Serious season

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 August, 2010, 12:00am

In this city, the advent of 'silly season' - a term used to describe the emergence of more frivolous news when the usual newsmakers are on holiday - sees pseudo-models selling their pseudo-books at the pseudo-book-fair, organised by what I have argued before is a pseudo-public-body (aka the Trade Development Council).

The 'silly season' is prime time for the most sophisticated forms of self-promotion, an activity at which our politicians excel. But the Legislative Council's summer recess also means that the media can put aside the theatrics inside the chamber and focus more on the news that really matters. The issue of teenage drug abuse may have remained safely tucked under the carpet if not for the media's work last summer.

For 2010, the Octopus and Amina Mariam Bokhary stories have enough controversy and drama to get us through the rest of the year. It will take months, if not years, for the Octopus saga to play out. While former Octopus card chief executive Prudence Chan Bik-wah is learning her own lesson about the importance of being earnest, the general public is only now learning the importance of prudence, especially when it comes to giving out personal data.

For a moment, let's set aside the silly competition between, and blatant self-promotion by, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions to see who can hold the most press conferences featuring witnesses who have sold or come into contact with Octopus lists even after Ms Chan had come clean.

The Octopus Saga is still this year's teenage drug story, which will - hopefully - finally get the government, business community and consumers to address privacy concerns.

Such issues rarely make front-page headlines (an exception was the squabble between the last privacy chief and the Audit Commissioner). Consider, though, how the invasion of other people's privacy is the reason why weekly gossip magazines and tabloids are the city's most popular reading material. Then add the fact that our mobile phone companies, banks, insurance companies, and all the customer loyalty programmes we have signed up for, have been passing on and selling our personal information for years.

The Octopus saga is different only because it elicits an emotional response, for three reasons. It is - by association with the MTR Corporation and the government - part of 'the establishment'.

The public, rightfully, doesn't expect it to engage in dubious business practices. And, unfortunately, the same expectation left many people vulnerable to overlooking the fine print, and made fools out of us for doing so.

Politically, it is the perfect issue to fuel the anti-establishment fires that have been burning ever brighter. And, most importantly, it is an easy target for our pent-up frustration; anger at being, for years, the subject of daily interruptions by annoying telemarketers, who have all got our information from somewhere.

As someone who has been pestered by a man genuinely concerned about my hair count, and another who tried to sell me hospital-stay insurance during a recent funeral service, I am the first to admit that seeing the Octopus saga unfold and the resulting public outcry felt like sweet revenge.

But leaving aside the gratification of witnessing frivolous political contests, the dumbest of all self-inflicted public relations blunders and people in suits left scrambling, we have Octopus to thank for finally getting privacy issues the attention they deserve. Without it, there would have been no reason to consider making privacy-breaching activities criminal or shady businesses practices liable to prosecution.

And the public may now think twice and read the small print before signing up for the occasional freebie and rebate.

If we and the news media can address serious issues in such depth each 'silly season', perhaps we should think about allowing the legislature a longer recess from now on.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA