Submission to the LegCo Panel on Home Affairs

by Tim Hamlett'

Let me begin by placing before you a couple of quotations:

..All the life and vigour of the popular press somehow leaked into television, carrying with it the mass audience, and leaving behind an elitist, establishment press - the mighty Fourth Estate, whose main function has dwindled to setting the news agenda for TV.

The idea of an irreverent press run by rogues, scoundrels, vulgarians and glorified vaudevillians repelled just about everyone. Sensationalism died, and with it mass readership. In ridding itself of the hacks, America succeeded in ridding itself of a viable press as well....

The lesson from America is that without the tabloids and their spirit of irreverence, the press becomes a bastion of conformity dedicated to lofty purposes, understood only by the few, an instrument for and by the elite...

    -S.J.Taylor: The tabloids in action
The Mirror is a sensational newspaper. We make no apology for that. We believe in the sensational presentation of news and views, especially important news and views, as a necessary and valuable public service in these days of mass readership and democratic responsibility. We shall go on being sensational to the best of our ability ...

Sensationalism does not mean distorting the truth. It means vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact in the mind of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language and the wide use of illustration... Every great problem facing us ... will only be understood by the ordinary man busy with his daily tasks if he is hit hard and often with the facts. The Mirror and its millions of readers prefer the vivid to the dull, and the vigorous to the timid. No doubt we make mistakes, but we are at least alive.

    -S. Bolam (at the time of writing the Chief Editor of the Daily Mirror.)
The point I respectfully seek to draw to the panel's attention is this. There are places which have a lively popular press, read by the majority of the population and covering, along with other things, those great issues of the day which we think of as the most important kind of news. Also there are places where one does not hear a constant stream of complaints that the newspapers are vulgar, irresponsible, inaccurate, pandering to the worst appetites of the public and run by people of deplorable taste. But these two happy conditions do not and cannot coexist.

If you have a popular press then it is only popular because it caters for the popular taste. This taste will not be the taste shared by the majority of politicians, of civil servants, or for that matter the majority of journalists. But reading newspapers is not a compulsory activity. Readers have a choice. Newspapers have to compete not only with each other but with other providers of news, and with other ways of passing time which no not involve the consumption of news of any kind. Hong Kong's popular press is not to everybody's taste. Those who do not like it have no difficulty in finding newspapers of a more exalted kind. But Hong Kong's popular newspapers do an excellent job in their own terms. Almost everyone in Hong Kong reads a newspaper. The popular newspapers still cover news, still report politics, still have editorials on the same boring topics as their upmarket peers. Hong Kong people are by international standards well informed.

When discussing journalistic ethics it is important to distinguish between matters which are genuinely concerned with ethics - questions of right and wrong - and matters which are actually matters of taste. It is for example not usually a matter of ethics whether a newspaper carries a gruesome picture. This is a matter on which opinions vary in different times and places. Even in Hong Kong there are different reactions to different pictures, influenced by a variety of important but clearly non-ethical considerations: is the picture big? Is the picture in colour? Is the subject local or overseas? Is the event pictured part of a war, a traffic accident or a murder? Because of the danger of matters of taste being confused with matters of ethics, the drafters of codes of press ethics are usually careful to keep to matters which apply to all journalists, whether their employers are print or broadcast, popular or specialised.

The overwhelming preoccupation of journalistic ethics is truth. Sometimes, dissuaded by the philosophers from supposing that truth is attainable, the code writers resort to other words like accuracy or objectivity. But the achievement of truth is the underlying theme which emerges in code warnings on such matters as detachment, fairness, refusal to take bribes, refusal to alter pictures and so on. Another recurring problem is the matter of reporting techniques: whether and if so when it is permissible to pose, to deceive, to intrude, or to pursue. Then there will usually be some items intended to enhance the protection of vulnerable minorities - how to report stories involving race or sexual deviancy, how to handle stories involving children, how to report trials. Many codes urge the journalist to defend and foster press freedom. Some of them also suggest positive objectives - to serve the public, defend democracy, help society to know itself and similar matters. But few codes include the question of unsavoury topics, in the nature of "articles and photographs of a violent and indecent/obscene nature." These are either a matter for the law (it is illegal in Hong Kong to print anything of an obscene nature in a newspaper) or of taste. A newspaper which aspires to success will not wittingly shock or nauseate its readers.

The puzzling thing about Hong Kong is the number of people who complain about newspapers of which they are not readers. It seems that some people read the popular press either because they are masochists who enjoy being offended, or in the hope of finding something to complain about. Owing to the way newspapers are displayed on hawker stands in Hong Kong it is generally not possible to see what is in a newspaper without first buying it. The styles and proclivities of the local newspapers are well known. People who would rather read the SCMPost or Ming Pao than the Oriental Daily or Apple have every opportunity to do so.

I do not seek to suggest for a moment that all the complaints are unfounded.

When newspapers are competing vigorously with each other there will always be occasions when enthusiasm overrides discretion and produces excess. Anyone who has been in Hong Kong journalism for very long has seen stories and pictures which he would have been ashamed to have produced himself. These are the costs which go with the benefits of having a free press. I do question whether standards have actually declined, as is often suggested. It is difficult to measure the general level of newspaper ethics but the method usually used - counting the incidence of major public rows - is not particularly convincing. There have always been complaints about the popular press and there always will be. When I first came to Hong Kong in 1980 they were the same as they are now - gruesome pictures and over-indulgence in news stories in which sex was an ingredient

Having said that I would not in any way disparage any effort to improve journalistic ethics. We all, always, need to try to do better. I hope the panel will consider, though, that the most appropriate way of pursuing this is by encouraging good practice, rather than fostering the installation of some punitive procedure open to abuse. In these matters the carrot is much more effective than the stick. I believe that Hong Kong newspapers and journalists ought to be encouraged to stand together and stress the values and aspirations which they share. We should not disparage one group of newspapers because, for good reasons, it does not share the methods and purposes of another.

Tim Hamlett
Associate Prof
Dept of Journalism