The long-running effort to bring higher professional standards to Hong Kong journalism took a significant step forwards yesterday. Four press organisations agreed on a code of ethics, and the vast majority of SAR media companies said they would apply these standards to their own work. The decision reflects a view held widely within the media business here, namely that more could and should be done to improve the ethical standards and overall quality of news gathering and reporting. But a degree of self-protection is also involved. Public complaints about lurid stories and gross invasions of privacy have prompted calls for government action to solve the problem, a cure worse than the disease. Most Hong Kong leaders, not only those in the news business, believe a free press is essential to its goal of thriving as an open trading city complete with a unhindered flow of information. By adopting a code of ethics, the four groups have done something specific to reduce problems without resorting to punitive legislation and government controls. But more is needed. For one thing, not all press organisations have welcomed the move. Two popular newspapers which have received much public criticism, the Oriental Daily News and the Sun, have refused to join it, although another, Apple Daily, has said it favours a code of ethics. Some left-wing publications, such as Wen Wei Pao, did not respond. Without these papers, any drive for higher standards must be incomplete. In addition, a code can be meaningless without a system of enforcing it. Several publications, including this one, favour creation of an industry press council to field public complaints about the media, investigate them and publish findings in hopes of deterring inappropriate practices. Eleven newspapers have agreed to join; for differing reasons, the ODN, Sun, Sing Pao, Apple Daily and Economic Journal have said they will not. Though many operating rules remain to be worked out, the move to create a press council will go forward. A system of penalties for violating the code of ethics, for example, has not yet been agreed. And the Government will be asked to exempt the council from defamation penalties, leaving it free to describe transgressions candidly. With time and experience, more media groups may join the press council drive to raise standards. If so, all Hong Kong citizens will benefit.