Journalists got caught from URA’s Oak Street Project

Mak Yin-ting - Editorial Board Member, The Journalist     (Translated by Simon Lee)

[Apr 2013 - The Journalist“We didn’t intend to put this landlord on the spot. I think he made the right decision, taking into consideration the bigger picture and the well-being of some 300 households. I applaud his decision. I thank the landlord and the media’s support on behalf of the URA. This is a Christmas miracle in Hong Kong.”

This declaration by Urban Renewal Authority (URA) chairman Barry Cheung actually had a sting in it, making the media out to be the culprit in pushing for the sale of a retail space at 87 Oak Street. Some fellow journalists feel we fell into a trap on this story.

What is worrying is the way Cheung put pressure on the landlord through the media. This practice contrasts with the URA’s usual confidentiality rule. Yet, Cheung told Ming Pao in January that he would do it again if a similar situation arose. Meaning he will continue to exploit the media for his own ends?

Frankly, everybody tries to use the media for his or her own ends. There is no way that a reporter will let go of such a story. But how can one report the story while making sure that the property owner’s rights is not jeopardized when threatened by powerful authority? We must understand what is behind it all and avoid falling into such a trap.

Be careful of those who play with words

To start at the beginning.  Before Cheung and the URA management met with the media on Dec. 21, the Oriental Daily had reported the near-collapse of the Oak Street project. The report made no mention of the ownership issues, only that the project might fail because some owners were not willing to sell.

As the issue had already come to light, reporters naturally followed up during the lunch meeting. URA managing director Quinn Law revealed that the project involved four plots and that URA had already secured 90 percent consent from the owners of three plots. The remaining site at 87 Oak Street had the consent of all resident owners. But these accounted for only 72 percent of total owners. The remaining 28 percent belonged to the shop owner. Talks with him had stalled over the price.

Reporters recall that Cheung did not say how much the owner was asking, only  that it was “in the multiples”. RTHK’s website and Sing Tao Daily reported the next day that the difference was “in the multiples” of the URA’s offered price. In fact the asking price was, at most, double the URA’s offer.

So how did a doubling of the price turn into “multiples”? The general understanding is that it should multiply, and therefore some of our colleagues went with “multiple times”. Going by the letter, Cheung wasn’t wrong. Only he will know whether if he had been deliberately fuzzy in his words. We must be cautious when dealing with people who love to play with words.

Our duty as the watchful fourth estate

This kind of partly-hidden approach is vulnerable to being led by the source to a certain perspective. For example, is the difference between the bidding and asking prices based on square footage relating to floor area, or is it due to special circumstances such shopping space on a mezzanine floor? To simply rely on the price difference to say that the owner is jacking up the price is tilting the balance in favour of those who orchestrate a media campaign.

I tried to contact the landlord to get his views on this but his wife refused and gave up their chance to respond. The tenant’s mother, Mrs Chow, said the landlord told her their disagreement focused on the size of the space, with the owner maintaining its some 600 square feet while the URA would only recognize about 400 square feet. The owner got an estimated value of $23 million and was willing to lower to $20 million after negotiations with the URA, yet it was still at a considerable way from the authority’s offer.

That this involved a mezzanine floor explains why the owner asked for more than the URA’s offer, according to the tenant. The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors spokesman, Tony Wan, explained that if the mezzanine floor was not an unauthorized modification, it would have increased the value of the unit. But if it was an illegal structure then the URA would not have recognized it and would have  offered less because of the demolition costs involved. Unfortunately, none of these questions could be addressed in time given the speed of online news delivery these days. Yet, shouldn’t journalists raise such issues in their reports and mention the potential factors affecting the price, so that the audiences can give further thought to it?

The Oak Street “miracle” makes us realize the influence of our words. If we fail to make the right call, we risk hurting the rights of others. We must therefore be cautious when reporting, and avoid simply taking people’s words without giving careful thought. Otherwise we could be led by those who have an agenda and fail in our duty as the watchful fourth estate.