journalists, there were nine briefings from late Dec 2010 to late March. These were in various formats(See table). Some were held right after stand-up briefings. Some were supplementary background information briefings after a press conference. One was tea gathering organized by an official.

For the briefing held by the Planning Department on explanation of “Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary”, the electronic media were not invited, photographing was not permitted but the name of the source could be quoted.

Names of the officials could be quoted at the briefings of Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau and Labour Department. All media were invited and reporters could take photographs before and after the briefings. The only difference from a press conference was no photo taking and recording during the briefing.

Besides the Hong Kong Observatory's announcements on the weather and related issues and the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department's operational announcements, there were around twenty press conferences in the same period(see table). However, half of these were routine, including designated officials meeting with media, job reviews of last year and the Annual Budget.

The government did not hold any press conference on some significant policies and issues of public concern which had arisen, such as transport allowance for working across districts, sites for columbarium development and design of the West Kowloon project. On the contrary, brief stand ups were arranged for Cheung Kin-chung, Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Dr. York Chow, Secretary for Food and Health and Mr. Henry Tang, Chief Secretary for Administration.

According to media reports all off-the-record briefings quoted a ‘spokesperson of the policy bureau’ except those briefings held by the Environment Bureau and West Kowloon, which quoted‘sources cited’.

There were numerous off-record briefings. According to journalists, the Environment Bureau called an off-record briefing for reporters to provide an in-depth explanation about the policy right after the press conference on Jan 4. Then a meeting with senior management was arranged. Two off-record briefings were even called by West Kowloon Board members after Chief Secretary Henry Tang answered the questions about the design of the West Kowloon project. One was for frontline journalists and another one for senior editors.

Probably due to the fact that there were no shocking inside stories from those briefings, not all media organizations sent their senior staffs for the off-the-record briefings. For example, Apple Daily sent the same reporter to both brief stand up with Henry Tang and the two off-the-record briefings.

There were two notable off-the-record briefings. According to reporters present one briefing was held on Feb. 28 arranged by Eva Cheng, Secretary for Transport and Housing, where the information on the Waiting List of Public Rental Housing could be quoted. However, what she said about the property market and My Home Purchase Plan could only be referred to as “sources cited.”

Why did the Planning Department invite only the print media to the briefing and did not allow any photos to be taken? The spokesperson explained that the Department had called the briefing mainly because some journalists from newspapers said they did not fully grasp the content of the “Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary”, which was causing public concern. The briefing was held in order to answer enquiries.

The spokesperson also said that they issued a press release on the same day to explain the aims of study to the public and the media, adding that they would like to listen to public opinions continuously.

It is government’s duty to let people know and understand policies. We hope the government holds less ‘off the record’ briefings and more open press conferences which is the only way to protect the people’s right to know.