Trial by media
The early release of former High Court judge Miles Henry Jackson-Lipkin, 82, and his 81-year-old barrister wife, Lucille Yun-shim, from prison - after a successful appeal against their 11-month sentences - has led to a public outcry. The decision was made on the grounds of the old age and poor health of the couple, as well as the letters of support from two top British judges. They had been convicted in January of cheating the government of welfare payments and making false statements in pursuit of public housing.
The media raised questions about the decision, saying it would mislead the public into believing that it would be possible to escape legal sanction if a person were old and ill, or had help from eminent friends. This is a very one-sided view.
Our local media is notorious for conducting this kind of trial on widely debated incidents. The welfare fraud case of tsunami survivor Leung Wai-kei is another example. She was given a suspended sentence after being found guilty. However, the outcry against her punishment was fierce, and the Department of Justice has sought a review of the sentence.
The media criticism against the ruling in the Jackson- Lipkin appeal case is unfounded. First, the couple did not receive special treatment. As the judge, Mr Justice John Saunders, said, the original sentence was justified, given the gravity of the offence and the prevalence of social security fraud in Hong Kong. Their immediate release was an act of mercy, and had taken into consideration their ages, health and the fact that they had already served four months in prison.
Second, the 11-month sentences were harsh. Among the seven elderly people convicted of welfare fraud in Hong Kong in the recent past, three were given a suspended sentence; the most severe sentence by far was 10 months in jail. In one case, a 76-year-old convicted of failing to disclose assets of HK$3.6 million and cheating the government of HK$600,000 in welfare payments received a three-year suspended sentence.
Compared with this last case, the Jackson-Lipkins received much harsher sentences, although the amount of money involved - undisclosed assets of HK$1.9 million and welfare fraud amounting to HK$110,000 - was much smaller.
Some politicians quoted the example of an 85-year-old convict whose sentence had not been reduced, and said the latest court ruling was unfair. The accusation is invalid, though. First, the convict had not lodged any appeal and, second, he was guilty of murder.
The remarks by a representative for social workers that the couple's early release would affect the morale of frontline staff are also ridiculous. Their duty is to serve the community, not impose sanctions on others.
It is also absurd that one newspaper tried to make a fuss over the fact that Mrs Jackson-Lipkin had her hair done right after getting out of prison, as if it were a crime.
All this has, once again, shown the declining standard of local reporting, which needs upgrading. As I have said before, I do not blame today's journalists for being shallow and lacking knowledge; the root of the problem lies in the media industry's system.
The introduction in recent years of young, beautiful female news presenters by Cable TV has forced competitors to follow suit. They are proving popular, which means there are fewer male presenters nowadays. But these female presenters enjoy fame and fortune by just staying in the studio, reading the news. Their image and packaging are becoming more important than the reporting itself. The negative impact of these news presenters, as well as those journalists who turn to public relations, should not be underestimated.
I believe that most journalists are ambitious. It is not too late to rectify the situation in the media industry. But if the phenomenon persists, the next generation may well see reporting as a shortcut to achieving fame and fortune, thus jeopardising journalistic quality in Hong Kong.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator
The media criticism against the ruling in the Jackson- Lipkin appeal