Reporting Hong Kong — Foreign Media and the Handover, by Alan Knight and Yoshiko Nakano (eds.)

In 1997 many Hong Kong residents were astonished by the
large crowd of journalists sent to provide “coverage” of the Territory’s
handover, and whose self-assurance bordering on arrogance was not fully explored
until the publication of this book.

These reporters all arrived, stuffed with preconceptions
and/or with their script already prepared for publication, knowing better than
any resident what was going to happen.

The authors of this volume, who were both participants
(as journalists) and observers (as university teachers specialising in media studies),
seek to provide some kind of response to this rather narrow attitude of the media.

As one of the journalists put it in a recent interview,
“the Territory’s return to China was an event scripted in advance for
marketing to the world’s media” (The Correspondent, September
1999, p. 11). Most Hong Kong residents were well aware that, apart from the official
ceremonies, nothing would really happen on that day. But this was not so clear
to the foreign correspondents who landed around June 20th, in a contingent about
6,000 strong—five times as many as those who covered the Cambodian elections
of 1995, over twice as many as those who were in South Africa to cover Nelson
Mandela’s accession to power, and even outnumbering the People’s Liberation
Army soldiers who entered Hong Kong on July 1st! For them there could be no doubt
that something serious was about to happen. The uncertainty of Hong Kong’s
destiny held out the promise of something sensational, or at least sufficiently
momentous to justify their journey and the enormous expense of the spectacle,
which would have to be paid for by their readership.

In spite of all these expectations, however, as V. G. Kulkarni,
the new chief editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review has pointed out:
“Almost everybody wrote almost the same things. Visiting journalists were
sceptical to the point of being cynical . They were looking for the darker side
of the story but none of that happened. It went off very smoothly. Many reporters
did the same story ; … They (journalists) talked to the same old politicians
and businessmen who had been newsmakers in stories in the past.. In the end, some
of them just interviewed other journalists” (p. 13).

Alan Knight and Yoshiko Nakano, whose scrupulous documentation
manages to avoid becoming boring, set out to show how this happened, that is,
how such misinformation could have invaded and multiplied within the very heart
of the modern information business, just when it considered itself beyond reproach.
Their detailed analysis of the creative process, both “illustrate the process
of media reporting as well as the product” (as they put it: p. xix), provides
a close account of the rigid mechanisms which control the “fabrication”
of news reports, and leave little room for providing that truthful description
which is supposed to be the basis of journalistic ethics.

In the first section, the authors enumerate the difficulties
of journalists being bombarded from different directions, the prepared and pre-packaged
information from the Hong Kong Government Information Service (GIS), the different
and sometimes contradictory versions purveyed to the press by political leaders
(p. 42ff), and the demands from the various editorial offices with an eye on their
readership (here the case of Newsweek is particularly interesting; see
p. 66). It turns out that the reason why 90% of the media reported that, following
an old Chinese tradition, Patten walked three times around the garden at Government
House before leaving (whereas in fact he walked round one and a half times) was
that this information had been put out in advance through a GIS communiqué.
A few pages later, the authors observe that Martin Lee willingly gave out four
different versions of his speech to the Legislative Council, and that, for commercial
reasons, Asian readers of Newsweek had neither the same title nor the same
cover as their American counterparts.

All this first section of the book tends to use the evidence
to clear the journalists themselves of responsibility for the excessive manipulation
of the press reports on the handover.

The whole of the first section of the book serves to substantiate
this approach by illustrative examples. Through a close examination of the coverage
of the handover in the Chinese, Japanese and English language press, the authors’
intention is to show that in each case “the press”—carefully distinguished
from its journalists—merely echoed the interests of its own country of origin.
That may seem absurd in our epoch of the globalisation of liberal values. And
yet the three chosen examples—namely, a communist newspaper with modern technology
at its disposal, two television networks traditionally and universally known for
their freedom of expression, and a prosperous, politically neutral Japanese radio
station—all reveal that it is conformism, not pluralism, which is the main
characteristic of the media nowadays.

The Chinese press, widely reputed to be obedient to “his
master’s voice”, is presented here in a more open and modern guise,
since the only example that the authors focus on is the Guangzhou ribao.
This newspaper rivals most modern Western papers in both commercial and technical
terms, and is consequently light years away from the dusty old Remin ribao
(People’s Daily) and the antiquated Xinhua News Agency. But despite its incredible
success story, the Guangzhou ribao was unable to evade the imperial edicts
from the press section of the Chinese Department of Propaganda (p. 84). Just as
for six months Xinhua had totally omitted all reference to the Democrats, the
main party in Hong Kong, and to their leader, Martin Lee, so this leading newspaper
from southern China also remained silent on the demonstration which he organised
in Legco on the night of June 30th.

The almost identical reports put out by the two supposedly
rival English TV channels, the BBC and ITN, show that, despite their difference
from the Chinese press, the latter was not alone in presenting a single version
of the events. Steeped in nostalgia, and anxious to gratify both their expatriates
and the “broad masses” of English viewers, they tended largely to play
up the “end of Empire” angle in most of their reports; and through their
images just as much as their commentaries, China came across as a warlike “invader”
(for example, the images of the arrival of the PLA), and a greatly feared one
(as came through in interviews with Hong Kong residents anxious about their future).

The Japanese press deployed large resources to cover this
grand ceremony. The journalists from that “neutral” country were more
numerous and apparently more independent. They certainly provided a more finely
balanced political version of the event. Nonetheless, they also were unable to
shake off the demands of their national interests. In the case of Japan these
were more commercial than political, and they proved to be more of a constraint
than was the case for other nationalities. In addition, the Japanese journalists
suffered from a linguistic handicap, since Japanese is not widely spoken either
in Hong Kong or in the world at large. This isolation was further highlighted
by the need for live reporting. The authors succeed in demonstrating, in this
case and in that of the American CNN channel, how live reporting is an obstacle
to rather than a help in conveying the reality of events.

The quantity of information provided in the main body of
the book, and the various testimonies to be found in the different chapters, make
for stirring reading. But the conclusions, already outlined in the preface, fail
to convince when the authors write: “How foreign journalists chose to report
the handover, and what they decided to ignore about it, reveals much about foreign
news agendas and how they are framed by ideological and cultural assumptions”
(p. xviii).

The authors’ project of exonerating, or at least defending
the journalists, therefore shifts the blame for the current conformism onto the
all-powerful editorial boards in the service of national interests. The authors
attack those who see in the coverage of this event the old opposition between
the Leninist theory of a “responsible” press, acting as the voice of
“higher” commercial or state interests, and the conception that holds
that the only duty of a reporter is to his readers. Their alternative conception,
however, is hardly more acceptable. Can one honestly contrast Western and Asian
journalists? According to this view, the former are often “bad” when
it comes to telling the facts as they are—a charge which can certainly be
admitted—but are then “absolved” of all wrongdoing because they
are held to be more responsive to the demands of their readers. By contrast, the
latter, though more objective in their handling of real facts, are condemned for
being spokesmen for the political and economic powers which they represent (p.
172).

The book itself shows, however, that the reality is much
more complex, and that an absolute desire to highlight binary contradictions can
only have the effect of stirring up somewhat outdated controversies.

Translated
from French original by Jonathan Hall

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