Chief executive candidate Carrie Lam’s claim that she “seldom or never” held off-the-record media briefings has been challenged by veteran journalists.

Local media sometimes cite “sources”, who are often government officials unwilling to make public comments. The practice allows for deniability when the authorities wish to publicise information or spin the media.

“Over the past four-and-a-half years as the chief secretary, I believe I may be the principal official who has done the most press briefings,” Lam said at a forum organised by the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “I seldom, maybe never, used ‘sources’ to distribute information I wanted as chief secretary.”

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

But former Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting rebutted her claim: “In fact, there should be members of the media here who attended your off-the-record briefings for the government.”

Mak said that the briefings were during the time when she was the Secretary for Development. “You even explained at the time that some officials were pretty new, they may be scared when facing so many cameras,” she said.

She asked Lam to promise that policies would only be announced at an open press conference, instead of closed-door ones, saying the latter was used abusively.

Lam clarified: “I was very careful in making my remarks, I said I did not do so most of the time.”

“What do I have to spin at the Development Bureau?” she said. “My bureau couldn’t be more transparent.”

“I never actively arrange off-the-record briefings,” she added. “The so-called off-the-record briefings – ‘sources’ – they are not my style.”

Her rival Woo Kwok-hing had criticised the practice earlier at a separate session of the forum.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam hosting a press conference as the chief secretary. File Photo: GovHK.

Officials’ quotes on RTHK 

Lam was also asked by a representative of the RTHK union if she watches the channel.

“For the China Central Television channel 9 [an English channel relayed on RTHK 33], I do wish there was a Chinese channel, because the programming quality is so good,” she said.

“For the live channel, maybe one way of doing it is to be like the Now TV channels – [one channel] live broadcasts interesting quotes from officials, and the other channel can pick up gaffes from officials, and broadcast the tape over-and-over again,” she joked.

“For RTHK, you can pick the quotes from officials, such as ‘an official has more guts if she does not aspire for higher positions’ [a quote from Lam previously] – help me broadcast it over and over again.”

“The [third] channel is even worse – not enough resources, too many still photos are broadcast… it feels outdated.”

RTHK’s text news service on its TV channel. Photo: screenshot.

Lam was asked if the lack of resources was because of existing policies. She replied she did not know the situation well: “RTHK is not within the chief secretary’s scope of work.”

She said she never agreed that the existing broadcasting policies were good, when asked if she would continue Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s policy to “hang RTHK out to dry.”

“Public broadcasting policies should be able to improve… so that we can export our professional services,” she said.

Pro-Beijing camp

With regards to the new broadcast building that RTHK has been asking for, Lam said that staff should help convince the pro-Beijing camp, who blocked its funding.

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Posted by 香港電台視像新聞 RTHK VNEWS on Monday, 9 May 2016

Broadcast House, which dates back to 1969, developed a leak in May last year during heavy rain. RTHK had planned a replacement in Tseung Kwan O.

Lam was then reminded that she was supported by many members of the pro-Beijing camp, and asked if she had ways to convince the camp and stand firm against criticism of RTHK from China.

She said every leader should respect RTHK’s editorial freedom. She added that she would not expect every single one of her policies to be supported by the pro-Beijing camp.

Lam’s rivals John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing also attended the forums.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.