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 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, PCCW, Techpacific, I-Steel etc needs to turn to web sites. The best is one man band David Webb's but 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, Robert Owen.

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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