A brazen need for sensationalism
The most disturbing image of the year so far must be the Korean-born American student Cho Seung-hui in the videos and photographs he made of himself before killing 32 people at Virginia Tech last week. The media were in a difficult position. The pictures were an important part of the story, telling us something about this twisted individual. Some people would say the public had a right to know this. But the gunman had wanted the material shown and it must have been especially painful for relatives of his victims to see.
Many Americans protested loudly about these images being shown. Some said it glorified Cho - who shot himself after the rampage - rewarded his actions, or made him a 'TV star'. Some said they did not want to see it. The US media listened to these views, moderated their use of the material and took part in a major debate. It is a reminder that freedom of the press, like other rights, comes with responsibilities.
This is a lesson some of our media in Hong Kong have never entirely learned. Some Americans accused the media of showing Cho's video clips and photographs to push up ratings and make more advertising revenue. I wonder what those people would think of some Hong Kong newspapers and magazines?
Many publications, including the South China Morning Post, keep to high standards of decency. But some will print photographs of mangled bodies in a car crash, or someone in mid-air, leaping to their death from a building. Where they cannot get shocking photographs, they use computer graphics to recreate (or simply invent) violent images to accompany news stories.
The only time there is a major uproar is when a Canto-pop star feels their privacy has been invaded. No doubt the rich and famous deserve some privacy, but if you become a star you have to expect media attention - indeed, you need it. The same goes for less glamorous figures such as politicians. The people I feel sorry for are ordinary citizens, who have their dignity taken away to entertain the media audience.
It is not just in pictures. Details of people's lives are used to sensationalise the news. The joint inquest into the death of constable Tsui Po-ko, two other constables and a bank security guard is a serious event, but some newspapers just latched on to personal details about Tsui's family. What sort of details will we be hearing on the case over the late Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum's will?
The idea of a regulatory mechanism to enforce good taste is obviously a non- starter. Freedom of the press is an extremely important feature of Hong Kong and people are rightly very sensitive about anything that might threaten it. Criticising the media seems to have little effect. They are in an extremely competitive business, and if one newspaper does not carry a shocking picture, another one will.
That brings us to the people truly responsible for the sensationalism and poor taste - the consumers. It would be easy to say that only the less educated read the gossip magazines, but it is not true. All sorts of people read them - including me.
No one in Hong Kong feels ashamed to pick up these magazines and flick through them. We love it. There may be Americans who got a kick out of watching Cho's videos, but they kept quiet about it while many other people who opposed showing them complained loudly. Our local media focused on the Virginia Tech killer's sensational self-publicity, while in the US people asked serious questions about what the media should really focus on. We should learn something from this.
A common photograph in some of our newspapers is a big pool of blood by the roadside. You don't need to see that to know that a tragedy has taken place, but few people complain. I wonder what this tells us about ourselves.
Bernard Chan is an executive councillor and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency