Of Priests and Princes

'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest' King Henry the Second of England is famously reported to have said.

Four of his loyal supporters, thinking they had caught their master's underlying meaning, then went out and assassinated the serving Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

Time passed, and as so often happens, including in China, the verdicts were reversed. Thomas was made a saint, the King had to do penance, and the four underlings were excommunicated by the church. Such is the reward of misplaced loyalty.

It would not be too great a stretch of the imagination to see a similar chain of events in the award to iProA of a half share of a contract for which a rival tenderer had submitted a superior bid.

Financial Secretary John Tsang by his own admission had made some remarks on a previous occasion along the lines that the company, closely affiliated with the pro-Government DAB, was a reliable one and could be counted on to deliver a good service. So when his loyal minions discovered that the board appointed to evaluate the tenders for the Internet Learning Support Programme had come to the conclusion that the contract should be awarded to the Hong Kong Council of Social Services because its bid was better, the disappointment among them would have been palpable.

Not surprisingly, some of them apparently hinted that a politically desirable outcome would be for iProA to be awarded at least a share of the contract. (The attraction, reportedly, was not so much the money involved though of course that would always be welcome. Rather it would be the opportunity for DAB to turn up at citizens' front doors offering a tangible benefit and thereby securing a political plus). And so it came to pass.

The whistle on this rather clumsy fix was blown by a somewhat unlikely hero, Jeremy Godfrey, son of a High Court Judge and surely one of the most geeky IT people in the city. But one with a sense of humour and most importantly, a patently honest man.

Political pressure had been brought to bear on the tendering process, he said. He resigned before the end of his contract, which anyway would not have been renewed, as a sign of protest.

So far the script almost writes itself: offhand remark by King John, misguided enthusiasm by courtiers, termination of principled churchman.

But in between the case first coming into the public arena and the hearings in LegCo to discuss it, there was a rather unpleasant episode where certain parties sought to undermine Mr Godfrey's credibility by conducting a smear campaign.

Suddenly, around half a dozen media outlets - they included the two top selling Chinese language newspapers in addition to some of the more serious ones -- were fed a story that a mysterious "Black Hand" lay behind Mr Godfrey's suddenly going public with his objection to the handling of the tender process. That person was allegedly coaching him in how to generate maximum negative publicity for the Administration.

There were a number of striking features about this flurry of stories: for one thing, none of the media outlets who ran the story from this angle bothered to contact either Mr Godfrey or the alleged Black Hand to cross check it. (One newspaper and one TV station who did check the story before running it took a different line in their coverage).

Secondly, there is not a scintilla of truth in it. I am unusually well qualified to comment on the veracity of the story because I was named as the Black Hand. In no way did I coach Mr Godfrey on what to do, as he himself confirmed publicly a few days later. (That aspect of the story quietly died thereafter).

When Mr Godfrey duly told his story to the LegCo Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting, he was dogged and determined and stuck to his guns. And he was eminently believable. Two other senior civil servants gave at least some backing to parts of his version: indeed there had been very real political overtones in the award of the contract allegedly from forces "beyond the Financial Secretary".

By the end of the Panel meeting, it was pretty clear to most neutral observers roughly what had gone on. The four DAB members of the Panel voted not to do anything about the episode (no surprises there, then) so it has dropped off the radar screen. No doubt memories will soon fade though in due course iProA can expect to come under considerable scrutiny when the company actually implements its share of the contract.

Left hanging is the question of who in the Government authorized the black propaganda assault on Mr Godfrey. For let us be clear, only the Government has the resources and the relationships to secure blanket coverage of a totally false story.

Neither Mr Godfrey nor myself are likely to be candidates for canonization (sorry Jeremy). But the Chief Executive should be doing penance. And some of his courtiers should be taken behind the woodshed for a severe spanking.