Government officials using veil of secrecy to elude accountability

C.K. Yeung says the government cannot win public support if it continues to hide behind anonymous briefings when communicating with the people on matters of major public interest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 4:09am

Public communication is a core competence of government. By this measure, our government has failed miserably at a time when public support is badly needed for effective governance.

The latest glaring example is the way the government made known to the public that annual government expenditure will be cut by 1 per cent a year over the next two years, and that in a departure from past practice, any spending on new projects will be allocated by the chief executive rather than proposed by individual policy secretaries and department heads.

This surprise move has attracted public comments, including speculation that it is the outcome of a tussle between the chief executive and the financial secretary for control of the public purse strings.

If the pundits are wrong, they are in good company, for there is little to go on for an informed analysis. The people of Hong Kong knew about the spending cut only from media reports quoting "government sources" at an unattributable briefing. By definition, any news attributed to "sources" is unofficial. For all we know, the source may just want to broach an idea, or deliberately leak information to test public reaction. The only official written words in the public domain on the spending cut are two paragraphs in Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's blog, awkwardly supported by hasty comments from a couple of policy secretaries when buttonholed by the media.

Such meagre information from the government on a subject of such importance shows a scant regard for the public's right to know.

To add insult to injury, the few official words came to us only in Chinese. Those who don't read Chinese - and there are plenty, including expatriate analysts eager for crumbs of knowledge - were compelled to rely on translations of an already skimpy reportage, confused by what is official and what is not.

This is not an isolated incident. The financial secretary had previously refused to answer questions from English-speaking media representatives on the lame excuse that a media release in English had not been prepared.

Earlier in June, after some protesters had tried to storm the Legislative Council building, the media reported that a "government source" had named six community and student groups as the culprits behind the unlawful act. But what credibility should be attached to a source who was bold enough to identify wrong-doers but dared not identify himself? What kind of sneaky image is the government projecting for itself when the accused were far more open and upright in committing the alleged wrong-doing than the government was in slamming it?

Had a senior police officer in full uniform with a name and rank come out to identify the suspects, he would have done so with moral authority.

Announcements by nameless, faceless government sources are becoming a habit in the government's public communication. In the month of July alone, we have unidentifiable government sources briefing the media on:

  • International media's misunderstanding about the situation in Hong Kong;
  • Bringing private columbaria under licensing control;
  • Why the government would not re-juggle the Legislative Council Finance Committee's agenda in the face of a filibuster;
  • The contents of the government's report on constitutional reform; and
  • The safety standards of the MTR express rail train carriages purchased from the mainland.

By now it is abundantly clear that the government has abandoned any pretence of conducting transparent, open and above-board media communications. Instead, it has opted for closed-door, not-for-attribution selective media briefings.

Why the secrecy? Why the fear to face the public? How can a secretive government hope to win the support of the public if it makes a habit of hiding behind a veil of secrecy in communicating with the people on matters of major public interest?

Off-the-record background briefings are occasionally justified, as when sensitive issues are involved. To brief the media on the progress of talks with the Philippine government on compensating the Manila hostage victims is a case in point. There, diplomatic protocol precluded any official disclosure before an agreement was reached.

But the government is turning an occasional departure into a pattern of misuse and abuse of the practice. It is a misuse because anonymous briefings have now replaced straightforward information sharing with the public, thereby undermining the credibility of both the government and media organisations.

It is an abuse because the anonymity of the briefings allows officials to elude accountability for what they say. If what they say turns out to be biased, inaccurate or unsupported, they can get off scot-free as just a nameless and faceless source. Unlike statements attributable to a "government spokesperson", whose identity a journalist must disclose if the authenticity or accuracy of attributed information is queried, journalists are prevented by their professional ethics from revealing their "sources".

Safeguarding the confidentiality of sources is intended to facilitate the gathering of news that might otherwise be unobtainable, as anonymity loosens the tongue of fearful sources. But the government is making a mockery of such journalistic qualms, and is using it to evade accountability in discharging its public communication duties.

Inevitably, indulging in unaccountable communication will blur the line between what is official and unofficial, between truth and untruth. Is this what the government wants? If not, then it should cease this practice.

C.K. Yeung teaches in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong