Beware of those seeking to manipulate public opinion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am

Since the release of his policy address last month, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has been under fierce media attack over allegations of favouritism. These sensationalist, negative reports dominated the front pages of several mainstream Chinese dailies for more than two weeks, creating a well of public discontent against Tsang and his administration, his popularity hitting a new low.

According to a University of Hong Kong opinion poll in mid-October, public distrust almost doubled, from 14.3 per cent in August to 28 per cent last month. On the other hand, public trust in the government fell slightly, by one percentage point, to 45 per cent, over the same period. Tsang's popularity rating fell to 48.4 per cent, his lowest since taking office in 2005.

Two damning allegations quickly became scandals for Tsang. The first was that his son's father-in-law would benefit from the subsidy voucher scheme for energy-saving light bulbs announced in his recent policy address. Tsang was criticised for failing to declare that his in-law was a distributor of Philips light bulbs in Hong Kong. Second, it was claimed that a legislator had assisted Tsang's sister-in-law to secure early compensation to recover a portion of her Lehman Brothers investment months before most other victims.

Even veteran politician Allen Li Peng-fei said he was bewildered by the resoluteness of the media. He said it was extraordinary for two leading Chinese dailies to mount such a concerted anti-government attack by carrying front-page stories continuously for more than 10 days.

Li said that, while the media might have been overly confrontational, Tsang should rectify his mistakes before it's too late. He suggested a good place to start would be to look at the performance of his administration, especially whether his political spin doctors have done a competent job. More importantly, have they been truthful in relaying the true depth of public sentiment to their boss?

I agree with Li that it's time for the chief executive to do some soul-searching. But we shouldn't be misled by his remarks and allow the media to pull the wool over our eyes with reports that are based on false information. Sensational news does not represent public opinion.

In any event, those accusations have turned out to be untrue. Regarding the light-bulb incident, it was confirmed that Tsang's in-law was not the sole distributor, and had sold most of his company shares years ago. Tsang's sister-in-law was not given preferential treatment because many other investors received early settlements, some before her.

The danger is that sensational news and false reports can be used to manipulate public opinion. Because the media has been so aggressively hounding Tsang, it is not difficult to understand why both his and the administration's popularity ratings have plunged.

But most unexpected was the prejudiced analysis played up by the director of HKU's public opinion programme, Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, who said that, if Tsang's popularity rating hit the 45 mark, it would be equivalent to public support of only 20 per cent. He also warned that, in the West, such low ratings almost certainly force leaders to resign.

Such scaremongering perpetuated by an esteemed academic is mind-boggling. Chung's job is to conduct public opinion surveys, which are just academic studies.

Has Chung forgotten the controversy he sparked over the alleged government interference of his public opinion programme in 2000? At that time, he claimed that he had been under political pressure from the government and his university to discontinue his opinion polls on the then-chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and his administration.

Chung alleged that such interference would hinder academic freedom. If he truly treasures academic freedom, he should recognise that he has a responsibility to maintain political impartiality at all times.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.