Criticizing the Hong Kong Media

Criticizing Electronic Media (Super-Extra-Long Version).  By Chu Hoidick.  InMediaHK, November 13, 2005.

[In translation]

I don't know how I ended up in the middle of this industry (but I definitely did not deliberately try to avoid it).  When I graduated from university, I thought that international news was more important than Hong Kong and China news, so I was dumb enough to get a job editing international news at a newspaper.  I did not realize that international news mattered only marginally both in the page position as well as office position (very far away from the editor-in-chief's office such that I will never ever get the Best Contributor award at the newspaper). 

For now, I had no choice but to find work at a radio station where I have the night owl's time slot when I don't see the light of day.  But this job is somehow different from the one at the newspaper, because I have more opportunities to observe how the mainstream media operate with respect to local Hong Kong news.  Since I have nothing to do all night, I get to think about these strange ideas.  Previously, I had criticized the international news section.  This time, I will discuss what happens with local and China news.

Let me explain what we do during the night shift at our radio station.  Basically, the news is divided into financial and non-financial news.  The financial news is taken care by one or two persons.  The non-financial news is taken care by one person, and that would be me.  Besides writing, we alternate every half hour to report the news.  The financial news colleague reports on the hour, and the non-financial news person reports on the half-hour.  The so-called non-financial news covers anything and everything, but it is mostly international news because it is daytime in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.  I have previously discussed international news, so I will omit any discussion here.  What about local Hong Kong news?  But what local Hong Kong news is there?  Since there is only one person who has to get on the air on schedule, he is not going to go out into the field to gather news.  So it is like a nestling waiting to be fed.

Perhaps I ought to summarize my viewpoint briefly: it is often said that the media constitute the fourth power to monitor the government.  That is a deceptive (or at least inaccurate) positioning.  I believe that this so-called monitoring is a pre-defined monitoring that will not question the mainstream values in society.  Instead, its function is to monitor the government to more effectively realize those mainstream values.  Of course, there are many variations of this theme.

(1) The ranting on night radio

Many people have heard that the media illegally install radio systems to "intercept" police communication in order to obtain first-hand information on breaking news.  In this era, the police have switched over to a digital communication system, so this is a thing of the past.  This was a huge change in operational mode, as this is an important reason why the news went from digging, competing and following up to being mouth-fed.  If one cannot listen in on the police channel (as far as I know, the new system does not cover all of Hong Kong as yet, so intercepts can still occur), then one has to wait for the Police Public Relations Department to "notify" you about what is happening and then you can assign someone to follow up or else you just wait for the official version.

The "notice" is highly problematic.  First of all, the police notice is irregular and "arbitrary" (and you don't know if it is really "arbitrary" or intentionally "arbitrary").  That is to say, they may not notify you about a really big case, but they will always tell you about someone jumping off the roof.  They will tell you that a window fell down the street in Honghom, but they won't tell you that a whole bed fell down the street in Tuen Men.  They will tell you that the electric fan of some grandma caught fire, but they won't tell you that several hundred people had to be evacuated when a fire broke out at a housing estate.  So you ask me how you would know if they won't notify you?  That is because certain television stations have the means and can find out by some other way.  So when I see it on television, I call the police.  If I ask them, they will tell me.

Above all, the police wants you to know that they are "doing something."  Everybody must notice that every morning -- no matter whether you are watching TVBS, ATV or Cable News -- there is always a bunch of scantily clad women in a row with hands on the person in front, or a whole group of men wearing black hoods being escorted into wagons by police officer wearing garments that have the letters POLICE.  

These stories will always read like: at early morning, the police special squad in West Kowloon conducted anti-crime/anti-prostitution/anti-soccer-gambling action, and arrested X males and Y females between the ages of 15 and 70 in the Mongkok/Yaumati districts.  The individuals are suspected of managing places of ill-repute/enticing others to engage in immoral conduct/violating immigration conditions of stay/possessing weapons of deadly assault.

We don't even have to write these scripts, because the police would have done it for us already and then the news readers can read it off as a headliner in the usual manner.  These reports are so formulaic that they are like the background music in movies, like the scene in the movie Happy Together when Tony Leung looked back at Hong Kong.  I asked a colleague whether he thought that this was inane, and he said that the most important thing for television stations is to have televised footage.  (I will return to this point later).

I have wondered whether many of my readers are likely to be gangster types.  Do gangsters listen to radio?  Do the brothel 'keepers' (=pimps) listen in to see if there are problems elsewhere.  "Hey, the 14X site in Tuen Men was raided!"  "I heard it on the radio."  Or would the prostitute patrons be my listeners?  "The karaoke night club at number 380 Nathan Road in Yaumati?  The one that Ah Keung wanted me to go there with him?  We better find another place!"

Perhaps it will be possible for the triads to run public relations as well to inform us when they are having a fight.  For example, "our organization Wo X Wo announces that we will be meeting with the organization 14X at the Silver Dragon Teahouse on Saiyeungchoi Street in Mongkok concerning the divvying up of interests from the protection racket on Women's Street.  The entire section of Saiyeungchoi Street between Dundas Street and Argyle Street is a potential zone for chopping people.  Representatives of the organizations will be there to maintain order."  Then everyone else can stay away, and this is much better than reporting "how many mainland Chinese females between the ages of something and something else were arrested" in terms of benefiting citizens.  It is an important mission for the electronic media to report news that facilitate the smooth functioning of this city.

Digression: Every night, many people commit suicide and there are many "someone fell from a high place" reports.  When I listen to the ghost stories from our station and then I see this type of news notice, I try to imagine the suicide scene.  According to people who live in housing estates, if you hear a loud "bang" in the middle of the night, you know that someone had just jumped.  When I see "someone fell from a high place," I can hear that sound of "bang."  When the day gets bright, the grandmas and grandpas go for their morning exercises by the harbor water and then they find the floating corpses -- one, two, three ...  When someone jumps into the sea in Chai Wan at 3am, their bodies will float to Wanchai by 6am.  Most suicides occur between 3am and 4am.  It is not easy to find a time to commit suicide quietly in Hong Kong.

Every morning, we get up and we turn on the television or radio. Every night, dozens of people are arrested.  It never ends, and that is why they keep arresting people every night.  The city never stops.  Therefore, we do not mind watching the same old scene about sex workers being arrested every day.

(2) The infantile local Hong Kong news reporting

I have never worked as a local Hong Kong news reporter, so the following criticism may be unfair.  But I still have to say that I am like a nestling waiting to be fed and the news reporters are also spending most of their time being fed during the day.

Every night, the various "head honchos" at the major media speak to each other to confirm the reporting assignments for the next day.  This is commonly known as "check assignment."  At those times, if you don't know enough people, or if you come from a smaller newspaper or station, you will be slighted.  At the end of the check, there is a reporting alliance.  Whatever news may appear the next day, it is pre-determined the day before, barring anything unexpected.

So what comes out of the "check"?  It is one after another press conference by public and private organizations, the legislature, the district council, the scheduled appearance of this or that official on radio, or the morning conference with the officials and executive council members at government headquarters.

The reporters will attend three to four of these scheduled press conferences, and then the conference will arrange for one or two questions to be asked.  These organizations want the reporters to be lazy and wait to be fed, so the public relations work is tremendous.  For example, if you hear one of those daily medical breakthrough stories, it is really about how such-and-such a  university invented a new medicine or technology.  Or better yet, it is actually about a certain hair-enhancement ointment company commissioning a university to conduct research to prove that most women do not want to date bald-headed men.

Alright, so there is not only someone to explain the whole story at the press conference, but they also arrange for patients to serve as case studies for you and they also help you design how to present your news.  This saves a lot of time for the reporters/editors.  (If the time is saved, then you can cover one or two more events! Or maybe the staff can be cut back!)  I want to say that under these conditions, the news collection and writing can be done by someone who has passed the university entrance exam, and there is no difference between a sharp rookie reporter and a ten-year veteran (especially in the electronic media).

Some people have wondered why the attrition rate among the Hong Kong news reporters is so high.  Many blame it on the low wages.  But another reason may be this: the reporter's job has been made easier by the government and corporate public relations specialists, who have transformed the structure of basic news gathering by infantilizing the work and making experience quite irrelevant.  Who wants to be a mouthpiece for your whole life?  You are better off switching jobs to become a PR specialist who controls the young reporters.

I may seem too harsh when I say this, and I am sure that this is not the full story.  There are special subjects at the newspapers, magazines or television stations that can provide opportunities to gain training in investigative reporting.  I know that certain newspaper reporters in the medical/healthcare, social welfare and environment protection areas who are trying hard to acquire professional knowledge in order to bring out better reports.  There are also veteran financial and political reporters who are close to the power center and financial moguls and can deliver exclusive stories, or enjoy the feeling of being exclusive mouthpieces.  But I still have to ask: why has Hong Kong not produced reporters who are admired for their knowledge, experience, courage and sentiments?  Why are there only news starlets and a bunch of indistinguishable minor reporters who often serve as targets of criticism?

Let us not say that people deserve the kind of media for their kind of people.  The answer can actually be found in the structure of media work.

(3) Televised news reports that follow CCTV closely

International news is fed by foreign media and the local Hong Kong news is fed by public relation specialists, but the situation with China news in the electronic media is even more horrendous because we are used to sucking the milk from CCTV without realizing it.  Oiwan published an article in Ming Pao using the cases of the disparate coverage of Taishi Village and Shenzhou VI to criticize the Hong Kong media for not having done their utmost to broaden the Hong Kong people's understanding of mainland China.  That should be a shot across the brow.

I believe that the main responsibility lies with the electronic media.  China is so vast, and even The Guardian newspaper from the United Kingdom has two newspaper reporters posted there.  But the largest television station in Hong Kong has one and only one reporter (by rotation) in Beijing.

What is the result?  Where does our daily China news come from?  CCTV, Shanghai Oriental Satellite Television, Beijing Television, Guangdong Television, Shenzhen Television, Zhujiang Television, Taiwan, while the ones from Fujian, Shaanxi, Hubei are less often seen.  The Hong Kong television stations hire people to watch the televised news in mainland China and then just combined them for broadcast.

Why?  "The most important thing is to have films!" so said a television station worker.  "You can say anything about Taishi village, but you don't have any film!  Unless the boss feels that it is important to send someone to do the work, it will definitely not show up."  Are you upset, Oiwan?  They have forgotten that journalists are supposed to use their own eyes to observe society, to understand society, to speak for the people and to push society forward.

What happens nowadays?  Every morning, there are several short segments about China shown in Hong Kong.  Then it is the Shenzhou VI coverage from which every drop of information is squeezed (you are told that the astronaut turned his body around, and the only missing piece is how they defecate (which interests me the most)).  Then a few cases of especially disastrous car accidents and the even more disastrous mining disaster.  Then we have the same old crap about President Hu or Premier Wen visiting place X or country Y and the standard speeches -- hey, isn't this the China after CCTV has gone through with its screening?  Not even our compatriots in China would believe CCTV's China, but the people in Hong Kong are brainwashed by it everyday.

Let me remind everybody once again: these China stories are just like the stories about the Hong Kong police raiding another karaoke nightclub in Mongkok and the number of fatalities in Iraq bombings.  All of the above news stories have one important common point: there are films!

Of course, there is another unspoken reason: the Hong Kong TVBS has an understanding with mainland China about dividing the advertising revenues.  They don't want to see mainland China insert commercials (ESWN blogger's note: as whenever TVBS begin to broadcast China-unfriendly information) so that they won't receive a cent.  This forms a pressure not to incur mainland Chinese wrath.

For the newspapers, the direct pressure is less.  The China coverage by newspapers are more complete (especially Ming Pao) for another reason.  Television and radio stations will usually hire Hong Kong-style Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong people to become reporters, and these people have no mainland China background and they don't know how to chase down news in China.

By contrast, the China sections in newspapers have many veteran mainland journalists, and they feel stronger about what is happening inside China as opposed to the iconic symbols used by television stations (such as Shenzhou VI, President Hu, Olympics, June 4).

There are several admirable China section colleagues.  There are only a few of them, and they have to gather information from Hong Kong.  So they have to resort to lying a lot of times.  They may call up a certain government office and speak with a Beijing accent.  When the other party asks who they are, they may claim to be from Beijing Youth Daily, Guangzhou Daily or Southern Metropolis Daily.  Their fluent language can fool a lot of people.  Sometimes a major incident breaks out somewhere and they know enough to call up people randomly in the vicinity for information.  One time, a reporter was arrested by the public security bureau, but he talked his way out with the director and they even became friends.  These abilities are not present among the local-bred Hong Kong reporters.

Postscript:  In the beginning of this post, I offered my core belief that the mainstream media in Hong Kong only provides a pre-defined monitoring of the government to make sure that the government effectively implements the mainstream values without ever questioning those mainstream values.  Actually, a lot more can be said.  Just from the above alone, we can see one of the causes: the media and the reporters have lost their opportunity, time and even ability to observe society.  They wait to be fed, they wait to be called, and they wait to be invited.  When you wait to be told to do everything, then you are the guest and the other people are the host.  The other people then dictate the direction of the news and you can only nitpick on specific details.

Occasionally, you can get a Hong Kong media breakthrough because the other party went overboard (such as the mainland Chinese fish farms being pronounced safe).  But you can see the vicious cycle: the information explosion means that every channel can run 24-hour news and there are so many ready-made news sources.  In order to conserve resources, the media will tend to embrace instant news -- in quickly, out quickly.  This is the new version of cooking a frog with warm water, but the tragedy is that the eyes of the frog are only watching the pretty face of the female broadcast host.