The ICAC has been politicised - but not by Leung
Mike Rowse says the high-profile complaint against Franklin Lam was but a smear campaign
There has been a lot of talk recently about "politicisation" of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Much of the commentary has been very wide of the mark and, in some cases, the logic of the situation has been turned completely upside down.
Let me begin by setting out the credentials which I believe allow me to speak with some authority. I arrived in Hong Kong in 1972, at which time corruption was rampant within the public service and in particular the police force. During 1973 and 1974, while working as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper, I specialised in writing stories about corruption.
When the ICAC was established and advertised for recruits, I joined the Operations Department in the first wave and was a proud member of Induction Course 1A. I stayed for three years in operations and also spent three years in the Corruption Prevention Department.
Because the forces of darkness were perceived to be all powerful, a priority in those years was to persuade the public at large to report at all. They were afraid of retribution and the new organisation had first to earn credibility. Most of the early reports were anonymous. Hence, the emphasis right from the outset was on protecting the identity of informants.
Bit by bit as the ICAC won its spurs, the situation improved and gradually the proportion of those making reports who were prepared to identify themselves crept up. They are now very much the majority.
But confidentiality remains vital to the organisation's work. There is, of course, still a need to protect informants, partly to improve the prospects of success by keeping the facts of investigation and key details secret, and partly to protect the reputation of those subject to false or malicious reports who are later found to be innocent.
This last aspect has been totally overlooked in recent years. In fact, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. There are some in our community who think nothing of making reports to the ICAC in a very high-profile way, sometimes actually turning up with camera crews and busloads of reporters and photographers in attendance.
Having lodged their "complaint", they then come out and make statements to the press naming the individuals and giving details of the allegation. The same media representatives then rush round to the person who is the subject of the complaint and demand a response. He in effect does a "perp walk" and the public are left with a very negative impression.
A common response might be to the effect that there's no smoke without fire: presumed guilty unless and until you can prove your innocence.
Why do the complainants - all active in political affairs - do this? Because it is an easy way to generate good publicity for themselves and smear their opponents, or those associated with them.
They are, in short, using the ICAC as a political weapon, knowing as they do that the organisation is obliged by law to investigate every complaint.
Reporting the outcome of investigations has also been politicised. When the ICAC, on the advice of the Department of Justice, decide not to prosecute, this might be for a range of reasons stretching from "did something dodgy, but just short of breaking the law" or "not quite enough evidence" right through to "report was erroneous, the accused is innocent".
For example, in a recent case, it was established that Franklin Lam Fan-keung had put two residential properties on the market prior to his appointment as an executive councillor. It was therefore quite false to claim that following his appointment he had taken advantage of inside knowledge to unload the properties in a hurry, fearing the impact of proposed new housing measures.
In effect, then, he was innocent, but this was reported in the media as "not enough evidence to prosecute" alongside quotes from his original accusers insisting on their own interpretation.
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying suggested that, in such cases, the accusers might care to apologise, he was accused of politicising the ICAC.
This is utter nonsense. The politicisation began with the original accusation.
Whether Leung was wise to say what he did is another matter. He could have waited for someone else to make the point on his behalf. Someone, perhaps, who had himself been subject of a false report and would therefore write with feeling about the subject.
Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. firstname.lastname@example.org