Moral persuasion

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am

Thanks to the vigilantes who are on constant alert for signs of human flesh, we now know that pictures of a 14-year-old pop star wearing a silicon self-adhesive bra in flesh colouring does not constitute pornography.

Why this question should ever have come to court is a mystery but the Hong Kong authorities seem to have developed acute sensitivity to the small minority of moral crusaders who spend their time watching out for signs of flesh and other forms of supposed immorality. They had their day in court this week when Easy Finder magazine answered charges of breaching child pornography laws and was acquitted after the magistrate could find no reason to convict.

It is worth noting that the photoshoot of teen star Renee Lee Wan was one in a long line of similar publicity stunts engineered by recording companies, publicists and the usual rabble engaged in the less-than-inspiring teenage Canto-pop business in Hong Kong. Note the word business, because it is hard to pretend that this is anything else.

It may be described as harmless nonsense - albeit highly profitable nonsense - for some of those involved, but it is almost certainly not pornography. Yet the activities of this motley crew of self-publicists and their backers engage the intense interest of moral guardians, who are quick to fire off complaints to the Obscene Articles Tribunal and the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (Tela). These organisations appear highly sympathetic to the vigilantes and have covered themselves in infamy by issuing a string of questionable rulings over programmes and pictures that offend only those determined to be offended but are regarded with no more than a shrug by the vast majority of people, who have better things to do with their time.

The depths of stupidity that result from this prurient preoccupation with pornography has resulted in the Obscene Articles Tribunal insisting that a statue of a male nude by world-renowned sculptress Dame Elizabeth Frink required the addition of a cardboard fig leaf to obscure the genitalia. This same body also took offence at a newspaper picture of one of the world's most famous statues, Michelangelo's David, and in a decision so bizarre that even some of the moralists were left bewildered, it ruled that a picture of an eight-year-old Chinese boy with severe facial burns was indecent and could not be used in an article aimed at raising funds for burn victims.

The 300 members of this tribunal seem determined to make Hong Kong an international laughing stock. Little wonder then that the government actually went to court in an attempt to maintain secrecy over the members' names. Fortunately, the court dismissed this absurd application, however, the judiciary website still does not publish these names. Hopefully this is a reflection of their embarrassment, but I doubt it.

Obscenity is a highly subjective matter and it is not unreasonable for the government to try to impose some control over what may be regarded as obscene or inappropriate for publication. Given the difficulties of deciding what is obscene, it might be assumed that the government would proceed with extreme caution and that every effort would be made to draw a reasonable balance between the views of extreme moralist groups and norms accepted by most members of society.

Instead, we find government prosecutors going to court to determine whether a picture of a young lady in a silicon self-adhesive bra breaches the law while Joseph Wong Wing-ping, the minister responsible for broadcasting, was happy to drop everything to dash over to RTHK to remind the public broadcaster that it needed to exercise caution in making programmes involving homosexuals. Following up on a contentious Tela ruling, he insisted that any programme of this kind needed to be balanced. Somehow I doubt he meant that all broadcasts touching on heterosexuality would henceforth require some gay input; balance in his mind appears to only go one way.

It is this kind of behaviour that diminishes credibility for perfectly reasonable efforts to enforce standards of decency. The net effect of most official efforts to ban supposedly indecent materials is to stimulate interest in them, as was seen in another Easy Finder case involving the back strap of a bra worn by Gillian Chung Yan-tung of the Twins duo. Such was the interest in this mysterious garment and the glamourous back of its wearer that the magazine rapidly sold out.

The morality campaigners claim they are trying to protect the public - especially vulnerable youngsters - yet they are never to be found doing anything when real abuse of young children occurs.

I recently saw a young boy trailing behind his harassed-looking mother, who was collecting used cardboard boxes for recycling. He should have been at school or maybe engaged in some leisure activity; instead his arms were piled high with waste. To find such things happening in prosperous Hong Kong is a real obscenity but it is obscenity of a kind that does not concern the self-appointed moralists.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur