How best to referee the media scrum

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

The pushing and shoving last week between Beijing police and Hong Kong reporters covering the huge queues for Olympic tickets highlight a significant cultural gap. It is not the first time it has happened: a few weeks ago, Beijing police took the memory card from the camera of a Ming Pao reporter covering the disappearance of the Huaxia Commodities Spot Exchange Company's founder.

With the Olympics so close, it is hardly surprising that authorities are sensitive about anything that could prove damaging. They might, for example, worry about exaggerated reports of angry investors or thousands of disappointed sports fans.

The instinct to suppress bad news is strong among all governments. In the freest and most democratic countries, there are spin doctors trying to make negative news sound good. Wherever you have a free press, there are officials who leak things to friendly journalists or release embarrassing information when something else is dominating the headlines. Hong Kong is no exception.

On the mainland, of course, the state has much greater control. Reporters can be kept away from events, and there are ways to influence what the media covers, and how. This is the environment police commanders and other officials have been brought up in, which is why there is a real possibility of more friction between the authorities and the overseas media during the Olympics.

There is a danger that, if Chinese officials try too hard to control the overseas press, media restrictions will become a story in their own right, and the country's reputation will suffer. We have all seen pictures in the press of uniformed Chinese officials sticking their hand up to the camera lens. To a foreign press photographer, it might actually be the shot he wanted.

If the authorities are more open, however - as they were about the earthquake in Sichuan - the fact that people are allowed to report bad news could actually make China look good. That seems unlikely, though. All the signs are that the central government is worried about the idea of thousands of foreign reporters turning up. The conflict with the Hong Kong press last week won't have made them any more relaxed.

The Hong Kong media are, I think by any standards, fairly notorious for their energetic news-gathering methods. They are frequently on the scene of accidents before the emergency services arrive. They ignore security barriers and guards, and feel entitled to barge into any place and take photographs of anything they want. In Hong Kong, this is considered normal, but Beijing police officers are simply not used to it.

Mainland officials would probably also be shocked at some other things the Hong Kong press get up to. If you are a public figure in Hong Kong, it is not that unusual to be misquoted, possibly making you sound stupid. If you are unlucky, another journalist might pick up the misquote and use it as evidence that you are stupid. (That happened to me recently, and I get fairly good treatment compared with some people.) Anyone at all prominent in Hong Kong has to live with that, but I don't think prominent figures on the mainland would like it at all.

As the Olympics draws closer, the authorities in Beijing seem to have become increasingly concerned about how the overseas press should be handled, and how they will behave. Mainland officials know that they can't control what these reporters write or say. They obviously hope the foreign media will be impressed by all the hard work put into the Games, which will almost certainly be the case. But they probably find it hard to accept that these outsiders might show something negative.

The sheer number of reporters - possibly 20,000 - would alarm any city hoping to upgrade its image. If it is any consolation, few overseas journalists are probably as aggressive as their Hong Kong counterparts.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency