Gutter journalism made a mockery of the island territory’s self-proclaimed ‘march toward democracy’, argues Alice Wu                                            Hong Kong, 29 March — Sex, lies, sleaze, money, mafia, illegal basement, and tear-gas — boy, calling Hong Kong’s just-completed Chief Executive election “scandal ridden” is an understatement!   Scandal after scandal began wheeling out like pieces of raw fish on rotating sushi bars for the media’s picking. Is this what journalists’ heaven is like?

For months, nothing else seemed able to make it into the city’s news studios, broadsheets and blogosphere.  But the local news media had never been so energized.  All of a sudden, people – of every age bracket – are reading the papers, paying attention to news broadcasts, discussing and debating about the race only a small circle of 1200 local electors – who some adamantly believe to be carefully (s)elected by Beijing – get to vote on.

But while all were tuned into these stories of extra-marital affairs, illegitimate child(ren), illegal basement installing, and an alleged triad member sitting in at a campaign-related dinner that supposedly indicate the character (or lack thereof) and quality of the candidates, has anyone paid attention to how the news media conducted itself?

Executive Council member and founder of policy think-tank SynergyNet Anthony Cheung Bing-Leung did, complaining mildly in a recent South China Morning Post column that the “election reporting and discussions are disappointing.”

And yes, they are because photographs, emails, rumors have been placed front and center – with complete disregard for the need to verify, investigate and authenticate. Instead of doing its job of sifting and sorting through the mess (and elections are inherently messy), thereby helping the public make sense of them, and identifying real issues of contention, the news media interested itself only in providing stories with shock appeal. It no longer reports and lets the people decide. It decides, provides unchecked material and leaves Danielle Steele-esque details for the public’s imagination.

The disappointment isn’t new; and Hong Kong’s news media has long been far from perfect.  I remember being on a radio show a few years ago, discussing media ethics with the chief executive officer of one of the city’s best selling Chinese language dailies. I argued against the sensational way some newspapers market their news and the need for news outlets to recognize their duty as well as their power to pry.  The newspaperman blamed readers for wanting and paying to read their garbage and said that uptight people like me should start living in the new millennium. 

“Unfashionable” may have been the word a few years back; and media ethics is apparently non-existent for some in today’s Hong Kong.  Just two days before polling day, Sing Pao decided to demolish any credibility it has left by changing one of its columnists’ opinion piece entirely to fit the paper’s front page slant.  Veteran commentator and China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-Siu thought he filed a piece that argued for the rejection of both leading candidates.  But what he saw in the actual paper was entirely different.  The original title, “Neither Henry Tang nor Leung Chun-Ying is worth supporting”, became “Out of the two, [I] would rather choose Leung Chun-Ying”, who turned out to be the eventual winner – after Beijing changed its mind on who it wants at the helm.

The “minor tweaking”, or so the editor claimed, also involved turning upside down Lau’s intention to say that both are unelectable to “If there is really a need to make a choice, then, let’s choose Mr. Leung Chun-Ying.”  Lau originally concluded by saying, “Therefore, neither Mr. Tang nor Mr. Leung is worthy of support.  They do not deserve sympathy either.” The published piece reads, “Mr. Tang is not worthy of support.  Nor does he deserve sympathy.”

Not only does this publication regard complete bias in its political reporting as sensible, it sees changing a person’s opinions and words to fit its political persuasion its job. On the same day, Sing Pao editors replaced another writer’s piece because she backed the other candidate.

It’s an abomination.  Its chief editor claimed they were little more than minor edits and that the whole thing was just a misunderstanding.  His self-delusion will not change that fact that his paper mangled someone’s voice and that the shop he is operating has no regard for free speech. For this alone, the paper deserves to be shut down.

It is unclear whether the paper did it under pressure, as another of our publications Hong Kong Economic Journal — had allegedly, which the paper denies, been contacted by Central government authorities, or to please Beijing, especially since mainland authorities have been rather blatant in their heavy-handed efforts in controlling the result of the election; or whether it has something to do with its owner, a mainland property developer.  It has been circulating within some political circles that the Chief-Executive-elect intends to shift Hong Kong’s precious land supply from the control of traditional large local property developers to smaller firms and mainland developers.  If that is, in fact, true, then Sing Pao’s owner would seem to have a lot to gain by his paper taking a stand.

But for whatever reason, Sing Pao has brought the entire profession down to a new low, and has made a mockery of press freedom.  This is the biggest story of the Hong Kong Chief Executive election.

Journalist and political consultant Alice Wu has been writing about local politics and current affairs for the South China Morning Post since 2008. Her “By the Window” column appears in Perfect Cup, a quarterly publication put out by the Pacific Coffee Company.  She is also a Hong Kong-based political and current affairs commentator.  A media and public affairs consultant, Wu specializes in a broad range of communications disciplines including media campaigning, training and analysis, and public policy-related communications and analysis.  She was one of the first editors of ASIA MEDIA, back when its home was not at LMU but at UCLA.