Read all about it: media retains feisty spirit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2007, 12:00am

Not every place in the world takes its news media seriously, to say the least. Some governments view it as a nuisance, if not a menace; others, as an arm of public instruction, if not propaganda.

But this is not the view taken in Hong Kong. Here, the news media is taken very seriously indeed.

In fact, this would increasingly appear to be the case. Notwithstanding all the dire predictions that absorption into media- repressive China would eventually castrate the feisty local press, the Hong Kong media has at least held its own. Newspapers still bash the central government. And TV and radio, especially, still operate with a measure of abandon. Political debate remains lively and, at times, charmingly neurotic.

'An influential and vibrant media is essential to the continuing success of Hong Kong,' says Eric Chan Cho-biu, chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Times. Mr Chan is also chairman of the new Journalism Education Foundation. He says that, among other things, Hong Kong needs to aggressively court, educate and promote up-and-coming journalists, in particular, to maintain a high level of media professionalism: 'We must emphasise the quality of journalism, the courage of journalism, to make Hong Kong into a truly international city.'

The launch of the foundation was more than mere public relations. Small as it is, relative to other world financial centres, Hong Kong needs to promote every single competitive advantage it can offer. To its credit, in fact, it is routinely graded high, by outside rating agencies, in economic freedom and market independence. It is in this context of maintaining an environment of open debate and quality information that the media is viewed as central.

At the handover 10 years ago, the news media was often viewed as a potential impediment to smooth relations with Beijing. China's big bosses, after all, were accustomed to a compliant, quiet press on the mainland. So, when the news media in Hong Kong attacked the then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, eyebrows were raised in Beijing, triggering fears that the central government might just decide to throw a big, wet censorship blanket over the city.

In fact, a measure of subtle self-censorship has occurred in the lurking shadow of the mainland, despite endless official assurances of non-interference.

Even so, no huge or decisive drainage of press vitality has, ultimately, occurred.

It was always as much of a mistake to believe that the 1997 handover would change nothing as to believe, as much of the largely knee-jerk western media did back then, that it would change everything. History usually proves more subtle than its forecasters.

As long as Hong Kong remained a market economy, the media would be forced to maintain a measure of credibility if it expected to lure either subscribers or advertisers. Moreover, much of its Chinese-language media, and many of its bilingual journalists, developed, over time, more sympathy than antipathy to the reality that Hong Kong really did fit in better, in the genetic-coding sense, with China than Britain.

Finally, self-censorship aside, no actual censorship dictums were hurled down from Beijing. At the end of the day, China's bosses played their cards fairly adroitly.

Towards Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in fact, the Hong Kong media seems as cruelly unforgiving as ever.

I asked him - playfully - whether his masters in Beijing really understand the media pressure in Hong Kong. 'I don't have to explain it to them; they can read it and see it!' he replied, laughingly.

Well, then - did he think that today's media was as feisty as it used to be? 'It's feistier than ever,' he replied. 'Compare our media to any other, anywhere. Some might say it is even more scandalous than ever. But I won't say that, of course.' Of course.

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media