There is an old lawyer's trick, often trotted out when testimony is not going well from a client's point of view: try your best to change the subject and divert attention to something entirely different. That is precisely what attorney Alan Hoo, who represents a senior aide to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, is attempting in the inquiry into whether the Government tried to halt public opinion polling by an academic centre of the University of Hong Kong. The investigation is designed to seek the truth behind allegations that purported emissaries of Mr Tung, with or without his knowledge, tried to curtail polling which showed great public dissatisfaction with the Chief Executive's leadership and the performance of his government. The key claim is that Mr Tung didn't like the message so he tried to stop the messenger. The central figures in all this include the Chief Executive, pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu, senior executives of the university and Andrew Lo Cheung-on, the aide to Mr Tung. Some others played lesser roles. Just what these people said to each other on various occasions last year, and exactly what they intended, remains a matter of dispute. The inquiry is charged with sorting out these contradictory statements and issuing a report on what it believes really happened and why. Matters of great public interest are involved, especially those of academic freedom and political transparency. But the inquiry is not about recent press coverage of events which actually occurred in 1999, long before any news organisation knew about them. However, that is what Mr Hoo wants it to become, based on his performance yesterday. Rather than deal with the matter at hand - did his client try to exert unwarranted political influence on Mr Chung's polling activities? - Mr Hoo wants the inquiry to spend its valuable time studying press coverage of the polling issue, especially stories in this newspaper. On one level, that is entirely understandable. The controversy was launched by Dr Chung's column written for the Post and by an accompanying news story based on that column and follow-up interviews with him. Mr Hoo presumably hopes to divert attention from the central issue to whether the Post and others have reported this matter in a sensational and irresponsible way. The underlying suggestion is that, if there is something amiss, it is all the fault of the press. Thus he has raised extraneous questions about pronouns that may or may not be missing, and about who wrote the headline on the initial column published in this newspaper. Through his solicitor, a civil servant who should know better, Mr Hoo has suggested he might summon a Post reporter to testify and has asked whether her notes about July 6 interviews with Dr Chung could be turned over for his use. All of this is totally irrelevant. The inquiry is about whether the Government in 1999 took steps to curtail public opinion polls it didn't like. Nothing that this or any other media organisation has published in recent weeks can possibly alter the truth about what happened then. The tribunal was convened to uncover that truth and report its findings; no amount of parsing recent newspaper stories can help it do so. For the record, the Post did report Dr Chung's words and meaning with great accuracy; some minor editing changes to his column were made for the sake of clarity. But its basic message - that he believed the Chief Executive had sent word 'via a special channel' that he wanted the polling to stop - came through clearly. At no time in the 33 days since publication, until yesterday, has Dr Chung suggested anything to the contrary, despite his many public statements on the matter. In fact, direct communications received from him before the original column appeared make clear that he believed then that Mr Tung was the source of the pressure he felt. He may have been wrong. Mr Tung denies sending any such message, and Dr Chung now concedes that the 'special channel' might have been speaking only for himself. But he did not say or imply that at the time. In any case, statements by other key players contain inconsistencies which the tribunal needs to address; the truth remains murky. Apparently, Mr Hoo would rather divert its attention, and that of the public, to other things. Mr Justice Noel Power suggested yesterday he would not let this happen but would stay focused on the central issues. If so, the panel should be commended for not straying from the public interest.