Ethics and entrepreneurs ... read all about it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2007, 12:00am

The media has had its highs and lows over the past 10 years. While it still plays an influential role, if not a bigger one with the advent of online news, journalists are less optimistic about the future.

Half of 506 journalists interviewed in a poll this year believe press freedom is declining and 30 per cent admitted they practised self-censorship. The outlook from the Hong Kong Journalists Association survey says as much about problems within the industry itself as the broader market environment and freedom of expression.

The industry saw the height of its influence in Hong Kong with Albert Cheng King-hon, former host of the Commercial Radio show Teacup in a Storm, who at the peak of the 2003 Sars epidemic was crowned 'the chief executive before 10am', a nickname reflecting the popularity of his weekday morning show. He was largely driving the agenda, picking on officials who in his eyes had failed to perform. And his remarks were echoed in the print media.

But he was abruptly sacked by Commercial Radio in July 2004 after nine years of the show, and after he was wounded in a brutal chopping as he went to work in 1998.

That was the year that saw one of the media industry lows when an Apple Daily reporter paid HK$5,000 for Chan Kin-hong to engage a prostitute days after his wife jumped to her death with their two sons, aged 10 and six. The paper later apologised for paying for the 'exclusive'.

Another low was when Eastweek magazine suspended publication in November 2002 amid an outcry at a front-page photo of a naked and distressed actress taken against her will. Easyfinder magazine was embroiled in controversy for running pictures of Canto-pop idol Gillian Chung Yan-tung changing clothes in Malaysia and of 14-year-old pop singer Renee Lee Wan in a wet shirt.

Controversies over ethical issues aside, To Yiu-ming, assistant journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, has also observed an increased homogeneity in news produced by the mainstream media.

'This is the outcome when you have three newspapers taking up 80 per cent of market share. Apart from a difference in political stance, they are basically after the same sort of news.'

Professor To believes changes in media ownership, with some moving into conglomerates' hands, could also undermine editorial independence. 'With a media organisation being part of a business venture, it is very difficult to be politically independent,' he said.

Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai agreed there was a decrease in reports critical of the government. 'Overall, unfavourable reporting about the government is less than before. It is not good for our political environment, especially in a society without universal suffrage,' Mr Law said.

Veteran journalist Mak Yin-ting, a long-time champion of press freedom, said there were few cases of intervention by the authorities. 'Of course people [from the central government's liaison office] in Western District may call and try to put forward their side of the story, but whether they succeed in getting their message across hinges really on the reaction of media bosses.'

Mak acknowledged the shift of newspapers to the hands of entrepreneurs and the disappearance of 'intellectual-run' newspapers.

'The change of ownership from intellectuals to entrepreneurs does not necessarily compromise the quality of news, but one ought to realise that this is bound to have some impact on the operation of the media organisations.'

Most of the ownership changes took place before 1997. In August 2006, the Hong Kong Economic Journal announced the sale of 50 per cent of its shares to a trust company owned by tycoon Richard Li Tzar-kai. The move sparked concerns by lawmakers that the deal would silence the paper, which is highly regarded for its independent stance.

Formerly a chairwoman and executive committee member of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Mak said another major problem for the media was the brain drain of experienced journalists.

'In order to save money, media bosses tend to conveniently replace experienced staff who have quit with inexperienced replacements,' she said.

'They do not realise the importance of experience. Due to a lack of experience, young reporters are less capable of asking critical questions when door-stepping officials or at press conferences.'

The cutthroat competition among newspapers was perpetuated by the advent of free dailies.

As far as the electronic media is concerned, newcomers to the market are struggling for market space.

Beijing has largely kept its role to the back stage, except in the arrest of veteran journalist Ching Cheong, who was detained in early 2005 for allegedly spying for Taiwan, an allegation his family rejected as unjustified and unfair. In August last year, Ching was convicted and sentenced to five years' jail by a Beijing court. He is serving his term in a prison in Guangdong.

No other media groups have gone through the same sort of commotion as RTHK during the past 10 years.

The public broadcaster has been the target of repeated attacks by Beijing loyalists who can't see why the government would use public money to fund a broadcaster which at times can be critical of it or promote ideas not in line with the central government's policies.

Its fate still hangs in the balance, with a recommendation by the government-appointed Committee on Review of Public Service Broadcasting that a new broadcaster be set up from scratch to take up the role of public service broadcaster.