Back from the dead...?

Grace Kong - Political Editor, Hong Kong Economic Journal

[中文][Jul 2012 - The Journalist] It is said that Xin Wan Bao, which closed down 15 years ago, is going to be published again. The talk also goes that this revived pro-Beijing newspaper will join the ranks of the freebies in a saturated market, not for profit, but to strengthen the voice of the pro-Beijing camp.

According to some seasoned newsmen a key factor in its revival is inspiration from the Chief Executive election. It seems that the election campaign showed that the media has a big impact and can turn things around, so it is necessary to get strong and firm support from the media.

The media scene has been rather strange for quite a while now. There's no denying that the media does influence public views on issues of the day, and even politicians' stand do change with the ebb and flow of the political tide. However, the status of journalism in Hong Kong does not rank very high.

The turnover rate of the reporters is high and the salary level is sinking lower and lower. Still, there are reporters who choose to stay even though they can find better paid jobs. That may be because the reporter's job is challenging and meaningful. Nowadays, There are even more challenges, yet more and more people doubt that it is meaningful.

Leung Chun-ying, was elected with 689 votes.
(Photograph Courtesy of Ming Pao)
One characteristic of the recent Chief Executive election was the abundance of scandals. Besides Albert Ho Chun-yan, who could never have won, both candidates from the pro-Beijing camp – Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying – were hit by various scandals.

One candidate claimed he was exhausted handling so many scandals. In fact, reporters were exhausted too. In addition they needed to follow up the scandals which hit Chief Executive Donald Tsang who was found to have been showered with luxury treatment by powerful tycoons. The reporters just didn't have the time to even glance at the platform of the candidates.

Moreover, people believed that the one who won the election did not win because he put up a better platform but because he had the support of the Chinese government. So not many people were interested in the platforms and did not discuss them. No one expected that Leung Chun-ying would claim he had consulted the public on reforming the government structure during the election campaign as he has done since.

However, the most disappointing thing is not the lack of discussion of candidates' platforms. It is that the media obviously became a player in the election instead of a bystander.

From outsider to participant

I say ' obviously' because we believe that journalists are no different from ordinary people. They are journalists because they pay more attention to current affairs. It is normal for journalists to have their own political views.

During the first Chief Executive election in 1996, there were four candidates and reporters might have personally supported Yang Ti-liang, Tung Chee-hwa and Woo Kwong-ching. But when on the job they tried to be impartial and didn't express any preference.

There were scandals in that election, too. Fewer, but they were handled more carefully. For example Lo Tak-Shing, who wanted to be one of the candidates in 1996, was found to be holding a Chinese passport to show his loyalty to the Chinese Government, and the copy of his passport was published in the newspapers.

I remember that at the later stage of the election, one of the Preparatory Committee member who had a high social status, chatted with the reporters about who he supported and also the scandal of another candidate, relating to his close ties with a foreign government.

At the end he reminded the reporters not to mention him as the source, saying that “Even if you say that the source was me, I would deny it.” Such black materials were much more potent than the extramarital affairs, but were difficult to prove. Finally the “scandals” did not materialise in print. It might have been that the motive of this politician was too obvious and people at the time still thought that the news of scandal should be supported by facts.

A source is not a fact

This time around some scandals were supported by facts. For example the illegal building works at Tang's house and Leung's conflict of interest in the West Kowloon Cultural District design competition etc. It is the responsibility of the media to report news.

However, some of the reports were not based on facts but mere rumours thrown out about as hints. For example when some newspaper said that Tang was involved in an affair and asked Mrs.Tang whether the other woman was a former subordinate of Tang. Although media reported that Mrs.Tang did not know which woman was referred to, some reports were made in such a way that readers came to believe that the other woman had an affair with Tang.

Thereafter some newspapers reported about the 'red wine girl' and his illegitimate daughter. No evidence was ever found.

Besides fabrications, most newspapers had their own stand point. Both candidates had their own supporting media. When there was negative news about the opposing camp, they would cover it extensively, while those supporting the opposite camp would try to explain for him and play down it. As a result, when “the meal with mafia” made the headlines, the opposing camp made the gang member seem respectable.

Some foreign media also took sides during the election campaign. For example, some people said that the attitude of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation might affect the results of the election. However, such media would say which candidate it supported and would never dodge or hide from its readers its own views about the various candidates. Otherwise it would be unfair to the readers and make people suspicious of its views.

As a result of all these goings-on, the credibility of the media, rather than the standing of the candidates, was damaged.

When journalists talk about how the news was reported during the election campaign most will sigh. A senior journalist said that the fairest newspapers in this election were the three pro-Beijing newspapers during the period when the Chinese Government had not made up its mind about which candidate it preferred. How pathetic!

When the reporters talked to their sources about the election they found the sources dissatisfied or puzzled about the reporting of the election campaign. Some scholars even asked “Why has it become so ugly?”

We cannot go back to correct our mistakes, but we hope we can improve in the future.