What lessons from Murdoch saga can be drawn in HK?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am


Maybe there is some complacency in Hong Kong as the humbling of the Murdoch media empire is being played out far away in London, but what of the people who control the local media? What of their influence and the ethics that prevail here?

Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the boss of the powerful Next Media group, says he is planning to introduce greater independent oversight of his media operations. Elsewhere, there appears to be silence broken only by complacent reassurances that things are perfectly OK here.

Here, of course, doesn't stretch across the border to the mainland, which arguably has the world's most rigidly controlled media and where the kind of phone hacking that raised hackles in London is mainly the preserve of the state.

Things are definitely better in Hong Kong, but do we really have reason to be so smug? A relatively small number of companies dominate the media scene and it would take remarkable myopia to conclude that bad journalistic practices, including unwarranted intrusion and salacious reporting, do not prevail here.

It really is only in the last few decades that the Hong Kong media emerged from an undistinguished cocoon of subservience to political, business and official interests. Since its emergence, the media has often played the role of government watchdog and voice of the voiceless.

This is all good news but there are distinct echoes of the Murdoch-style dominance of the media, which is causing such concern in Britain. We shall put aside the fact that Rupert Murdoch's company used to own this newspaper and that in the English-language media, competition has always been limited. Among the Chinese-language media, two newspaper groups share something like 80 per cent of print media circulation between them. This dominance carries the kind of dangers that have raised concern in Britain but are barely commented on here.

Then there is another similarity, namely the closeness of the police to some media entities. It should be stressed that there is no evidence of impropriety, yet suspicion lingers that the police, who should be operating with no regard whatsoever to media pressure, may enjoy a kind of relationship that undermines their independence.

Most worrying is the way in which the old colonial government and its successor have sought to bind the people who control the media to the government.

All governments spend a lot of time and effort trying to influence the media so they can reach out to the public, but in Hong Kong there is an increasing tendency for less contact between senior officials and reporters and far more with their bosses, who are wined and dined and taken aside for confidential briefings clearly intended to influence how the news is covered.

In Britain, the Murdoch newspaper scandal has produced great interest in the number of times that Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives were invited for intimate exchanges with senior government officials. Encounters of precisely this kind are common in Hong Kong but rarely reported.

As in Britain, closeness to government is not evenly spread among media bosses. One of the biggest media groups is routinely given the cold shoulder while the other's relationship with the administration runs hot and cold. Meanwhile, the media that is closest to the leadership in Beijing, despite having minuscule readership, enjoys considerable access to officials and even has one of its ex-editors serving as a principal official.

Aside from these political considerations, what are we to make of newspapers that employ a particularly insistent group of paparazzi, armed with very-high-resolution and long-range camera lenses poking into the homes of newsmakers? And where is the line to be drawn between the private lives of those in the news and what should be in the public domain?

Hong Kong has escaped much of the debate on all these issues but it is being held with vigour elsewhere in the world, especially in Britain where the best thing to come out of the Murdoch scandal will be a serious reassessment of the role of the media. Hopefully it will not result in oppressive laws regulating the media, but it might end excesses carried out hypocritically in the name of journalistic freedom.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur