Empty talk about impartiality and preoccupation with political correctness|Au Ka-lun

Published (HKT): 2021.04.09 09:57

“Objectivity and impartiality” have become a rhetorical slogan, and a pet phrase of bosses of media outlets, highly-placed government officials and magnates for a long time who feel as if they stood on their moral high ground whenever they chant the spell.

Take the news footage captured by TVB during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 about seven police officers beating a person at a dark corner. Director of TVB News Keith Yuen Chi-wai commented that the phrase “striking and kicking” in the narration was not impartial enough and carried “negative” meaning, so had to be trashed. What he did caused an uproar in the society. “Striking and kicking” is a precise narrative(what happened is clearly shown when the images are blown up; it was also the evidence used by the court to sentence the seven police officers to jail) as well as a negative depiction. But why is a negative description necessarily partisan? Don’t tell me that only “negative” content represented by “impartial” diction is what can be deemed “impartial”. A “negative” event pictured with negative illustration is what we call appropriacy, isn’t it? Nevertheless, ordinary people seldom delve into it. While they reckon objectivity, impartiality and neutrality cryptic unique skills invincible throughout the world, they scarcely realize that being ambiguous and subject to arbitrary interpretation, such handy notions are so-called rationale for power manipulators to move the goalposts.

Let’s look at the latest example. The newly appointed Director of Broadcasting claimed to have his own “impartiality test” to detect a program’s “impartiality”. As a result, programs are now withdrawn arbitrarily without a plausible explanation to the public, not mention his subordinates.

Why are official stands not “checked and balanced”?

According to the exposition given by Radio Television Hong Kong(RTHK), the reason why those programs were withdrawn is that “only one-sided stand is stated”. If that is really why the programs were killed, then the live relays of speeches delivered by government officials day and night are worth noticing. For instance, at press conferences on Tuesdays, what Carrie Lam says reigns supreme. Why are news time slots flooded with such “one-sided stands” on political, social and economic issues without “checks and balances”? Let’s wait and see if RTHK will allow of diversified voices in its mainstream programs in the offing that trumpet the Belt and Road Initiative and the 14th Five-Year Plan, seriously probing into contentious topics for crises and opportunities, gains and losses.

RTHK also said that in the withdrawn programs, there are some “inaccurate descriptions of the Decision of the National People’s Congress on Improving the Electoral System of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Hong Kong National Security Law”. Actually, there were a lot of misguidance and imprecise representations in remarks made by a host of pro-establishment figures when they shot off their mouths about the electoral arrangement “improved”, the system “advancing” not “retrogressing”, candidates in other countries also vetted for running in elections. Why were they broadcast?

“Though people of different stands are interviewed in some programs, the content is mostly skewed in favor of only one.” It means that apart from balanced coverages, the RTHK management also have to make sure opinions put forward by people of different stands occupy equal time lengths. Despite a pro-establishment member of the Board of Trustees of the Chinese University of Hong Kong(CUHK) and another pro-establishment figure interviewed in one of the feature stories of Hong Kong Connection that summarizes the entire process of how the CUHK Student Union was cracked down on and forced to disband, the total time length the interviews occupy is still reckoned too short. What the new management require does not tally with RTHK Producers’ Guidelines, in which it is laid down unequivocally in the paragraph about “due impartiality” that “impartiality does not require programme makers to be unquestioning, or for RTHK to give all sides of an issue the same amount of time”.

A university student union having died young is of historic importance. When it comes to “balance”, we have to ask why only two pro-establishment politicians were interviewed without pro-democracy figures “balancing” the pro-establishment viewpoints. If there was no pro-democracy member in the Board of Trustees, could they find some open-minded teachers? Notwithstanding the newly appointed “editor in chief” of RTHK harping on about “impartiality” for quite some time, he has never given an account of how he understands the word.

After all, no one will brandish a banner of “objectivity” and “impartiality”, crying from the housetops: “I want objectivity! I want impartiality!” Such behavior is as ludicrous as it is ridiculous for objectivity and impartiality is only a means in journalism that helps us aspire after a higher objective: seeking truth and laying bare facts. The production team of Hong Kong Connection pursued the reality of the 7.21 incident, and traced the students’ moods that went up and down day and night in a feature story about the CUHK Student Union, all of which was about what the people out there thought and did, precious information the government is supposed to understand. Situations different social strata are in are part of reality.

“One-legged coverage in some programs of situations faced by interviewees is found, but no account for the causes and effects concerned is given.” Admittedly, Hong Kong Connection’s feature story about the CUHK Student Union does not account for the cause of the entire anti-extradition bill amendment movement. But it is understandable that a news documentary as short as no more than half an hour is not capable of covering the fact that the entire event stemmed from Carrie Lam Chen Yuet-ngor being wrong-headed, opinionated, obstinate and credit-taking.

As regards “one-legged coverage of situations faced by interviewees”, another Hong Kong Connection’s feature story about how internet media outlets survive in adversity, in which journalists from Hong Kong Free Press and Hong Kong Citizen News are interviewed, was criticized by the management for being imbalanced, and required to include “blue media outlets” for the sake of making the program complete. It seems they have forgotten “Cho Man Kit v Broadcasting Authority” – a Hong Kong High Court case. It originated from a Hong Kong Connection’s documentary named Gay Lovers, which captures the lives and hopes of two homosexual couples. Complaints about the program being “one-sided” and imbalanced, and lacking voices against same-sex marriage were lodged. Michael Hartmann, the High Court judge, overruled the decision made by the Broadcasting Authority, pointing out that the program was “a study of human conditions” truthfully documenting human fears, hardships and hopes, which is what a documentary is supposed to be. “Is it possible to have pros and cons in news coverage of fights against avian influenza and child labor?”

Reckless decisions take everything personally

By the same token, today is it possible to have residents in luxury apartments interviewed in a feature story about subdivided flats before it is called a balanced documentary? Is it possible to have well-off “blue media outlets”, in which funding pour from all sides, to balance a feature story about how difficult it is to run an internet media outlet? It has nothing to do with “yellow” and “blue”, but the high echelon personnel in RTHK insist on wearing colored glasses, making everything politically correct.

Still a lot of political moves made by the new RTHK remain unexplained, such as withdrawal of a batch of reality shows for they were suspected of having yellow artistes. Why were these artistes invited? What the new management does not know is that most celebrated artistes are under contract to TVB, hence finding it difficult to leave their work. Worse still, only slender remuneration for work is offered by RTHK, so celebrated artistes willing to dedicate their time are scarce. It would be blessing upon RTHK if they nodded at taking part in any program. Another feature story named Outstanding Teachers also invited trouble for no reason, which was baffling as well. The program directed by Choy Yuk-ling is about how schools and teachers, to whom the Chief Executive Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence was presented, plan and prepare PE lessons for mentally handicapped students. Is it because Choy Yuk-ling is the producer? Equivocal about why it did this, RTHK stirred up discontent among education practitioners, and showed disrespect to the interviewed. Having the program sponsored by the Education Bureau, RTHK did not abided by the contract as well. The program has recently been broadcast under pressure, which shows how reckless decisions made by the management are, and how nonsensical it is for them to take things personally.

The code of conduct of journalism, including being unbiased, uninvolved and impartial, are what the industry holds dear. However, as they are subject to arbitrary interpretation, people with ulterior motives can abuse them and turn them into doublespeak. How come such standard practices for public broadcasting institutions throughout the world have become political tactics in Hong Kong?

In the West, it is presumed that public broadcasting is governed by a democratic system and a government held accountable to the people, that government officials uphold procedural justice, that watchdogs from a civil society prevent government officials from acting rashly, and that a government respects the Fourth Estate. However, public broadcasting in Hong Kong nowadays is hollow and soulless, with the bureaucrats held responsible not to the citizens, but only to their superiors. “The electoral system ended” can be uttered as “the electoral system perfected”, “Party’s security” as “national security”, political partisanship as “impartiality”. Unable to convince the public by reasoning, RTHK goes so far as to threaten to impose a fine on its staff. Brushing aside common sense, ignoring how it succeeded, and rewarding those who knock down the establishment, RTHK has crumbled and fallen. But isn’t it a reflection of Hong Kong?

(Au Ka-lun, veteran journalist)

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