Hong Kong Politician PK Reporters

In Ma Lik's Comments on June Fourth, the subject of the relationship between politicians and political reporters came up.  This is a symbiotic relationship.  On one hand, politicians need the reporters, because they need media exposure to maintain their public visilibity even as they also leak information (possibly false) for political motives.  On the other hand, reporters need the politicians because they are always looking for good or exclusive sources although they may be conflicted among the needs of access, personal loyalty and professionalism.  The following three newspaper columns represent a very public fight between a politician and some unidentified frontline political reporters in Hong Kong.

This is not a uniquely Hong Kong problem, so there is no need to be proud/embarrassed about it.  There are many examples around the world.  For example, Susan Schmidt may have won a Pulitzer prize at the Washington Post, but she is often referred to as "Sue Steno Schmidt" for being an uncritical stenographer for the current administration's latest talking points. 

(Stone Age)  Are Politicians Shameless? Or Are Reporters Scoundrels?  May 14, 2007.

[in translation]

I was reading the newspapers recently when I came across a Hong Kong Legislative Councilor criticizing political reporters in a newspaper column.  The writer criticized everything from the substantive quality of the Hong Kong political reporters down to their tastes in dressing.  To put it directly, it was scathing and damaging.  People who are unfamiliar with this industry may feel that Hong Kong journalism has fallen beyond redemption.  This article has probably hurt the image of frontline political reporters a great deal.

But assertions have to be backed by evidence and the assertions from an authoritative source may not be accurate.  I believe that the facts are more persuavive than argumentation.  So let us read the following carefully.

Hong Kong Economic Daily.  The Poverty of Journalism and the Sadness of Reporters.  By Legislative Councilor Albert Cheng.  May 11, 2007 (full version at my e-journal).

National People's Congress Standing Committee member Tsang Hin-chi is reportedly about to retire and he held a banquet on Tuesday at his house for more than 30 frontline political reporters  The next day, the various newspaper reporters wrote almost without exceptoin about what they ate, the movie star daughter-in-law of Tsang Hin-chi and the going-on's with his children and other miscellaneous frivolous tabloid information.  All of that showed up in the so-called political tabloid news sections of the various newspapers.  At a glance, one would think that one was reading entertainment news!

The turning of political news into tabloid/entertainment news is a uniquely Hong Kong perversity.  This had not been seen here or elsewhere, now or before.  The fundamental cause was that when Apple Daily appeared, "Li Ba-fang" (note: a pseudonymous collective column) mixed poltical topics with tabloid/people reporting and became immensely popular.  Pursuant to the rules of competition, other newspapers folowed suit.  After all the newspapers were Apple-ified, political news became "Li Ba-fang"-ified.

If tabloid political news can provide some laughs for the readers, that would probably be alright . But the turning of political news into entertainment became more and more extreme and it has become the mainstream in political reporting at the newspapers.  This is worrisome.  When the Hong Kong newspapers give up their principles, it corrupts the media environment and it also seriously demeans, restricts and trivilizes the political affairs that affect the interests of the seven million citizens of Hong  Kong.  The already politically cool public becomes even cooler towards politics, and this is absolutely detrimental to the development of democracy and the construction of a civic society in Hong Kong.

I remember that before Hong Kong was returned to China and especially during the 1980's when the future of Hong Kong was the focus of society, political news was regarded as the most important aspect of Hong Kong media.  The various newspapers and news organizations assigned their best reporters to be the frontline political reporters to make first-hand and in-depth reports.  Many of the senior and famous reporters in Hong Kong journalism today, such as Lo Wing-hung, Ching Cheong, Cheung Lap, Claudia Mo Man-ching, Willy Lam and others were political reporters back then who specialized in covering business at the Legislature and news that pertain to the future of Hong Kong.  Their brilliant exclusive reporting and special features constituted a glorious episode in the history of journalism in Hong Kong.  Their work was also extraordinary professional training on the job for them and set up a firm basis for their eventual careers and accomplishments.  In fact, if media workers regard journalism as a profession in which the monitoring of government and society is an unavoidable sacred duty of the Fourth Estate, then they will treat their news reporting very seriously.  This is particular true for political news reporting that affect the livelihood and interests of the people of Hong Kong, because politics is where economics is concentrated as well as the vortex of various social forces, interests and contradictions.

But times have changed.  The frontline political reporters that run around the Legislative Council are mostly inexperienced rookies who have limited knowledge.  Many of them have no sense of history, they are mostly ignorant about what happened in the past and they lack the feel for news that media workers should have.  They do not know how to actively seek out topics in order to report unknown news topics in depth and to help the readers know the truth.  To complete the assignment, they only try to flock around the legislative councilors who know how to use the media and leak information.  Whatever those people say, they will not interrogate and they will not investigate in depth.  They will record everything and report what was said as is.  Furthermore, it is popular to form groups in which three or four veteran reporters became the Big Sister or Big Brother who distribute the news coverage and specify the theme of the reporting for others to follow.  If rookie reporters do not join up, they may miss some news and be scolded by their supervisors.  In order to preserve themselves, they had to follow the practice and go with the team.  With these causes and effects, how can there be any good and exclusive reporting?  It is no wonder that if you read through the news reporting in all the newspapers about the affairs at the Legislature, it looks like as if everything came from the same mold and line.  Most of the material are trivialities spoon-fed by legislators and are unverified.  Basically, this is no different from entertainment news without any substance.  This phenomenon is very similar to how entertainment news used to be covered in the 1950's and 1960's.  If this is how media work, is it still necessary to hire reporters to cover news from the frontline?

Actually, in all the countries and regions that enjoy freedom of press, the political news reporters are the elite.  They hold esteemed social positions and their news reporting and commentaries are respected inside and outside of the legislatures.  By comparison, our frontline political reporters are not knowledgeable.  They don't even dress properly.  They don't look any different from "Long Hair" whom they mock frequently.  They look quite different compared to how they used to dress formally even to attend their Student Association meetings.  This reflects the fact that they lack basic respect for their work.  No wonder when these wealthy legislators tempt them with dinners at private clubs or five-star hotels, they rush over enthusiastically.  They have completely forgotten that the principal duty of a reporter is to dig out the news as opposed to developing social connections.

I have no desire to condemn these rookie political news reporters.  The crux of the matter is not about them.  It is about the system within Hong Kong media organizations.  In Hong Kong, there are virtually no professional reporters who regard news reporting as their lifetime career.  The experienced and exceptional frontline reporters will be promoted to editors in three years or so, and the highest goal in the industry is to become the chief editor, publisher or administrator.  Or else they quit their jobs to join the Government Information Office, or become a public relations, or corporate communications manager.  Pretty looking female reporters can even move on to promote stock warrant trading.  Therefore, the frontline reporters will always be youngish rookies.  Their superivsors have not given them adequate guidance and training, so they ramble around like blind flies.  So how can they come up with good news reporting?

In Hong Kong, reporters have no future and no social stadning.  Even the representative of their profession -- the Hong Kong Journalists Association -- is not a strong and powerful union that defends the rights and interests of the journalists.  At the annual ball of the Journalists Association, the representatives of the journalist industry are only interested in currying favors with upper society and government officials.  The small-time journalists that they purport to represent are left outside the door to watch society's elite dance with their underlings.  Then you know that there is a reason why the quality of Hong Kong reporters are so poor.

Hong Kong news organizations and reporters take pride in freedom of press and speech and they claim to the Fourth Estate.  But they do not realize that the true spirit of freedom of press and speech depends on high-quality news reporting and commentary.  If the Hong Kong news media organizations do not pay attention to the nurturing and training of frontline reporters, or offer sufficient material conditions and incentives, or attract the top talents to make the most outstanding news reporting and commentary, then isn't their so-called freedom of press and speech just unsubstantive, wan and impoverished?  Do the Hong Kong media organizations and their workers deserve any freedom of press and speech?

Anyone who has studied history knows that there are near and distant causes for everything.  Are the reflections of this particular legislative councilor a cause or an effect?  Maybe political reporters do not dress well.  Maybe the rookie reporters have lesser analytical skills.  But can the political reporters be expected to change the political climate of Hong Kong, or the interest of the Hong Kong people in politics, or even the quality of Legislative Councilors?

[Note: The reference to cause-and-effect can be traced back to the following two items in Ming Pao and Apple Daily.  The person referred to in these two items is readily identifiable, and so these two essays may be construed to be the cause for the opinion essay above.]

(Ming Pao)  May 6, 2007.

My media friend was depressed and called me up to chat.  In speaking about the media competition, the word was that newspapers try their best to dig out the news.  The winner wins and the loser loses.  If you lose, there is nothing that you can complain about!

But the friend began to curse out a certain Legislative Councilor who is said to have no class!  How so?  One of the examples was that the media friend had asked this Legislative Councilor for any inside tip on fengshui master Tony Chan.  The legislator had no information and asked the media friend for information instead.  It is natural for people to be nosy and asked others for informatoin.  But the disgusting part was that the legislator then took the information from the media friend and gave it to another newspaper with whom he is on good terms with.  My media friend was disgusted with this kind of unethical behavior!

This legislator may be forgiven once or twice.  But perhaps because he used to be in the media industry and he could not keep his mouth shut, he kept telling other people.  Another friend of mine (who is a "spin doctor") said that he once encountered this same legislator at a certain Central restaurant.  My friend observed that this legislator came over univited and joined the lunch between a politician and a bunch of reporters.  He insisted on sitting down and he could not be stopped.  Since people respected him as a prominent Legislative Councilor, who was going to order him to leave?

But as soon as this legislator sat down, he picked up the document on the table and started reading.  This was a document that the political figure was going to discuss with the reporters for their reports.  The document pertained to the proposals from the leftists in the Planning Council.  When the reporters saw that the legislator was devouring the contents of the document, they suspected that things had gone awry.  When they read the newspaper the next morning, they saw that the legislator had communicated the information to the newspaper with whom he was friendly with.  This other newspaper did not have to assign a reporter and they must be delighted to get the information for free.  Meanwhile, the other newspaper friends who had to work for it must be quite unhappy!

With respect to this scoundrel, the reporters can only pray that he will not be re-elected to the Legislative Council next time.  And then the world will be happy!

(Apple Daily)  May 7, 2007.

There are all sorts of people in Hong Kong politics nowadays.  One of them is the "radio receiver in the political circle."  In recent years, he has maintained a friendly relationship with the government, he has a good handle on activities in political circles and he often uses a newspaper column to attack a certain political party.  "Radio receiver" has recently even become a part-time reporter by stealing other people's exclusive reports and causing general consternation.  "Li Ba-fang" learned recently from the rumor mill that a certain Chinese patriot had a meal with reporters from two or three newspapers to feed information.  "Radio receiver" happened to pass by and sat down uninvited to listen in.  On the next day, apart from the newspapers which were present at the meal, a certain renowned columnist at a certain newspapers also carried the same news.  It makes one wonder whether the "radio receiver" has become a special correspondent.  It turns out that "Li Ba-fang"'s colleague had been tricked the same way.  The colleague said that "radio receiver" asked him about something which showed up in the same column!  With this sort of thing happening regularly, many of our peers are scared to ask questions of the "radio receiver."

The three essays above represent personal viewpoints.  The first one is a personal column.  The second and third are political tabloid news.  If the two different styles are used suitably, they can help readers understand the underlying facts or reveal something that the readers are seldom aware of.  As such, they are no less powerful than regular reporting.  Political news has never been easy to "decode."  The so-called "facts" may never ever be completely revealed, and it depends very much on whether the reporters can present the case from different angles.  But in order to understand a political news item, the responsiblity does not lie solely with the reporter or the editor.