My Take

BBC journalists are safe in Hong Kong – but their jobs in London are not

Staff at the British broadcaster’s Chinese-language service say move to Hong Kong will compromise editorial integrity; the truth is they fear for their jobs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 8:36pm

The BBC has a special place in my upbringing. It was not only where I listened to and learned proper English. From an early age, I have associated its journalists as intrepid professionals, fearless in their pursuit of “The Story”.

So I am a tad disappointed that its Chinese-language service staff now complain about having to relocate their main office from London to Hong Kong; apparently they fear for their safety.

Come again? They are talking about my hometown, not the mainland.

According to a report in The Guardian, staff are worried the plan “risks undermining the UK’s long-term national interest and so-called soft power” and “grossly underestimates the level of threat posed by the Chinese regime in Hong Kong to both BBC editorial integrity and safety of BBC journalists”.

‘Let’s fight together’: Hong Kong journalists welcome BBC Chinese service staff to city amid editorial independence fears

Granted, the state of local journalism has been hit hard since the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Constant accusations of self-censorship have given the profession a bad rap. Hong Kong’s ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders has dropped from 18th in 2002 to 69th this year.

But in a perverse way, if self-censorship is rampant, it means the state doesn’t practise overt censorship. So my BBC friends have nothing to fear. Don’t believe me? Ask your own BBC colleague, the brilliant Hong Kong-based Juliana Liu. Has she ever been threatened or censored after all these years in Hong Kong? If she has, I would love to hear about it.

Actually, I am certain some Chinese-language service staff have nothing to fear: they won’t be coming to Hong Kong. According to the BBC World Service head of language Liliane Landor, 10 new posts will be created in Hong Kong and 16 closed in London.

You can see why current staff may be upset about the relocation and cost-cutting exercise.

She wants the revamped Chinese service “to produce more original and relevant content”, according to an email she sent to her boss James Harding, the director of news.

Fears for press freedom in Hong Kong are overblown – try publishing a Ming Pao-style blank column in a Rupert Murdoch paper

“Our reach has been disappointing. Competitors are outperforming us,” she wrote. “In such an important market, we have had to look at what we are doing that’s not working and try to address this.”

Wow, that must have hurt! Now we know why the Chinese-service journos are so upset.