tim hamlett's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2006, 12:00am

I thought the row over two radio show hosts and their 'indecent assault' poll would have blown over by now. But it has entered an ominous new phase. The forces of purity, having already got the hosts suspended and the radio station fined, are now complaining that some of the population is so ill-advised as to support the hosts. This deplorable propensity is blamed on the depraving effect of reading large numbers of Chinese newspapers in which sex and violence prevail over respectable news values.

This corrupting experience should be carefully distinguished from reading lavish and detailed accounts of the Kissel sleaze fest in English, which is, of course, educational. Anyway, the whole argument seems a bit unfair on the friskier Chinese newspapers. It also fails to explain why the radio hosts might attract sympathy from people who do not read Chinese like, well, me.

So I offer eight reasons why an ordinary member of the community who has never been subjected to an overdose of mass circulation slime might nevertheless find himself on the wrong side of this argument.

1. Possession of a sense of humour. Yes, I know it was a poor joke, but it was an attempt, and if we punish people for near misses then nobody will try at all. After all, polls are a dry subject. If I ask you to name the most pathetic and ignorant member of the Broadcasting Authority, you are instantly bored. If I ask you which one you would most like to see stripped naked, tied to a post in Statue Square and pelted with elephant dung, the question is at least worth thinking about. Of course, this could be criticised as a waste of good fertiliser. It's a fantasy, stupid.

2. Possession of rudimentary legal knowledge. This whole row has proceeded on the basis that indecent assault is an example of violent crime of which women are the usual victims. This is not true. Indecent assault is touching, without consent or excuse, those parts of a person which most of us would only like to have touched by very close friends. It has nothing to do with violence. Victim and perpetrator may be of either, or the same, sex.

3. Affection for freedom of speech. Agreeing with people's right to say things we all agree with is easy. Freedom of speech is the right to say things which large numbers of people disagree with. There should be no place for restrictions on speech which is 'disrespectful' of particular groups or individuals. Respect should be earned, not enforced.

4. Nostalgia. I remember when RTHK chickened out of running 'Letter from Hong Kong', which in those days, was a daring comment programme, before it was reserved for civil servants and politicians. Commercial Radio took it up and provided a temporary home for it. The station was then regarded as a bastion of independence where anything legal might be said and the management defended its contributors. Times have changed.

5. Lack of hang-ups about sex. It is clear that this case has inspired particular horror among that small but noisy group who believe that sex is almost always a bad thing. I am not in favour of indecent assault but in these days when war, famine, pestilence and Donald Rumsfeld are stalking the globe, isn't this row a bit parochial?

6. Fairness. There is no rhyme or reason in cases of this kind. The Broadcasting Authority seems to assume that any programme which produces a number of complaints must have been a violation of their code. This is not an acceptable way of measuring public acceptance because the authority is not counting people who may have thought the programme was the highlight of the broadcasting year. Counting only complaints penalises the controversial while protecting the bland and indecisive. What about those who like controversial programmes?

7. Liberalism. This is the idea that the state should intervene in society only to prevent clear and unmistakable threats of harm to other people. It is not the job of governments to protect or promote morality, a task for which they are ill-fitted.

8. Partisanship. There is a well-defined group seeking the death of press freedom in Hong Kong. It comprises the left-wingers, who don't want people to write about politics, and the God squad who don't want people to write about sex, with occasional support from the liberated ladies who only want people to write about sex if they agree with radical US feminist Andrea Dworkin. This clique is supported and encouraged by a large group of boring writers who would like their style to be compulsory. Would you be seen dead in this company?

Tim Hamlett is associate professor in the department of journalism of the school of communications, Hong Kong Baptist University. hamlett@hkbu.edu.hk