Watchdog must uphold community values

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 May, 2008, 12:00am

People may have different moral values, but this does not mean some shared belief about what constitutes public decency is impossible in a community. The notion of community standards is a fluid one, but some acts may be deemed so offensive that they can reasonably be expected to shock people's sense of decency.

In February, two magazines, Oriental Sunday and Next Magazine, together published more than 130 sexually explicit photos of several pop stars engaged in private consensual sex acts. These were accompanied by salacious texts. Even though the sensitive body parts were blacked out, there could be no doubt in the reader's mind about what was going on. An earlier interim decision by the Obscene Articles Tribunal ruled that the publications were neither indecent nor obscene, mostly because the private parts had been obscured. Sensibly, it has now overturned the interim classification on review. It ruled yesterday that they were, indeed, indecent. This had been the government's case in launching the appeal.

Unfortunately, yesterday's decision, though welcome, has once again exposed a long-standing problem that has plagued the tribunal - its failure to deliver consistent and predictable judgments.

A review of the ordinance is under way. Hong Kong needs a better classification board that reflects the prevailing views of society. A way forward is to have a much higher number of adjudicators in classification hearings. Though the pool of adjudicators has increased to about 300, there are still too few of them being called at hearings. In an interim classification, a magistrate needs to convene only two adjudicators, and, in a full hearing, four. Such small numbers easily predisposes tribunal decisions to individual biases.

The adjudicators also need to learn to think like judges. It is not enough to follow simple or technical guidelines such as the blacking out of private parts. They must look at the relevant facts, the broader picture and context before making a decision. We need tribunal members who are representative of our community values, but also a fair system that can deliver consistent and well-reasoned judgments.