Truth and Lies

In about 500 BC the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said "In war, truth is the first casualty". By 1918 this had become "The first casualty of war is truth" and attributed to an obscure US Senator Hiram Johnson. In between in about 1758 the British writer Samuel Johnson had written something similar.

Notwithstanding the interval of nearly two and a half millennia, for some reason Google gives pride of place to the second Mr Johnson. Greece has suffered enough lately so I'm going to give the credit to our Hellenic friend.

Be that as it may, our Chief Executive election campaign hardly qualifies as a war, but already truth has been seriously wounded. And much of the blame for this must rest with the Government's Information Services Department.

The first sign that something was amiss was the news in the middle of last year that an ISD staff member, subsequently identified as Denise Hung, was collaborating on drafts of Henry Tang's personal website (precursor to his campaign website). At the time Mr Tang was still serving as Chief Secretary. After the usual thorough investigation, everything was found to be in order as Ms Hung was employed on Non Civil Service Contract terms and she was undertaking the work "outside office hours and in a private capacity".

Government regulations oblige all employees to give their full effort to their job and "outside work" whether paid or unpaid requires the approval of the head of department. Presumably then, Ms Hung had applied in the proper way and this had been approved.

Shortly afterwards it became clear that some members of the government's spinning brigade were acting as cheer leaders for the Tang campaign, notwithstanding that it had not formally been launched.

Now the campaign is hotting up and once again ISD is to the fore. On 8 February the department issued two press releases within a few minutes of each other.

One said roughly "Conflict of interest, red wine, Henry Tang, completely innocent" while the other said "Conflict of interest, design competition, CY Leung, completely guilty."

No-one has disputed the first of these, but the second has proved more controversial.

For one thing, the events in question had taken place more than 10 years earlier. All the relevant facts were known at the time. Why had the case only come to light now and in such dramatic fashion? Second, it has emerged that the supposed conspirators did not know and had never met each other. Third, any connection between their respective companies had been indirect, and had been declared openly in the competitor's entry (so much for the idea of seeking to obtain a secret advantage) which led to its automatic disqualification. Fourth, all entries to the competition had been anonymised so that they could not be identified. Finally – and most fatally – there did not seem to be any way in which Mr Leung could be rewarded for his implied improper support.

In other words, to any fair minded observer the whole of the West Kowloon design competition case fell into the category of cock-up rather than conspiracy. But the way in which the Information Services Department released the two statements almost simultaneously is highly suspicious. In the days since, I have not met a single person who believes that this was mere coincidence.

Different government sources, singing from the same song sheet, then leaked repeatedly details of the competition including Mr Leung's voting record and his various declarations.

Mr Leung subsequently called for all the documents about the design competition to be published, as he was confident this would establish his innocence.

It was left to the unfortunate Secretary for Home Affairs, Tsang Tak Sing, to try to dig the government out of the hole ISD had dug for it by assuring the Legislative Council, a week after the press release had been issued, that there was no questioning of Mr Leung's integrity.

Clearly one priority for the next Chief Executive, whoever it is, will be to restore the credibility of the official information machinery.

Interestingly, when I googled the words "Information Officer works on Henry Tang's website", Ms Hung only made it to second place on the reference list.

Strangely, top spot went to Hong Kong's very own Darth Vader, Chief Secretary Stephen Lam. When you think about it, that may not be inappropriate. As even Google knows, the Information Services Department has gone over to the dark side.