THE ROLE OF THE
By Lynn McFadgen
KONG—The cleaners go up and
down the aisles of the plane carefully refolding the newspapers so they
will be in saleable shape for the news stalls at the Star Ferry. Later
that day, Canadian expatriates eager for news from home pay about $2
each for the Vancouver
Province and don't even mind that the crossword
has been filled in. Another example of make-a-buck-however-you-can in
free enterprise Hong Kong.
Canada rates little coverage in the Hong Kong
media. The occasional
story on trade growth or a photo of Trudeau with foreign dignitaries,
that's about it. Political crisis and business deals are the main
subjects of interest in the Hong Kong media. As a minor customer and
insignificant international power, Canada can't compete for space.
The Canadian media return the favour, virtually
Asia-Pacific region despite a teeming refugee population, political
upsets and the economic might of Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
"Canadian newspapers have a parochial outlook,"
says Gary Coull, a
Canadian working at the Far
Eastern Economic Review's news desk in Hong
Coull, finds, however, that the standard of
generally a bit lower on the papers in Hong Kong than in Canada. "A lot
of things are under-reported." He explains that journalists in Hong
Kong don't dig sufficiently and aren't critical enough. "But," he
stresses, "some issues don't get raised by anyone but the press."
That in a nutshell is the strength of newspapers
in Hong Kong.
Because of its status as a British colony, Hong
Kong's government is
composed not of elected politicians, but civil servants. Only 12
members of the Urban Council, whose responsibilities over municipal
affairs carry little real power
in any event are elected. And fewer than 32,000 of Hong Kong's 5.5
million population are registered voters. Consequently, Hong Kong is
run by a government not accountable to an electorate nor forced into
debate by an opposition party.
In this kind of situation, "there are two or three
ways of expressing
opposition," says Judy Walker, women's editor of the South China Morning
Post (SCMP) and chairman of the Hong Kong
specifies letters to the editor sections in newspapers, radio phone-in
programs and the Hong Kong Observers, a group of mainly
overseas-educated Chinese who press for change through a regular column
in the SCMP.
A startling difference between Canadian and Hong
Kong newspapers is the
effectiveness of letters to the editor. Both Chinese and foreign
residents take advantage of this free space to publicize the social
problems of living in crammed, noisy
and commercially-oriented Hong Kong. The questions are pointed and
answers and action are expected from senior-ranking civil servants and
company executives. Generally, within a week, an answer is run from the
appropriate government department or business explaining the situation,
what action has been taken, future plans, and a phone number if the
correspondent wants to follow up his enquiry further.
Whereas Canadian letters to the editor often
bad-mouth the theatre
critic for his assessment of a new play, Hong Kong citizens seldom
discuss such abstractions. They raise day-to-day problems: slow and
overcrowded bus service, inadequate health care, apartment wall cracks
the landlord ignores, and the flood of illegal immigrants from China
that stretches Hong Kong's social services to the breaking point. This
section of the newspaper in particular plays an important role as a
vehicle for government and the people to communicate.
Judy Walker sums up the role of the press in Hong
Kong: "The only
watchdog on the government is the press." Editorials and regular
columns in the papers also raise issues that should be discussed
between a government and its citizens. She feels the persistence of the
press is responsible for significant developments such as the recent
rent controls for domestic premises. "Journalists have a fair bit of
That clout reaches a wide audience. According to
annual report, Hong Kong has the second highest newspaper readership in
Asia (second to Japan), with some 350 copies printed for every 1,000
people. That compares to the world average of 102.
Five English-language papers are produced each
day, the best known
being the SCMP
which has a circulation of 65,000. Second in circulation
is the Hong Kong
Standard. Since September, the International Herald
Tribune has been printed in Hong Kong from facsimile pages
via satellite from the Paris head office.
The leading Chinese-language papers are Sing Tao Jih Pao, Wah Kiu Yat
Po, Sing Pao, Sing Tao Man Po and Kung Sheung. There
are two major
Communist papers: Ta
Kung Pao and
Wen Wei Po. However, a large number of
the nearly 100 Chinese dailies are "mosquito newspapers" which
concentrate on horse racing or serials for instance.
Three hundred and twenty-six periodicals are
produced in Hong Kong,
about one-third available in English. Both Asiaweek and the Far Eastern
Economic Review are widely read English-language magazines
in Asian news. The fortnightly Sunday supplement Asia Magazine
(circulation 350,000) is distributed in
several Asian newspapers. Hong
Kong is Asian headquarters for many international radio and television
networks, newspapers, magazines and news agencies. The Asian editions
of Time, Readers's
Digest, Newsweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal
are produced here.
The size of the journalistic community and
dissatisfaction with working
conditions led to the formation of a trade union, the Hong Kong
Journalists'Association, in the late 60's. It was a period, according
to Jack Spackman, one of the association's founders and curently
publisher/editor of Computer/Asia,
"when Hong Kong was aflame with
(Communist) riots, when (news) people were beated up, their film
dragged out and their cameras stolen." Reporters also faced danger
covering typhoons. One of the first activities of the association was
to push for helmets.
According to current association chairman Judy
Walker, the two main
priorities of the HKJA are training, and increasing Chinese membership.
Members include photographers, PR people, government information
officers, TV and radio personnel and librarians. One problem, typical
in Hong Kong, is that all meetings are held in English, thus inhibiting
the Chinese participation they're seeking.
Ms. Walker points to particular problems in the
Chinese press. Salaries
are very low, she reports, ranging from $600-800 HK (about $150-200
Cdn.) per month. "They have to take other jobs and are encouraged to
accept "tea money" for getting a story in or keeping it out. As well,
they're encouraged to sell advertising."
Another difficulty is lack of adequate training
courses run by the Chinese University and the Baptist College.
Traditionally, the Chinese educational system has discouraged questions
and debate, focussing on memorization and examination skills. Thus,
serious inaccuracies by new journalists crop up, reports Ms. Walker.
Reporters come back from press conferences without basic information.
Another problem, she says, is that the Chinese often copy verbatim from
other papers and rely heavily on police radio.
Transience is the nature of Hong Kong. It poses a
special threat for
the media because it takes a couple of years to develop good sources
and understand the region. Journalists leave just when they've built
up experience, or move into advertising or public relations where
salaries are more attractive. As well, locals are starting to join the
government's information department through which they get housing.
On top of that, the traditional source of
journalists — Australia
and the UK — are drying up. Tightened immigration policies
requiring a work permit, and the high cost of living (rent is about
four times Canadian rates), have slowed the influx. "The combination of
experts not arriving and the neglect of training" pose a crisis
for journalism according to Jack Spackman.
World affairs is the heartbeat of Hong Kong's
as it is, and is reflected in the press. International coverage of
social, political and economic news is ongoing and comprehensive,
originating mostly from the wire
services. China coverage, in particular, is excellent with the SCMP
devoting up to two pages to this neighbour in the throes of its
Business reporting is another strength. For
16-page business news supplement daily. The supplement includes
shipping and freight schedules, stock market quotations and reports on
business developments. The Hong Kong
Standard produces a similar section
and two Chinese dailies, Sing
Tao Man Pao and Kung
Yet investigative reporting and in-depth coverage
of local issues are
meagre, presumably because they are time-consuming and expensive from
the publisher's point of view. Social problems are just not a high
priority even though it seems every bus accident, murder and robbery
gets space. Extensive coverage is given to day-to-day court
proceedings. It all disappoints Judy Walker who says: "This place is
bursting at the seams with stories, especially human interest stories."
McFadgen is a Toronto publishing consultant returning home in January
after a year's stay in Hong Kong
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