Commentary in SCMP June 30 on the HK media
Dog is not supposed to bite dog, nor journalists
to bite the hand that feed them. But maybe it is time to cast an eye
over some recent media failings. To this journalist at least, more attention
should be paid to what the media is failing to do.
Critics of the media should stop fussing
about libel, invasion of privacy and obscenity. These are things that
should be left to the law and the courts not to self-appointed "peers"
either of the sort found in the medical and legal professions which
can be remarkably forgiving to well connected colleagues, nor to the
government's notion of extra judicial tribunals with arbitrary and ill-defined
powers. . The media's errors are at least as much of omission as of
commission. That puts them in much the same category as the chair and
pension bound civil servants they so often criticise.
Some random examples.
* Earlier this week Hongkong was official
host to the President of a large (population 65 million) strategically
important middle income Asian country who went out of his way - a flight
from Urumqi -- to come here following an official visit to Beijing.
He owes his position and popularity primarily to his leadership of a
democratic reform process which is taking his nation towards the rule
of law and economic liberalisation home and an opening up to the outside
world rather similar to that inspired by Deng Xiaoping. Despite just
three years as president, his name is already at least as familiar internationally
as, for example, Kim Dae Jung or Mahathir Mohamad. Like him or not,
he is a major figure. But what was the Hongkong media's response to
his visit? Almost zero.
Oh the ignorance and arrogance and, dare
I say it, implicit racism of this city which so often proclaims its
"global" identity. This newspaper was one of those who did not regard
the visit of Iran's President Khatami was worthy of so much as a paragraph
though he addressed a meeting organised by the Trade Development Council
of which the media was given plenty of advance notice. Ditto I-Mail.
The Chinese language press was barely any better. Ta Kung Pao and Sing
Pao gave it a paragraph on an inside page with a photo supplied by the
TDC. Otherwise, nothing. Obviously there were dozens more important
things to cover -- Rotary club lunches and PR gimmicks to promote some
new fragrance or dot.com scam linked to a famous local family than bother
about a "raghead".
It did not help of course that though
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa hosted a lunch for President Khatami,
the government information service said nothing about it. Is Mr Tung
so afraid of offending Washington with its gut Islamophobia and made
in Israel Middle East policies? Or is he just out of touch with world
affairs, and economic opportunities? But the main blame must lie with
a local media which had almost a week's notice from the TDC of perhaps
the most significant president to have visited here since Clinton.
* The media was in fact preoccupied primarily
by the - genuinely important - issue of Housing Authority and related
mismanagement. It is fair enough for the media, like legislators, to
demand accountability of government departments and agencies which spend
billions of public money. There is little enough accountability and
there has long been much feathering of nests at the interface of private
and public sectors. Still, what struck me was the lack of investigative
reporting. It is easy enough to throw mud at Rosanna Wong and Tony Miller.
But who actually bothered to track the timing and decision-making sequence
and get closer to locating the roots of the scandal? There was a hue
and cry for scapegoats rather than a search for culprits.
There has been no lack of cases involving
scandals in the building industry which have been going on for years
under the nose of that small time graft buster, the ICAC.. On June 20
District Court Judge Richard Davies sentenced three persons to jail
for a piling scam involving the Tung Chung station foundations. In doing
so he made a damning indictment of the construction industry - parts
of which are owned by well known developers.: The case, said the judge,
"reflects the malpractice which has become common in the construction
industry in Hongkong.... I am left to deal with foot soldiers. Those
who issued commands have escaped justice". The SCMP quoted the judge
as saying that the guilty parties were acting on the instruction of
the senior management of their employer, I-P Foundations Ltd.
The extent to which Wong and Miller were
aware of but were unable to correct abuses in Housing Authority construction
contracts is evidently debateable. No one has accused them of impropriety,
so the issue should be: What is it in government procedures, or in the
links between officials and businessmen, that make malpractice so common?
A media which commanded respect and public support would be onto these
issues, chasing the chain of command, and the direction of profits arising
from the scams. Ditto those Legco members keener on finding scapegoats
than demanding that the authorities make a serious effort to catch those
who "issue the commands".
*Maybe there is a link here between the
media's willingness to criticise - usually rightly - the inadequacies
of government departments and the sycophancy displayed towards leading
members of the business community. This has been more remarkably than
ever over the past six months of tech stock boom and partial bust. Anyone
wanting real analysis of what has been going on at Tom.com, PCCW, Techpacific,
I-Steel etc needs to turn to web sites. The best is one man band David
Webb's webb-site.com but Quam.net too has analysts who do real work.
There are probably more of these sites that have escaped my attention.
The mainstream media on the other hand
is full of every kind of puffery churned out by public relations firms
and the investment banks who stand to gain most from foisting nearly
worthless paper onto an innocent public whose natural tendency to gullibility
is magnified by the media. You have to go to the web sites to learn
of the real beneficiaries of, for example, the float of Techpacific
a company headed by someone who must by definition be a paragon of corporate
transparency and virtue, former head of the Securities and Futures Commission,
When you read the list of those who got
allotments of shares at a fraction of the IPO price you may begin to
understand why investment bankers as a group have been so keen to peddle
any rubbish to which they can pin a "new economy" banner and why GEM
has been so willing to waive its own rules without a squeak of protest
from the SFC.The list includes Jack Wadsworth, local head of Morgan
Stanley, Henry Cornell of Goldman Sachs, Francis Leung, late of Peregrine
and the Red Chip mania and now peddling IPOs for BNP, and analysts from
Merrill Lynch and other brokerages. Doubtless this is just the tip of
an iceberg. Most allotments to insiders are passed through offshore
companies. But a media which ought to be probing the iceberg's dimensions
is either too lazy, or too susceptible to pressure from advertisers,
or just in thrall to big name investment houses do its job. ends
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