Off the record
It is a long-established practice for senior government officials to disguise their true identity on certain occasions when briefing the media. They release information or answer inquiries as a 'government source'. This anonymity allows the official to talk freely, offering some hitherto undisclosed information or making some colourful comments. Where the briefing relates to recently announced government policies or measures, the source will elaborate on the thinking behind certain decisions and the difficulties involved. This enables the media to better understand the issues. It may provide them with certain clues to follow up with other sources. In this way, journalists can report, in more depth, different aspects of a government policy or measure; and the related commentaries can be based on more in-depth analysis.
Both the media and the public stand to gain from this arrangement. Whether the government gains from the anonymous briefing depends on the facts and arguments presented by the source.
Another suitable occasion to use a government source in the briefing is to gauge the reaction of the media and, through it, the public towards certain proposals before they are released. The subsequent media reports and the public comments will enable the government to fine-tune the details or draw up a more effective publicity plan. If the reactions are overwhelmingly negative, the government may rethink the whole proposal or shelve it. Again, provided there is no deliberate misrepresentation, the arrangement is beneficial to both the government and the media. Public interest is served to the extent that public opinion is taken into account in the government's decisions.
However, two recent cases involving a government source raise questions about whether it was not in the public interest to do so.
The first case occurred on May 23, when the chief secretary, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs and the director of the chief executive's office, acting as a government source, explained why it is in order, legally and policy-wise, for undersecretaries to hold foreign passports. The explanation was very substantive and important, as it involved an interpretation of the Basic Law.
On the following day, a Chinese paper disclosed the true identities of the officials. I am not aware of any action taken by the government against this breach of confidentiality. I only know that the same paper was invited to a subsequent briefing by a different government source.
It is not clear to me why these senior accountable officials chose to remain anonymous. It did not help to make their reply more convincing; on the contrary, it fuelled more speculation. The media and public were not content, and pressed for an official response. In the end, not only did the officials concerned meet the media publicly, but the chief executive had to take the unprecedented step of addressing the Legislative Council, where his words were put on public record.
The second case occurred on July 16. The government source was the chief executive. He met the media after his question-and-answer session in Legco. In fact, before leaving the chamber, he said he had promised to meet the media afterwards. The following day, the identity of the government source was again disclosed in a Chinese newspaper. Many papers also used terms such as 'the most senior government source' - an explicit allusion to the chief executive.
The briefing covered more than just the HK$11 billion handout package. According to a media report, the government source referred to Vice-President Xi Jinping's statement on the 'mutual understanding and support among the executive, the legislature and the judiciary', which attracted widespread interest. It was reported that the source had said Mr Xi was merely referring to 'our mutual objective' and that 'we should respect the governance culture of the mainland'. If the chief executive had made a similar statement publicly, some media representatives would have asked for elaboration or clarification on this very important subject. The reply would have become a matter of public record.
It is not clear to me why the chief executive chose to remain anonymous. One would have thought it would be ideal for the chief executive to have an open media briefing afterwards to allow for follow-up questions, or comments on a topical issue such as Mr Xi's remarks.
Indeed, an open media session after every Legco question-and-answer session would be the best manifestation of an open and accountable government. It is something the chief executive or his advisers should consider seriously.
These two cases and the way they were reported suggest it is time for the government and the media to review the arrangement of having a government source in a briefing.
In my view, it is not appropriate for the government to address important questions of public concern through a source, when the reply leaves no official record.
But it is also not fair to the government when the source's identity is subsequently disclosed, except by name. If some papers do so every time, out of disagreement or protest, it reflects a more fundamental problem, which should be addressed.
I am not suggesting that there is no place for confidential briefings. But they should take place with a proper understanding of the ground rules between the government and the media, and provided that it does not affect the public's right to expect an on-the-record response from the government and its most accountable officials.
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is currently an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong