TWO weeks ago, the torso of Cheng Sau-ling was found floating along the Western waterfront, followed a few days later by other parts of her body. Detectives believe the 29-year-old waitress may have been killed, chopped up and placed in several bags before being dumped into the harbour. It is horrible enough to imagine the scene from newspaper reports, but some local papers also provided vivid pictures of the decapitated head of Cheng in a bucket. The graphic nature of the Cheng pictures has raised questions about how far publishers should go in deciding what is in the public interest and what is good or bad taste. This is not the only instance where a press report has caused distress. Readers might remember popular local news weeklies, Next Magazine and Eastweek, which had extensive coverage about sex and prostitutes. Eastweek, a magazine owned by Oriental Press Group, carried sex-related stories on its cover for weeks and weeks this summer. Hot topics included prostitutes in Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Macau, the gay beach in Southern District, and male prostitutes in Guangzhou. Next Magazine also covered several stories about mainland prostitution. The coverage in both magazines was extremely detailed, with information on where to call for sexual services, and the costs. One radio listener called a phone-in programme days after a report on prostitutes in Macau, and said he was interested in contacting one of the prostitutes after reading the report. The stories were no longer news reports and had turned into prostitute advertisements and directories. Publishers and editors have a good platform from which to defend themselves. They point out that such stories enhance readership figures, which prove readers love to read them. If a publisher or news media owner thinks what he does is just a business, with a sole aim of profit-making, is it such a bad thing? Such thinking is behind the proliferation of pornographic comics on Hong Kong news stands. A newspaper is not just a business - it is a business with a degree of moral responsibility. It should fully understand what effect its articles, stories and pictures will have. Although there are no guidelines available for the news media, they should apply their own moral standards before committing themselves to printing or going on the air. Some legislators have suggested that in order to give victims of press reports some opportunity for redress, a media watchdog should be established. But the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) is worried such a body may be used by Beijing as a weapon to suppress freedom of the press in the territory after 1997, even though it supports the idea in principle of having some kind of regulatory mechanism. But to put the possible infringement of freedom of the press above the flagrant abuse of such power is misplaced. If we were to apply the HKJA's logic, nobody would stand in September's district board elections for fear of losing their seats later. Nor will they contest the municipal council elections next April or the Legislative Council poll next September, since Beijing has stressed there will not be a through train after the change of sovereignty. In the same way, reacting to fear of future heavy-handed tactics from Beijing has affected the establishment of an independent body to regulate the abuse of freedom. In fact, the HKJA has done some work as a watchdog on press reports. For instance, it criticised an Eastweek report which suggested a murdered female insurance agent had sex with her clients as a business exchange last year. But the criticism was not effective as the magazine has since continued with its editorial line. An independent press council, with legal authorisation, will make the press more alert about what they are doing, while the victims of press reports can take the council's judgment in seeking compensation. Ideally, every editor and reporter should think carefully before committing a story to print, but in Hong Kong's highly competitive, Beijing-fearing media environment, such a hope seems wishful thinking.