News veteran: Raise questions on behalf of the people

Chan Wai Ling

[Mar 2012 - The Journalist] Journalists face all sorts of PR strategies in the course of their work. One of the most common of these PR “rules” involves “no camera, no recorder and no quoting”. But there are many other “tricks”.

Media veteran Sham Yee-lan said journalists should respect organisers’ arrangements, but they should also “take action” if they are unreasonably obstructed from carrying out their work.
They should get together to put pressure on the organisers to ensure there is a response to their requests, she said.

Sham, who covered political news of mainland China and Hong Kong when she was a frontline reporter, shared her most memorable experience which related to the late Chinese leader Hu Yaobang.

In the early 80s, the discussion on Sino-British Joint Declaration was in full swing. During the meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in 1984, Hu, the then-party general secretary, offered to meet the Hong Kong press in Zhongnanhai. Journalists were excited about the surprise interview with the party leader.

CLP press conference

There were many reporters but limited meeting time and every one wanted to ask questions. So they decided to have a rare cooperation among themselves in order to ensure they got the most out of the meeting.

“Journalists cooperated voluntarily. Every one wrote down one’s own questions. They then classified and rearranged them, with the most important questions put in the front. During the meeting, senior reporters fired the questions first and others followed up,” Sham said, adding that this allowed journalists to gain most news material in a limited time.

She also cited another situation when journalists were asked to submit questions in advance. Once again they teamed up and learnt about the questions to be raised by each of them. As a result, they were clear about which questions were answered and which were not. If the interviewee evaded some questions, “[we] usually write another article to tell the truth and allow the public to understand the real situation,” Sham said.

Sham said journalists normally respect organiser’s arrangements. They would be happy to cooperate if they were not blocked from covering the news because organisers have the right to choose how to release the news.

However, she could not understand certain arrangements for the press conference about the increase in electricity tariffs proposed by CLP Group in December last year.

Use collective power

CLP Group orginally proposed a rise of 9.2 per cent but later adjusted the rise to 4.9 per cent after a public backlash. But in a press conference attended by vice-chairwoman Betty Yuen So Siu-mei, the PR from CLP Group said as time was limited, questions would be grouped and answered in one-go. But after three or four questions Yuen did not answer every question, she just chose to answer some and omitted the rest. The unanswered questions included whether the data submitted by CLP to support the rise had misled the public, and if CLP strategically asked for an extreme percentage increase at the beginning.
Yuen gave the impression of evading sensitive questions throughout the press conference. In fact, journalists attending the conference were dissatisfied with the arrangements. They repeatedly pressed for answers but failed to get any satisfactory response.
Sham pointed out that CLP seldom treated media in such a way and believed it was because the response to the tariff increase was relatively negative.
When journalists are faced with such a situation, they should raise their concerns as soon as possible, or interrupt the interviewee. But they should show no fear.
Asking questions is the duty of journalists, and they should ask on behalf of citizens. Sham said journalists should be more proactive and try to seize the initiative during an interview in unfavourable circumstances.
She added that although the media industry is competitive, journalists should cooperate and use their collective power to put pressure on the involved parties.