When only the facts will do

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 1997, 12:00am

When it comes to their distorted sense of priority and twisted views on important issues, it is no wonder that local media personalities are often little understood by their own audience.

Take Apple Daily, for instance. It is one of the most persistent voices when it comes to opposing the Preparatory Committee's plan to strike out certain civil liberty provisions from the statute books. The paper has run several strongly-worded editorials and staff columns to lash out at Beijing and its supporters of the move.

Last Wednesday, the paper carried the findings of an opinion survey showing that Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa's popularity rating had dropped by about 15 percentage points because of his conservative stance on the issue.

The figure could well be interpreted as an early end to Mr Tung's political honeymoon with the general public in Hong Kong. Readers could have expected the paper to run the story as its front page splash.

The paper, however, opted for another story for its banner headline. The report on Mr Tung's waning popularity was buried on an inside page. The news item most prominently displayed revolved around was about the row between two presenters of a radio phone-in show and the management of Metro Broadcast.

Agony aunt Pamela Pak Wan-kam along with her boyfriend and co-host, Paul Tse Wai-chun, accused the station of suppressing freedom of the press after their show had been suspended.

The bone of contention is the way they had handled an interview with the so-called Uncle Eight, Hung Ka-chuen, who is related to the Cantonese opera singer, Tang Wing-cheung.

Mr Hung and Mr Tang are brothers-in-law. He has sided with his sister, who has been evading the news media for weeks, following tension between herself and her four sons and daughters which intensified over the management of their family assets.

A barrage of unsubstantiated accusations against members of the Tangs were aired during the interview with Mr Hung. The other side of the Tang family has pledged to take legal action.

Philip Chan Yan-kin, head of the station, ordered the midnight show to end 20 minutes before its normal schedule.

About a 100 complaints were lodged with the Television and Entertaining Licensing Authority over the interview, rendering it the most controversial local radio shows in recent memory. Phone-in programmes at other radio stations were also flooded with calls on the topic.

Metro Broadcast subsequently offered a public apology to the Tang family and decided to put the two hosts off the air. Miss Pak and Mr Tse, on the other hand, called their own news conference and mounted a defence in their newspaper columns.

For the more serious readers, the Tang saga should have been relegated to the showbiz pages. But both the print and electronic media have given a lot of attention to every rumour and utterance about major players in the row.

Miss Pak denounced Metro's action in taking her show off the air as a flagrant violation of free speech. Her interpretation of press freedoms raised many an eyebrow among journalists.

It may be useful for the Hong Kong Journalists Association to send Miss Pak a copy of the Code of Ethics for easy reference before she makes another off-the-cuff remark about freedom of the press.

Item four of the 11-point code stipulates that a journalist shall strive to ensure that the information is fair and accurate. The expression of comment and conjecture as established fact must be avoided.

That is why any responsible member of the media should be familiar with the axiom: 'If in doubt, check it out.' If still in doubt, a journalist is left with no other alternative but to 'leave it out'.

This practice is vital to safeguard not only of other's reputation but also the media's own credibility.

Although the two presenters occasionally made it clear that they did not subscribe to all the comments made by Uncle Eight, the fact is the entire show that night was packed with one-sided, unsubstantiated allegations.

The following day, Uncle Eight was quoted as saying that he was not afraid of the Tangs' pledge to sue for libel. How one man justifies revenge is of little public interest. But it is another matter when public airwaves are abused to satisfy his sense of justice.

The two presenters in question have harped on a similar theme. In her Apple Daily column yesterday, Miss Pak explained that she had allowed Mr Hung to get it off his chest since the mass media had been biased in favour of the young Tangs over the past couple of months.

'The public accusations of the Tang brothers and sisters against their mother . . . have one by one been reported by the media. Without deliberations, such reports have been repeatedly rehashed. Unfortunately, some members of the public have been brainwashed and are convinced that the one who has been tried in absence is guilty,' she wrote.

She seemed to be suggesting that an eye-for-an-eye would repair the damage. Her philosophy, however, bears no resemblance to the media industry's accepted professional standards.

It is apparent that the show has shaken, rather than bolstered, public confidence in the media. The Code of Ethics demands that a journalist 'shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that correction and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticised when the issue is of sufficient importance'.

None of those involved is able to verify the accusations claimed by Uncle Eight.

Hence, Metro Broadcast's remedial measures are responsible moves, though one could challenge why its management did not take the action earlier.

People working in the mass media are fighting against Article 23 of the Basic Law, which seeks to prohibit subversion, secession, sedition and theft of state secrets in the future Special Administrative Region.

Laws to be enacted to enforce the article could have grave ramifications to freedom of the press.

Any complications to further undermine the media's waning credibility would only make the battle harder.