Hong Kong media betraying public trust

Lau Nai-keung says the reports on pellet spill demonstrate misplaced priorities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2012, 3:50pm


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Last Friday, the environmental group Hong Kong Coast Watch posted a series of messages on its blog blasting local and international media for failing to properly respond to its notification of the massive plastic pellet spillage that has left many beaches polluted.

Some 150 tonnes of pellets that belonged to Chinese oil and chemical company Sinopec spilled out of shipping containers that were knocked off a freighter in waters south of Hong Kong last month during Severe Typhoon Vicente. On some beaches, pellets have piled up like snow.

The South China Morning Post, together with the Chinese-language and international media, were blasted for "their lack of interest in investigating and reporting the incident and their sole interest in trying to embarrass the government".

According to the green group, the Post was notified of the massive pollution crisis on July 26 but the story was "hidden away" in the City section the next day. An editorial appeared only on August 8.

To be fair, the Post did respond, although not as enthusiastically as Hong Kong Coast Watch wanted, and as the English-reading community is only a small minority in the city, it is not too fair to single out this paper for blame.

It is now common practice that "unless you can get dirt on the government" or some entity related to the mainland authorities, the Hong Kong media will not be interested. That has been apparent in the pellet-spill incident, where the focus of the reporting has been to try to embarrass the government and Sinopec, rather than on informing the public and rallying participation to defuse the crisis.

If one cares to look at the government website, it's clear that data has been collected since July 24 and there have been daily updates since August 6. Clean-up work also began in time - but, without public support, progress has inevitably been much slower than the crisis demands.

That is why the green group said it was not "unhappy with the government's response to this crisis"; it is the lack of interest in the real issue and the wrong angle of reporting and commentary that "cost the clean-up much needed support".

While Hong Kong is known for its press freedom and editors are free to make decisions regarding what events to report and how to go about reporting them, such freedom is based on respect for media professionalism and trust in the media to put public interest before sensationalism.

Unfortunately, there have been many recent incidents indicating that perhaps such respect and trust have been misplaced, and that our press freedom has been abused for commercial and political ends. All the while, some of our journalists are lamenting that press freedom in Hong Kong is shrinking fast.

What a farce. Poll after poll indicates that people in Hong Kong in general tend not to believe what is reported in our media. If our journalists do not respect their privileges and regularly abuse them, people will not care whether press freedom is shrinking or not.

In fact, should this carry on, when the crunch comes, our media will find that they are in an untenable position and there is no sympathy from citizens.

This is not a position our media would like to be in, and to be frank it is not one that would benefit our community.

The media are the guard dogs of public interest, and we all have to make sure they are seen to be fair-minded and incorruptible. That is why it is in our common interest to get our media back on the straight and narrow.

This cannot be achieved without the help of media professionals. Please, don't betray our trust any more.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development