SCMP Saturday, July 29, 2000
Media scrutiny a learning process for dons
As pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu's so-called "survey saga" drags on, the number of individuals implicated has continued to grow. These key players have reacted rather differently to the media. For the University of Hong Kong and the Chief Executive's Office, the incident has turned out to be an absolute public relations catastrophe.
Dr Chung was fully armed when he fired the first shot. He was mindful enough to hand out a chronology of events at his media briefing. The pollster was lucid in affirming his professional and ethical integrity. He paused several times and was at the brink of tears during his presentation. Many were touched by his sincerity.
Later the same day, pro-vice-chancellor Wong Siu-lun put forward the university's first line of defence. He left an impression that the institute's management had already geared itself towards a swift response. Like Dr Chung, Professor Wong was calm and levelheaded. He was by all standards a skilful speaker. The two academics are well matched. One could have expected a tug-of-war between them.
Nonetheless, Professor Wong's case crumbled when he told reporters that he could not recall details of his conversation with Dr Chung. The public was suspicious as to whether the professor was trying to cover up for his boss. This has rendered it even more difficult for vice-chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung to pick up the pieces.
Professor Cheng, on the other hand, fared badly at the airport on his arrival from London, at his home and later at his emotionally charged press conference. He appeared evasive and sometimes irritated, fuelling speculation that he had something to hide. His press briefing was counter productive and ended in disapproving, screaming headlines.
Meanwhile, his counterpart at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) was surprisingly skilful in handling the situation. Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung promptly accepted demands by student leaders to discuss accusations of government interference. He went a step further by making sure, before he ended his press briefing, that reporters had exhausted all the questions they wished to ask.
In contrast, HKU students had to brave the rains overnight outside their vice-chancellor's home to press for a face-to-face session with Professor Cheng. He only agreed to receive a petition letter from the students the next morning. In his press conference, reporters were only given 15 minutes to ask questions and journalists felt the wrath of the university authorities if they breached the ground rules.
Nevertheless, as long as Professor Cheng can stand up for academic excellence, there is no reason why HKU students should not be proud of him.
But so far, Professor Li has emerged as the only hero in the controversy. His attitude and performance were refreshing in this largely depressing saga.
A Harvard medical school graduate, Professor Li was fully prepared for the challenge. And above all, he appeared to be speaking his mind.
However, even Professor Li went overboard at times. Most people would expect a university chief to be prudent. Instead Professor Li was, at times, too eager to blow his own trumpet. He even asked reporters a rather self-serving rhetorical question: "Who dares to put pressure on the Chinese University?" He also suggested that the Senior Special Assistant to the Chief Executive, Andrew Lo Cheung-on, had been full of compliments about the CUHK opinion surveys. This suggested that Professor Li, perhaps subconsciously, cared about how the Chief Executive's aide perceived the university.
And he failed to address the crucial issue of whether Mr Tung's office had meddled with the appointment of a member to CUHK's governing council, Fung Wing-cheung. He diverted reporters' attention by joking that the member in question might enjoy having more time to play golf. He also stressed that the post was only an honorary position.
Yet Professor Li refrained from commenting on the claim that the Chief Executive had shortened Mr Fung's term of office from the usual three years to one. The Asian Wall Street Journal reported that this was because the Chief Executive's Office was unhappy about Mr Fung's close ties with Next Media group proprietor, Jimmy Lai Chee-ying.
Though the Chief Executive, as university chancellor, is entitled to choose some members of the council, that does not mean it would be proper for him to use his discretion to suppress dissenting political voices.
Some HKU alumni said the three press conferences by Dr Chung, Professor Wong and Professor Cheng were tantamount to trial by the media. "It is like," one columnist observed, "the Christians being fed to the lions."
However, the CUHK media encounter actually set a positive example. The outcome often hinges on the extent of preparation and crisis management. Local reporters tend to practise what is called pack journalism. They often pursue their stories in the same direction, and being evasive will only incite this instinct.
But the fact remains that there is no evidence that HKU's opinion survey programme has been undermined. It will be a pity if the protagonists are regarded as villains just because of their poor communication skills.
Albert Cheng King-hon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a broadcaster and publisher.