What happened to journalistic and legal principles nowadays?

Updated: 2013-12-04 07:10

By Tim Hamlett (China Daily)

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You remember the story about two people who were arrested for demanding money from a visiting film company? In the headline in the newspaper I usually read they were described as "triads". Not "suspected triads", or "alleged triads". Just "triads".

While I was still recovering from this, a columnist at another English newspaper ventured the opinion that a named suspect who had been charged with assaulting a newspaper photographer was not only innocent, but should be regarded as a victim.

This represents a new low in a deterioration which has been going on a long time. Both of these stories would once have led to the newspapers concerned being prosecuted. There are a variety of laws which restrict, for various reasons, the way in which news media can cover legal proceedings. Some of the reasons are better than others but the law is the law. For more than two decades I have been teaching future journalists what these laws are.

Nowadays, though, I have to add the warning that in Hong Kong these laws are not enforced. Consequently if you are the only reporter who observes them you will be at a competitive disadvantage compared with the uninformed or unscrupulous.

I first became painfully aware of this when all the newspapers were full of the arguments over money of a couple who were being divorced. Basically she was claiming that he had given a large slab of property back to his father to avoid declaring it as part of their joint assets. This undignified brawl was covered in excruciating detail in all the papers, a clear violation of the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Ordinance, which, if you are interested in such things, can be found in the Laws of Hong Kong at Chapter 287.

What happened to journalistic and legal principles nowadays?

As luck would have it I had the chance to discuss this with a former student who had not only survived my attentions and became a journalist, but had gone on to become a lawyer. She had noticed a similar erosion of the restrictions on such matters as concealing the identity of rape victims, and limiting the reporting of committal proceedings (the bit when a person accused of a serious crime appears before a magistrate).

I tried sending an e-mail to the Department of Justice, asking why various restrictions on reporting were apparently not being enforced, and asking what a conscientious teacher of media law should now be telling his students about this.

In due course my query produced a reply, saying that the Department of Justice only considered prosecutions of matters which were referred to it by the police. The writer added the gratuitous and entirely irrelevant observation that the department did not give legal advice. That's fine by me.

This answer concealed a major change in policy. When I was a senior editor the Legal Department, as it then was, monitored newspapers as a matter of course. Two people - one for each language - kept an eye on court coverage every day. Erring newspapers were admonished and occasionally prosecuted. The fines (except for contempt of court, which can be seriously expensive) were modest, but occasional prosecutions, or near misses, ensured that journalists were aware of what they were supposed to be doing, and not doing.

There is no sign of the police taking up this work and as it really requires a qualified lawyer - or at least an enthusiastic amateur - it would not really be a good idea if they did. Clearly the Justice Department people can no longer be bothered.

The trouble is that, if nobody is warned or prosecuted, then the law will increasingly be ignored. Nobody wants to be a law-breaker. But if infringement is advantageous to the criminal, and goes unpunished, nobody wants to look like a sucker either. Reporting is a competitive business. What the opposition gets away with yesterday is what you are expected to do tomorrow.

Laws are like racehorses. If they don't get out for a run occasionally we all forget they exist.

The author's work in journalism has won him honors in the Hong Kong News Awards and the International Radio Festival of New York. He is well known as a columnist, reviewer and broadcaster.

(China Daily 12/04/2013 page1)