FCC in tug-of-war over film that alludes to members' legal dispute

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 4:23am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 4:25am

The Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in Hong Kong has been accused of censorship for refusing to screen a film to mark the 101st birthday of its most celebrated member, Clare Hollingworth, because of references to a legal dispute over her finances.

Hollingworth's great nephew, Patrick Garrett, wanted to screen the film at an October birthday celebration for the FCC doyenne, who began six decades as a foreign correspondent in 1939 by famously breaking the news of the outbreak of the second world war from the Polish border.

But permission to screen the film, already shown at Hollingworth's 100th birthday party at the FCC last year, was refused after fellow club member Ted Thomas objected to a section outlining a decade-old dispute over Hollingworth's finances.

Veteran public relations executive Thomas was ordered by the High Court in 2009 to repay money he removed from Hollingworth's bank account when he took over management of her finances while she was hospitalised with a broken hip in 2003.

Thomas - who withdrew more than HK$2.2 million over a two-year period, including HK$1.4 million in one five-day period - has refused to pay the outstanding amount, claiming most of what he has been ordered to repay is legal expenses incurred by the protracted High Court case brought by Garrett.

Garrett said he was "stunned" by the FCC's decision not to allow the film. "Frankly, Clare would be horrified to see self-censorship in a journalists' club," he said.

"She fought against it all her life - and got into plenty of trouble for it over the years. But she was adamant that the story should be told as it was.

"The president [FFC president Douglas Wong] suggested to me that maybe I could censor my own film - but one has to ask why? I've been meticulous on the facts - and the past nine years of Clare's life have seen her savings removed by Thomas, and his debts to her not repaid.

"Why should [the court case] be swept under the carpet?"

Garrett said he had been told the FCC was concerned about legal implications, but asked: "If we are in a situation where anyone can just write to the FCC and suggest there would be legal consequences… with certain events, what ground-breaking journalism can we expect in the club?"

Thomas, 82, who has not seen the film, said the objections came not only from him but from several friends who saw it last year and told him it was libellous.

People… said there was all this stuff about me having all this money from Clare, and it was totally untrue," he said. "I was told it [the film] included photographs of cheques I signed. Of course I signed bloody cheques. I was handling her business.

"I raised it with the FCC committee and I asked to see the script and he [Garrett] flatly refused. I said if he's putting on this thing at the FCC, where I've been a member for more than 50 years… I'd like to see a copy of the script to see if it's actionable."

Thomas said he believed the film was a polemic and added: "I can't afford to get into another bloody lawsuit and neither can he [Garrett] I would assume."

Hollingworth, who is frail and suffers memory loss, is unaware of the current controversy, which will be discussed by the FCC board at a meeting next Saturday following a request from Garrett.

Some members are said to be concerned less about the legal implications than whether mention of the dispute is appropriate in a film celebrating Hollingworth's life.

FCC president Wong said: "Clare is clearly a deeply cherished member of the club and we want to honour and celebrate her as much as we can."