Criticism of government must be based on fact

Mike Rowse says the media must not only be vigilant, but also accurate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:42am

The Apple Daily newspaper was recently obliged to issue a front-page apology to executive councillor Franklin Lam Fan-keung, after wrongly claiming that he had admitted discriminating against people from the mainland. In fact, not only was the story not true, it was the exact opposite of what Lam had actually said.

As a recording of his speech clearly showed, Lam had stated emphatically that he did not discriminate against new immigrants from the mainland. Once they had come to Hong Kong legally, they would be first-class citizens, like the rest of us.

So, the omission of a single word had significant repercussions. Most sensible people realise that from time to time, even the most diligent reporters are going to make the odd mistake. Provided there is a quick correction, any harm done is likely to be moderate and transitory.

There has been another instance recently where the media as a whole have missed out a key word. But in this case there has been no apology or correction, and indeed the offending omission has been constantly repeated.

In a case before the Court of Final Appeal on the question of right of abode here, counsel representing the government has asked the court to consider seeking an interpretation of the relevant article in the Basic Law from the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. The key word here is "consider".

As a party to the proceedings, the administration has a legitimate right to make representations to the judges to consider any matter which it thinks may be relevant. That is what lawyers do when they go to court.

However, for weeks now, the English and Chinese media have dropped the word "consider" and abbreviated the line to "the government has asked the court to seek an interpretation from Beijing". The omission is serious because it completely changes the underlying spirit of what the government has done.

By making its request in the way it has, the government is showing respect for the court, abiding by the principle of judicial independence, and standing by the rule of law.

The shortened version, by contrast, implies that the government is undermining the court, telling it to go to a higher authority to get a "correct" verdict, in effect subverting the rule of law.

The error is right across the board: even the government's own radio station has fallen into the same trap.

Anyone is entitled to criticise what the government has actually done. For example, a case might be made that the government was unwise to make such a suggestion because it could sow the seeds of self-doubt in the court's mind. But the place to make such an argument is not in incomplete news reports.

One possible cause of the way things have developed is a mindset that is ultrasuspicious of any hint of inappropriate central government intervention in local affairs.

It is right for the media to be alert to these dangers. But that makes the case for accurate reporting even more compelling.

As someone who has benefited in high-profile proceedings from the independence of the judiciary, I would be the last to undermine that safeguard of an individual's freedom. Equally, as one of the founder members of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, I am second to none in my support for the principle of freedom of the press.

Hong Kong's free way of life depends on us protecting both of these institutions.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.