Freedom of the Press

The Apple Daily newspaper was recently obliged to issue a front page apology to Executive Councillor Franklin Lam.

It had earlier published a sensational story on its front page claiming that Lam had admitted he discriminated against persons from mainland China.

In fact not only was the story not true, it was the exact opposite of what Lam had actually said.

As a recording of his speech clearly showed, Lam had stated emphatically that he did not discriminate against new immigrants from the mainland. Once they had come to Hong Kong legally they would be first class citizens just like the rest of us.

Fortunately for Lam, and for the cause of historical accuracy, someone had recorded his speech and gave him a copy of the tape. He was therefore able to rebut the false report decisively and publically.

Once the editor of the Apple had heard the recording, he had little alternative but to apologise quickly, prominently and fulsomely.

So, lack of a single word had significant repercussions. Most sensible people realise that from time to time even the most diligent reporters are going to make the odd mistake. Provided there is a quick correction, any harm done is likely to be moderate and transitory.

There has been another instance recently where the media as a whole have omitted a key word. But in this case there has been no apology or correction and indeed the offending omission has been constantly repeated.

In a case before the Court of Final Appeal on the question of right of abode here, counsel representing the Government has asked the Court to consider seeking an interpretation of the relevant article in the Basic Law from the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

The key word here is "consider".

As a party to the proceedings, the administration has a legitimate right to make representations to the judges to consider any matter which it considers may be relevant. That is what lawyers do when they go to court.

However, for weeks now the English language electronic media when introducing the subject have dropped the word "consider" and abbreviated the line to "The Government has asked the CFA to seek an interpretation from Beijing".

The same applies to the print media and, I am assured by friends, to the Chinese language media too.

Omitting one word may seem a trivial matter but it is in fact very serious because it completely changes the underlying spirit of what the government has done.

By making its request in the way it has, the government is showing respect for the court, abiding by the principle of judicial independence, and standing by the rule of law.

The shortened version, by contrast, implies that the government is undermining the court, telling it to go to a higher authority to get a "correct" verdict, in effect subverting the rule of law.

The error is right across the board: even the government's own radio station has fallen into the same trap.

Anyone is entitled to criticise what the government has actually done. For example a case might be made that the government was unwise to make such a suggestion because it could sow the seeds of self doubt in the court's mind.

But the place to make such an argument is on the opinion/editorial pages.

It is quite wrong to convey this impression by including incomplete reports in the news section.

One possible cause of the way things have developed is a mindset that is ultra suspicious and alert to any hint either that the Central Government is intervening inappropriately in local affairs or that the local administration is inviting that intervention.

It is right for the media to be alert to these dangers.

But that makes the case for accurate reporting even more compelling.

As someone who has benefitted in high profile proceedings from the independence of the judiciary, I would be the last to undermine that safeguard of an individual's freedom.

Equally, as one of the founder members of the Hong Kong Journalists Association many moons ago (before most of the current crop of reporters were even born), I am second to none in my support for the principle of freedom of the press.

Hong Kong's free way of life depends on us protecting both of these institutions.