Spin doctors tussle in Chief Executive election

Chong Hiu-yeung, General Secretary, HKJA

[中文] [Jul 2012 - The Journalist] "The Tang vs. Leung contest was a fake election run with genuine emotion," wrote Joseph Lian, columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Because of the genuine emotion, it attracted a large audience and wide coverage in the mass media.

The mass media have always been a major battleground in real elections because of their power to sway public opinion. Despite the nature of this Chief Executive "election", both camps spared no effort to toy with journalists.

Here are some of the tactics used:

1. Build up links with chief editors or even owners of media outlets even before the contest got off the ground.

2. Downplay negative news as tidbits and criticize reporters for being biased and inexperienced.

3. Persuade reporters to investigate possible scandals of the opponent.

Mr Leung Chun-ying visit a district, followed by reporters.
(Photograph Courtesy of Ming Pao)
4. Persuade political and business heavyweights who supported the candidate to spread word in favour of the candidate.

5. Indirectly pressure green reporters by asking them "Have you got instructions from your boss yet?" or, more blatantly, telling them: "Your boss and I are good friends";

6. Revenge in various ways on media organisations deemed to be “unfriendly” or “hostile”, e.g. showing unfriendly gestures to reporters from those media organisations at public functions, deprive those reporters of the opportunity to ask questions at press conferences held by their candidate, not returning calls until midnight so that reporters do not have enough time to handle answers to their queries before the editorial deadline, or simply giving empty answers to reporters' questions.

An intriguing tactic was also observed during the campaign. Public relations officers from each camp would suggest to reporters that they contact public figures known to be adverse to interviews by the media. On being contacted these figures readily agree to meet the reporter. Readers are not informed of such behind-the-scene operations, thus mistaking these PR stunts for exclusively interviews independently conducted by the reporters concerned.

Both camps hired former senior journalists as members of their PR teams. They are friends, former colleagues or even former bosses of many frontline reporters and may appear in the newsroom any time on the pretext of visiting old colleagues. With their personal ties these PR persons can easily convey subtle messages to reporters.

In December when Leung Chun-ying called at the central government's liaison office some of his people “leaked” to reporters that Henry Tang had also paid a visit there. It is understood that senior management staff of some pro-Tang media outlets then told their reporters that it was sheer speculation spread by the Leung camp and they therefore need not ask Tang about it.

In contrast, pro-Leung media outlets were excited to hear this tip-off and spent much effort to follow it up. The contrary attitudes of different media organisations towards the question of whether Tang had visited the liaison office is worth noting. It was later confirmed that he had actually paid such a visit.

Was the decision not to raise such a question an independent decision made by some media organisations? Or was it the result of suggestions from the Tang camp? I leave to readers to judge.

In another move the Tang camp told journalists of a media organization that somebody from the Leung camp was involved in a sex scandal. They firmly insisted that this "scandal" would be exposed in the Sing Tao the next day and encouraged that media organization to follow up with this piece of 'news' so that it could be spread more widely. However, the Sing Tao carried no such a story the next day. But some days later it ran a report which vaguely mentioned that the candidate was involved in personal misconduct. It appears that the paper could not find concrete evidence to support its allegation.

On the other side, the Leung camp had the help of a “volunteer” who used to be a senior political journalist. Regarded as a “big sister” by frontline reporters, she often attended Henry Tang's campaign press conferences - although she was no longer in the media industry.

Sometimes she would 'teach" reporters at these press conferences what questions they should ask Tang. Outside of these events, she would send mobile phone messages to reporters, quoting criticisms of Tang by various people. A reporter told that this 'volunteer' would sometimes call up journalists to ask about C. Y. Leung's schedule.

A really slick act came from the Leung camp. Former Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong to prove that the candidate did not propose “the mobilisation of riot police against protesters” nor did he suggest “the reduction of Commercial Radio's licence renewal period” to muzzle freedom of speech.

Yeoh seldom spoke to media after his resignation in 2003 and most reporters do not know how to find him.

According to sources, Leung camp informed some media on 19 March that Yeoh and Charles Lee Yeh-kwong could be interviewed. Their contact numbers were provided as well. One media did not follow up because they believe this arrangement was a PR publicity rather than a news.

However, TVB news broadcast an interview with Yeoh the same day. Ming Pao, Oriental Daily News and South China Morning Post also published Yeoh's comments a day later.

"The former Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong replied that he could not comment on matters discussed in the Executive Council. But according to his memory, no one talked about mobilising riot police and using tear gas, etc," Ming Pao reported.

"The former Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong confirmed that no one raised the suggestion of mobilizing riot police against anti-article 23 legislation protestors. Government did not expect so many people to join the protest." This was from Oriental Daily News.

"Article 23 of the Basic Law was a major piece of legislation that the
government wanted to complete back then. But I do not recall anyone in the Exco making such remarks," Yeoh said. This was in the South China Morning Post.

Other newspapers, including Sing Tao, Metro Daily, am 730, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Hong Kong Daily News and Wen Wei Po also quoted Yeoh's words in a similar manner. Sing Tao reported that the source was from a television news. The other five newspapers probably copied the interview from TVB as well.

Of course some reporters may have Yeoh's contact number. However it is most unlikely that an extremely low-profile former official would suddenly be interviewed by more than one news media. It is quite sensible to think that Yeoh's interview was arranged by someone behind the scene.

Yeoh did not support Leung publicly. Most people would agree that Yeoh is more credible than former official Arthur Li who nominated Leung for the election and Regina Ip who was in charge of the national security legislation. Some reporters also supposed that Yeoh clarified for Leung independently but did not realise that it might merely be electioneering spin.

For reporters and news media, the CE election was a hard lesson. The level of spin and smearing were extraordinarily skillful and was above the level of Hong Kong politicians. The media did not do what Joseph Lian suggested: analyse situation impartially, refrain from praising any candidate and should not join either camp, nor campaign for any candidate.

The next time the chief executive election comes around we hope the media will improve in quality and coverage.