No lid on loose talk

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 November, 1997, 12:00am

Authorities last week threatened to take legal action against what were denounced as malicious rumour-mongers behind last week's run on the International Bank of Asia. As yet there are no signs that any party has been called to account.

But there are lessons to be learnt by examining how hearsay circulates in Hong Kong.

The local mass media are not known for their self-restraint when it comes to handling rumours. One Chinese-language daily devoted an entire page to market innuendo.

But, in the recent IBA case, most news organisations exercised caution. They also played a vital role in boosting public confidence in Hong Kong's banking system.

Damaging titbits about several banks running into difficulties have moved in financial circles for weeks. Earlier this month a few papers carried several paragraphs about such rumours without naming the banks. Most were buried in the business pages, labelled market hearsay.

The most elaborate report was published by Ming Pao in its business section three days before the run on the banks. The headline over the 700-character story emphasised the IBA's denial of any cash-flow problems. The bank's chief executive officer was quoted as predicting healthy profit growth for the first half of the year.

An on-line financial news service associated with the Hong Kong Economic Times dispatched a similar item yesterday.

No evidence is apparent that that the media have been guilty of fuelling the rumours. Nevertheless, many people were misled into believing that the unfavourable news originated with the media.

Reporters had gathered at the IBA headquarters in Des Voeux Road, soon after crowds of nervous customers formed at the bank's key branches. A jittery depositor anxious to withdraw his savings abused one of the reporters, claiming Apple Daily had warned its readers of the impending collapse of the bank and challenging the reporter as to why his paper had failed to do so.

The reporter and his colleagues went through Apple Daily again and found nothing remotely connected with the bank. Others asserted that Radio Television Hong Kong broke the news in its main bulletin. Journalists, as well as members of the public, had called the RTHK newsroom for details, only to be told that the station had not said a word about the bank.

Ayoung man told Commercial Radio's Media Monitor programme last Sunday that he first learnt about the IBA rumour from his brother's friend who worked for a television station. His source was said to have heard from his co-workers at the news department that IBA was in trouble.

He contended the news team was working on a story that other banks had rejected IBA cheques. He even suggested that the news crew had tried to cash one of the bank's cheques but it had not been honoured. None of the TV stations had aired any such stories.

Somehow the media have been used to give the rumours credibility, although the few news reports preceding the bank run primarily said the IBA had sound foundations.

Beepers and mobile phones have apparently outperformed the news media in the IBA episode. A female listener said she had witnessed how one businessman in a tie and suit contributed to the spread of the rumours at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry concourse.

He was heard making consecutive calls on his mobile phone to alert friends that the bank was about to collapse. The man appeared to be well aware of the fact that what he was amplifying was little more than hearsay.

Statistics compiled by the Office of the Telecommunication Authority indicate that, by the end of September, the number of beepers in Hong Kong had declined to 1,025,951 in the face of stiff competition from mobile-phone operators. Meanwhile, the number of cellular-phone subscribers has surged to 1,790,773.Even allowing for overlaps, the figures mean that well over 40 per cent of the population are equipped with such gadgets.

One blue-collar worker said he could feel his legs faltering when he heard others talk about the bank run on the bus on his way home. He joined the line of depositors to withdraw his life savings after work that evening.

As he was in the queue, he was unaware of the assurances given by the bank and the SAR Government. The man said his heart was at ease only after his father-in-law had relayed to him the pledges of Financial Secretary, Sir Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and other officials on prime-time TV news.

Had the bank replayed the official statements to the public outside, he said, some of them might have gone home much earlier.

All along, the authorities have been concerned about the mass media's potential to spread rumours and incite undue public alarm. That was why the Government introduced a short-lived amendment to the Public Order Ordinance in the late 1980s to make it an offence for the media to propagate false news.

The IBA drama has shown that it is now practically impossible to regulate the flow of information, desirable or otherwise, in a society such as Hong Kong's.