Media frenzy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 12:00am

Complaints about sensational reporting are familiar in many countries, no less so here, where there is a long-established tendency towards the reporting of graphic details of violent crimes and detailed accounts in sex stories.

But the anger which followed coverage of the Chan Kin-hong case, following the death of his wife and sons, is unusually intense. And it is not confined to the public. Many journalists are equally concerned at the way some media are approaching stories, prompting the Hong Kong Journalists Association to set up an independent Media Ethics Forum to handle complaints.

Whether this will have any success in halting the excesses of certain TV programmes and newspapers is doubtful, and the idea does invite comparison with the Obscene Articles Tribunal, which is distinguished more by its glaring errors of judgment than by wise counsel.

An amount of self-regulation by the media itself is the only answer. But the media business, like every other industry, is driven by consumer demand. Newspapers and television will only serve what they believe to be in demand.

If readers or viewers are offended by what is put before them, they can make the biggest impact by switching to another channel or a rival paper. Falling circulation will make any newspaper alter its product far more quickly than if it is admonished by a board of volunteer watchdogs. But if an ethics committee at least encourages debate within the media about standards of news reporting, it is worth supporting.

In Britain, the Press Complaints Commission adjudicates readers' complaints against newspapers. It was set up to prevent tighter official regulation after rising concern about invasion of privacy, and its decisions are printed by offending newspapers.

The body is not without critics, but it has succeeded, to some extent, in stifling calls for official regulations and restraints which could only be seen as a retrograde step.