SCMP Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Beware censure via council's back door


Recent developments surrounding the Press Council give credence to the fear that the Government has finally found an indirect way of reigning in the media and making it more ideologically correct.
The Press Council, an industry body originally conceived to tackle problems of invasion of privacy by newspapers, now wants to take on sex, violence and unethical reporting. In order to be able to pass judgment freely, it is seeking exemption from libel suits. For that privilege, it wants to become a statutory body.
To gain a statutory position requires legislation in the form of a private member's bill, to which the Government is understood to have given its tacit blessing. Once such an ordinance, essentially involving press freedom, is in place, the Government would be free to propose amendments. The fear is that the council just might become an arm of the Government.
To ask for statutory legal protection, the council would be unwittingly inviting Government involvement. This would be ironic. The council was formed within the industry last year to avoid any official involvement following a Law Reform Commission recommendation that a statutory press body be put in place to deal with privacy complaints.
The council is currently conducting a public consultation on the controversy of whether it should become a statutory body.
The debates surrounding the status of Government-owned broadcaster RTHK and the Press Council come down to one common factor: press freedom.
Some argue that RTHK's Headliner programme - suggested by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to be in "bad taste" after it likened his administration to the Taleban regime in Afghanistan - is basically an entertainment programme, and so the issue of press freedom doesn't arise. But that is wrong. The Government itself has always acknowledged that RTHK has the Director of Broadcasting as its chief editor, and that the station enjoys editorial independence. This serves as an official recognition that RTHK is a journalistic entity, and the Headliner programme is akin to political cartoons in a newspaper.
The Headliner incident is about press freedom. That is why Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen felt obliged to reassure the public about press freedom in general, albeit almost a week after the the fact.
What role the public broadcaster should play is a difficult issue. The Government clearly neither wants it to go private (as one more "unfriendly" member of the media) or be disbanded (with big political cost at home and abroad). The status quo is likely to remain for a long time.
The crux of the issue is that the broadcaster operates on government money. If the satirical programme in question had been an ATV or TVB current-affairs production, it would have been an issue of press freedom, and there couldn't possibly be any official fuss. When it comes to censuring supposedly bad taste in the media, the Government has authority only over RTHK.
Meanwhile, the Press Council wants to change. But that move could have long-term repercussions and cause irreversible damage to the local press.
Led by the Newspaper Society, which represents publishers, the council's 11 members include four pro-Beijing dailies. [The South China Morning Post is also a member.] By becoming a statutory body, it would not have penalising power but would have the authority to request non-members such as the Apple Daily, Oriental Daily News and The Sun - which together have more than 70 per cent of the market - to run corrections or apologies.
Members of the council say in private that the body probably would not need the statutory position if it did not have to worry about being sued for libel. But if the council is worried about this, media outlets should also worry that the council - an unelected body which claims to represent public opinion - could use its legal privilege to smear them.
The Press Council used to compare itself with the Consumer Council, which was inappropriate because the latter does not involve within-the-trade competition. It now compares itself with the Medical Council and the Bar Association, which is also inappropriate because they are professional bodies operating on clear-cut ethics normally not involving matters of taste, let alone political correctness.
Hong Kong newspapers have failed to discipline themselves, the Press Council says. There's certainly plenty of room for improvement, but readers of the Chinese language press would generally agree that things have become better in the past year or so. The brutal reality is that a squeaky clean press can only be found in an autocratic society.
Judging by the opposition already expressed by legislators from the democratic camp, the Press Council's plan for statutory recognition is likely to meet opposition in the Legislative Council.
The Government's power to censure bad taste is now confined to the public broadcaster. Such power must not extend to the private sector.
Claudia Mo Man-ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. She is a presenter of RTHK'S Media Watch.