Repeated blunders leave Apple Daily's reputation in tatters

Updated: 2013-01-16 05:59

By Chan Wai-keung (HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Mark Twain once said: "If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed." Echoing Twain's adage, the African American human rights activist Malcolm X also opined: "The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have power to make innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent..."

Acutely aware of their dangerous power, the Western media usually assure the public of their impartiality by upholding the principles of ethics and meticulousness. In case of erroneous or falsified news reports, the media concerned is expected not only to make a public apology, but also to hold the journalists and editors involved responsible.

Some telling examples were the Killian document controversy in the US shortly before the 2004 election involving CBS News and the recent scandal surrounding BBC TV station. Both CBS and BBC apologized for the erroneous reports, launched probes and released investigation reports. Those executives, editors and reporters who were found responsible for the errors were sacked summarily.

Likewise, the leading Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily, recently published one editorial and one news report based on fictitious content. Sadly, unlike the Western media, Apple Daily seems to have taken these journalistic blunders lightly.

As I pointed out in my commentary in this newspaper on Oct 16, 2012, the well-known writer, Li Yi, appropriated the fabricated historical narrative of the former governor Murray MacLehose in an Apple Daily editorial, to sustain his attack on former deputy director of the Liaison Office, Li Gang. His use of unauthentic material purported to be historical evidence immediately draw criticism from some current affairs commentators, calling the credibility of Apple Daily into question. Nonetheless, up to now, neither Li Yi nor Apple Daily has offered an apology to readers.

Worse still, last Sunday, Apple Daily ran on its front-page an exclusive on a closed-door seminar given by the Executive Council member, Franklin Lam, accusing him of making an awful howler in his presentation. In an analysis of the relationship between new immigrants and housing, Lam had allegedly contended: "I utterly discriminate against new immigrants."

However, on the same day, Lam promptly pointed out that Apple Daily had distorted his words. An audio recording released by Lam provided irrefutable evidence that he had made no discriminatory remarks concerning new immigrants. On the contrary, the tape revealed he had said: " I utterly do not discriminate against new immigrants. On arrival in Hong Kong, they are legally Hong Kong citizens. They are also first-class citizens."

On the next day, the Apple Daily on its front page admitted that what it has misrepresented as a scoop the previous day was an inaccurate report, thereby apologizing to Lam. Its editor-in-chief further explained that the inaccuracy had been probably due to lapses of attention by the reporter.

But, can a public apology and a superficial explanation exonerate Apple Daily from its responsibility for publishing a fallacious report? I do not think so. A lot of questions about this journalistic fiasco remain unanswered to members of the public. For example, according to the audio tape, Lam clearly articulated the sentence "I am utterly not discriminating...". Why did the reporters concerned continue to misinterpret Lam's wording? Why did they fail to test the accuracy of their interpretation of Lam's words against other sources, such as other members of the audience? Did the Apple Daily reporters concerned make basic journalistic errors like those made in the erroneous BBC report? Given enough time allotted to story preparation, did they outright seek out the protagonist of this news story, Lam, to give him the opportunity to respond to any allegation that he had made any discriminatory remarks, before running this disgraceful exclusive?

It is, however, not sensible to blame entirely the reporters who covered Lam's seminar for the blunder. Instead, the editors concerned should be held responsible as well. Was there any independent fact-checking by another employee of Apple Daily under the instructions of senior editors? More importantly, did both the reporters and editors do any soul searching and question their own motives behind this faux exclusive? Did their political stance - anti-establishment and anti-CY Leung - cloud and even overwhelm their rational judgment in preparation of this news report?

If the protagonist of this news story had not been Franklin Lam, a political ally of CY Leung, but another big shot unrelated to the Leung administration, would Apple Daily's staff have exercised greater care to avoid the reckless error?

Apple Daily's professional reputation is in tatters. To do justice to the readers as well as Lam, Apple daily should follow suit with its Western counterparts' by implementing a thorough probe into the cause of this fiasco and, more crucially, by publishing the report of its investigation and, in due course, penalizing the staff responsible. If not, more and more innocents will be held as guilty in Apple Daily's politically-motivated reports.

The author is a lecturer of Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a former Scouloudi fellow at London University.

(HK Edition 01/16/2013 page4)