FIRST the Government helped precipitate the Chek Lap Kok opening fiasco by refusing to fire former Airport Authority chief executive Dr Hank Townsend, partly because it feared the negative message that sacking such a well-known expatriate would send to the international community so soon after the transition. Now Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie has caused widespread alarm by revealing that one factor behind her decision not to prosecute media tycoon Sally Aw Sian was a fear that possible closure of two long-standing local newspapers so soon after the handover might have been interpreted overseas as a blow against press freedom. What these events have in common is the way in which an almost paranoid preoccupation with projecting an image of nothing changing under Chinese sovereignty has been allowed to obscure other considerations, and has led to severe errors of judgment. Anyone who has talked to Ms Leung about this issue is left in little doubt that she honestly believed that the potential impact on the Sing Tao group was a legitimate public interest consideration which should be taken into account in deciding whether to bring charges against Ms Aw. Even her most ardent opponents do not accuse Ms Leung of acting in bad faith. Instead, Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming stressed it was with a 'heavy heart' that he would be supporting the motion of no confidence against Ms Leung, since he had always respected her integrity. Nor would it have been possible, as has been widely suggested, for Ms Leung to have prevented this controversy by avoiding all mention of public interest factors in the explanation of her reasons for not prosecuting. Only citing the lack of evidence against Ms Aw, an issue where the administration is widely accepted to have an arguable case, would not only have been dishonest but short-sighted. The full reasons for Ms Leung's decision, including her bizarre interpretation of public interest, had already been given to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, as well as to its Operations Review Committee, headed by former legislator Anna Wu Hung- yuk. So it would have only been a matter of time before the truth would have leaked out, resulting in even greater uproar. The problem is that no amount of honesty and integrity can easily rectify such a colossal misjudgment by someone whose position of authority means that she will have to continue taking decisions of similar sensitivity on a regular basis. It is some consolation that Ms Leung is unlikely to make this particular mistake again. At her meeting with legislators, she conceded that the supposed public interest factors, which she considered so important last February, had sinceLee: Democrats will win become 'less significant'. The widespread concern expressed over the past few days is also something which will weigh heavily on her in making any future such decisions. That much was clear from a damage-limitation statement on Friday night in which Ms Leung stressed that this case was 'wholly exceptional' and did 'not constitute a precedent for future cases'. In future, it seems likely that outside counsel will be asked to advise on cases of similar sensitivity. This was the course which Ms Leung refused to take over Ms Aw - but probably wishes, with hindsight, that she had adopted. However, such advice cannot be sought over every issue and, in any case, the final decision will remain with the Secretary for Justice. Since calls for her resignation are unlikely to get very far, with even the Democratic Party refusing to support a motion calling on her to step down, that means this important position will continue to be held by someone who will now have great difficulty in commanding the public's confidence. So the events of the past few days must serve as a warning against allowing an obsession with preserving the SAR's international image to override other, even more important considerations, such as the principle of equality before the law. For one lesson from this unfortunate affair is that an intention to make Hong Kong look good can all too easily end up having exactly the opposite effect.