As if the impending introduction of legislation on treason, subversion, sedition, secession and theft of state secrets is not enough of a threat to the media, Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping has warned of the death of press freedom if local Chinese newspapers do not guard against vulgarity and unethical reporting. In his address to the annual conference of the Chinese Language Press Institute on Thursday, the senior official lamented that the Chinese press in Hong Kong has been plunged into crisis as publications fight for survival in a highly competitive market by pandering to prurient interests. Although he made no mention of plans to tighten controls on the press, his message was clear - pull back from sensationalism or the government will be forced to act. We detest any official attempt to rein in the press, but we have to accept that Dr Ho's remarks echoed the views of the moral majority who are concerned by the popular press' growing disregard for ethics. In the last decade, these media have pushed the bounds of decency further and further. Today, pictures of blood, sex and violence, and grossly exaggerated reports, have become commonplace in the mass circulation dailies and magazines. In one blatant breach last month, the now defunct Eastweek magazine sparked a public outcry by publishing the nude picture of an actress in pain. In 1999, the Law Reform Commission proposed the setting up of a statutory press council, with members appointed by the chief executive, to reprimand and impose fines on newspapers and magazines found to have invaded people's privacy. Concerns that this might impinge on press freedom prompted the industry to opt for self-regulation. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong Press Council, set up by several press organisations, civic-minded individuals and 10 newspapers including the South China Morning Post, has had only limited success in restraining the worst breaches of ethics because the offending newspapers and magazines were not, and still are not, members of the council. An attempt by the council to turn itself into a statutory, but non-governmental, body with powers to pass non-punitive sanctions on non-member newspapers was opposed by the major political parties and some members of the media. Yet it would be wrong for the government to exploit the negative sentiment whipped up by the Eastweek affair to assert its might over the press. An uninhibited press may be annoying and morally corrupting. But the alternative is far worse.