The MTR – once the pride of Hong Kong – seems to have come down with a nasty case of the Reverse Midas effect: everything it touches turns to dross.

Its trains are unreliable, its building projects have defects (besides being over budget and late, which is normal for railway projects) its interventions in the co-location debate are tactless and its boss picks fights with the press if the weather is too hot. What is going on?

Photo: Pixabay.

Some observers hold that the current bad press reflects a deterioration in the corporation’s performance. When there was still a separate KCR we had two competing railway systems and both had an incentive to look good. Now we have a railway monopoly and the sincerest efforts to do a good job are diluted by the knowledge that after all the clients have no choice.

Another controversial move is the MTR offering its services overseas. This is no doubt very exciting for the staff concerned. But whatever comes of this wanderlust it is a distraction. Talent and effort devoted to the railway needs of distant cities are withdrawn from Hong Kong’s requirements.

A kinder theory is that the MTR is suffering from what is known technically as an availability cascade, where a topic in the news becomes a sort of self-propelling typhoon. Stories make the topic newsworthy and produce more stories which attract more media attention and the public gets the impression that something major has changed.

Which may not be the case at all.

Members of MTR’s top management met with reporters on Sunday, including Chief Executive Officer Lincoln Leong (second from left) and Operations Director Adi Lau. Photo: RTHK.

A good local example was the Light Rail Transit system in the North West New Territories. This attracted no media attention when it opened until a van ran a red light and was hit by an LRT train, killing the van’s passenger. Suddenly any incident, however minor, on the LRT was a news story. Anything less trivial than a loose screw was front page material.

After a few months in which the new system was routinely described as “troubled”, “controversial” or even “defective”, the government imported a railway expert who looked at the whole network and announced that there was nothing wrong with it. The incidence of defects and minor glitches was normal.

The MTR is bound to get some stick every year when it adjusts (or as we peasants say raises) fares. Delays may be rare, as the corporation says they are, but the system is close to full capacity in the rush hour, so any hold-up in the proceedings produces spectacular crowds of disgruntled commuters.

Then there was the case of the stray dog on the tracks which was sacrificed to the timetable. The dog died, and with it a good deal of the affection and respect which the public had nurtured for the MTR. Reporters are paid to remember these things. There’s blood on those tracks.

A quite different theory has it that the MTR is performing no worse than it did, but is making a mess of its public relations. Personally I am reluctant to believe that PR is that important, but this theory has some facts going for it.

The MTR has a PR department, of course. Most of the people in it were apparently recruited from TVB. This is the sort of thing that looks a good move if you are a non-journalist staffing a PR department. Journalists, on the other hand, know that television people are widely regarded by their peers as a bunch of over-paid prima donnas who, because of the need for pictures with everything, spend most of their time covering events staged for their benefit.

The relations between journalists and ex-journalists in PR are always a bit prickly anyway. The poacher turned game-keeper thinks he should still be on warm sociable terms with the other poachers. This doesn’t seem obvious to the poachers.

One of my colleagues has recently been struggling with the MTR’s PR department, which seems to suffer from that delusion common among amateur PR people that their job is to avoid at all costs giving a straight answer to a simple question.

For the question we need a bit of background. Until last year the government adamantly refused to recognise internet-only web sites as media. This meant they were not sent official releases, were not admitted to press enclosures at events like elections, and were not invited to press conferences where the government lies – I beg your pardon, the government lines, were expounded.

Our new Chief Executive promised before her election to do something about this, and something has been done. Suspicious minds may wonder if this was in any way connected with the appearance of a small fleet of pro-government news websites.

Well, news websites can now if they wish register with the government, pay a small fee, jump through some awkward bureaucratic hoops and get the same service from the Information Services Department as their print counterparts.

But note that this is not compulsory. If you run a news website you may not wish to register and the law does not compel you to do so. Indeed some of the requirements are quite onerous because the system is based on the Newspaper Registration Ordinance, which, surprise, was designed for newspapers. So some news websites are not eligible.

Some of the websites which did not register have discovered that they are not invited to media events organised by the MTR, while registered websites are. This was not supposed to happen. They suspect that the MTR is using the list of registered websites as a list of all the relevant media.

Note an important legal wrinkle here. A newspaper which is not registered is infringing the law. The list of registered newspapers is a list of all the legal media of that kind. The situation of websites is quite different. For them registration is an option, not a requirement. So the government’s list of recognised internet-only news media is just a list of the organisations which wanted access to the official news teat badly enough to jump through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to reach it.

It appears, though, that the MTR is treating both lists the same way. No registration means no invitations.

In pursuit of the MTR’s line on this point, my colleague asked if the corporation barred non-registered media outlets/journalists from its press events. You would think this could be answered with a yes or a no. After all neither position would be something to be ashamed of.

Photo: Tango Chan.

Well my colleague collected three answers, the longest of which went like this:

MTR Corporation attaches great importance to maintaining positive relations with the media. We strive to provide timely responses to facilitate media, no matter traditional and online media outlets, in their reporting as far as possible. If media are interested in receiving our press releases, we will not hesitate to include them in the recipient list. 

Regarding the Corporation’s media events, due to limitations in relation to venue or arrangement, we are not able to accommodate all of the media organisations in each of our press event. We understand that the Government’s Information Services Department (GIS) has a well-established mechanism to handle online media outlets in covering its press conferences. Therefore we make reference to it and if any media is included in GIS’s list, we will include the organisation in our media event invitation list upon request. 

Please be assured that we will review our handling from time to time. We appreciate your comments and will take it into consideration during the review.

This is an attempt at a “no” disguised as a “yes”. It appears (last sentence of first paragraph) that any media may, if they ask, be sent press releases. On the other hand only media in the government list (see last sentence of second paragraph) may, on request, be included in the “media event invitation list”. So if you are not on the government list you can have the press releases, but not the invitations.

If it was my story I would have reported this as a “yes”. My colleague was more cautious, and thought the MTR would complain that he was putting words into its mouth. We both thought the MTR was being evasive.

I would have thought, actually, that from their point of view a prime objective would be to avoid looking like a government department, which is not a passport to popularity these days. So relying on the GIS list is both unfair and unwise. But if that is what you are doing, why not say so?

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.