Neutral monitoring of press is not interference

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 12:00am

The concerted and somewhat excessive efforts by the media to ridicule Xu Simin for his comments on RTHK only confirm the 'untouchable' situation the media at present enjoy.

Under the banner of freedom of the press (or speech), the media seem to be increasingly immune from criticism and control. Nobody in Hong Kong wants a medium that speaks only for certain sectors of society, be that government or private interests. But one does expect facts and balanced reporting, the two basic elements of journalism that some journalists ignore. The media business is highly competitive. To survive and lead, editors and their journalists must always keep in mind the following 'S-rules': Scoop. As competition gets tougher, the chance of getting a scoop diminishes and the methods of obtaining one become murkier. The end often justifies the means both in journalistic and financial terms. The temptation of getting a scoop is so great that lesser reporters forsake their ethics to fabricate a story.

Speed. Getting a story on air and in print are constant headaches for both editors and reporters. Cross-checking of facts is often not possible. Yet readers seem to be very forgiving with papers often getting off with a small printed correction if the papers were wrong.

Story. Everybody loves a story and facts can be bent to create a story that sells.

Selective reporting. Editors have an absolute right to decide what news to print. Readers have a right to know when something is closer to myth than fact.

The media have tremendous power in shaping trends and public thinking, government policies and other social issues. It is this power that the public should have a right to monitor.

At present, the media lead and feed the public in both opinions and information.

Monitoring this power through a neutral body surely has nothing to do with controlling freedom of the press or speech. There are a lot of programmes on air and in newspapers analysing and expressing opinions on daily news items.

If similar air time and column space are given daily to a neutral body to report and analyse news items of doubtful credibility, then the media would be put under pressure to be more accountable and responsible.

By being more involved, the public would soon realise what good and responsible reporting is or should be. The public should be encouraged to report doubtful information or facts by fax or by phone, a method so effectively and extensively used by the media nowadays.

Another method of monitoring the media would be to either enlarge legal aid, or to curb exorbitant legal fees. Some publishers have vast financial reserves for libel cases, which are time-consuming and expensive. The only people who gain are the lawyers.

There have always been a lot of complaints about the media. Are they unjustified? I doubt it. Or, are editors so arrogant that they regard such complaints as trivial? The public must have a means by which, on a daily basis, pressure can be put on the media. Being able to write to the editor or phone in is not enough. Such an exercise should not be misconstrued as being interference with freedom of speech or the press. It is simply intended to make the media more responsible and more accountable. Is this not what we want? Why don't we try this exercise out with RTHK? Please don't cry foul before the game starts. Mr Xu may have a positive point.