Donald Tsang

New order returns to the worst practices of old

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

Government attempts to manipulate the media are hardly headline news in Hong Kong, or elsewhere. But, in a rather worrying sort of way, the special administrative region government should be congratulated on its success in persuading the public that it has become more open, while the majority of journalists who deal with officials think otherwise.

These conclusions are contained in a new report from the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which found that 30 per cent of journalists surveyed thought the government was less open than at the time of the handover in 1997, while 26 per cent thought it was more open, and 19 per cent saw no change.

In sharp contrast, respondents from among the general public were overwhelmingly of the view that the administration had become more open - almost 46 per cent shared this opinion, while 24 per cent disagreed.

Maybe this is a tribute to the style of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, which stands in vivid contrast to that of his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa.

However, the reality of the situation is that the Tsang administration is not so much media-friendly as it is media-conscious.

One aspect of this, as the report notes, is that Mr Tsang's team has restored the former practice of the Patten administration in holding daily reviews of media coverage and planning ways of responding to negative reporting.

There is nothing particularly sinister in this; it is standard practice among governments. But there is something unsettling about cultivating a small clique of so called 'reliable' journalists who are regularly briefed ahead of announcements so that the government can test the water for a response or prepare the public for lower expectations.

This, for example, was how the release of the recent green paper on constitutional reform was managed. Days before the release, news outlets were confidently predicting that the public should be prepared for a lack of specific proposals, and echoed the government's view that it was a complex issue where clear choices were not possible.

Indeed, it is hard to think of a single significant policy announcement during the life of the Tsang administration that has not been carefully leaked well in advance.

Cynics may simply conclude that this is no more than careful stage management, but it shows contempt for what little shreds of power remain in the hands of legislators, who are officially charged with the task of monitoring the government.

Moreover there is something objectionable about selective briefing of the media.

It also shows a lack of self-confidence on behalf of the administration when it increasingly declines to subject its officials to open questioning, routinely insists on a long process of written questions in advance of interviews, and sets coercive ground rules for interviews.

A number of journalist colleagues - who were based in Hong Kong and have since moved to Beijing - returned to the SAR to report on the 10th anniversary of the handover. They expressed surprise at the extent to which dealing with officials here is beginning to resemble their interactions with bureaucrats in Beijing.

On the other hand, the government splashed out quite a lot of money to fly in journalists to cover the event and be steered towards more positive interpretations of the past decade. The doughty corporate governance campaigner David Webb discovered that the government was spending HK$1.26 million on these so-called sponsored visits.

He also found the government explaining that this kind of activity was far from new. Indeed, the old colonial government was a lavish sponsor of journalist 'freebies' and was hardly a slouch when it came to selective briefings.

Yet again, the triumph of the new order is to return to the worst practices of the old order.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur