The finer points of journalistic ethics are rarely discussed in Hong Kong media, so it was nice to see one surface the other week.

The spark was provided by a piece by Steve Vines in the Hong Kong Free Press, stating that he had, after some trivial dispute to which we were not introduced, decided not to write any more for the South China Morning Post.

File photo: HKFP.

He went on to say that he should have made this decision in February, when the Post published an interview with Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller who was abducted by Chinese agents from Thailand, and has been in prison ever since.

The interview was conducted in what we may politely call a custodial setting. Mr Vines thought this was simply a print version of those coerced televised confessions which have become a feature of the People’s Secret Police at work in recent years; he spent the rest of his column denouncing the practice and arguing that media organisations should refuse invitations to participate in it.

The following day brought a response in the South China Morning Post, written by Alex Lo.

Gui Minhai. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

Mr Lo was ill-served by his editors. The headline “Some people mistake egoism for bravery” captured the venomous tone of Mr Lo’s opinion of Mr Vines quite well, but there was nothing in either article about bravery.

Mr Vines did not claim to be brave – he is a big cheese in the food business so giving up Post work is neither a financial sacrifice nor a professional risk for him – and Mr Lo did not accuse him of cowardice. The headline was, as we put it in sub-editing circles, crap.

A second deck of headline “Long-time columnist Stephen Vines has decided to stop writing for the Post, but not before discomforting those of us he left behind,” contained the sort of error which convinces former Post sub-editors like me that the paper has gone downhill.

(Note to subs: “Discomfort” is the noun. The verb you wanted is “discomfiting”.)

A couple of generalisations to warm up, then Mr Lo spends four paragraphs attacking Mr Vines, before the bookseller interview comes into view. Mr Lo’s take on this is “It could have been handled better and I hope everyone has learned a lesson”, which looks suspiciously like a way of translating “I didn’t agree with it but I want to keep my job.”

File photo: Wikicommons.

Mr Lo then says that Mr Vines’s timing leaves a puzzle. If the interview was objectionable, why not say so at the time? This is a valid point. Should Mr Vines perhaps have entitled his piece “What I thought about the Gui interview but didn’t say at the time”?

On the other hand Mr Lo’s work also leaves us with a question. If you are writing an article denouncing egotism, would it perhaps be a good idea not to use the word “I“ five times in 11 paragraphs, one of which starts “In my 20 years at the Post”?

Well, the interesting point in all this for me is not the Gui Interview, which presents no ethical dilemma at all – it shouldn’t have been done – but the question whether a columnist should hold him- or herself responsible in any way for what appears in the rest of the newspaper.

This is a point which is neglected in most media ethics writing, which tends to look at the problems of individual stories as they present themselves to individual editors, or less often to individual reporters.

The only exception I could find when I was teaching this stuff was a gentleman called John Merrill, who seemed to be engaged in a single-handed attempt to persuade the journalism profession, or at least journalism teachers, to take up existentialism as a philosophical key to ethical questions.

John Merrill. Photo:

Mr Merrill wanted journalists to be aware of and responsive to the doings of their media organisation, as well as their role in those doings. Indeed this view has a great deal to commend it. Media production is usually a team game (blogs and columns excepted), and if there is guilt, it should be shared.

However, it is not a widely shared view among journalists, most of whom are willing to work for anyone who is willing to pay them, provided they are not asked to transgress ethical limits, which are drawn quite broadly.

Freelance reporters will regard their responsibility as being limited to the story they are working on. Editors generally regard themselves as neutral technicians, administering a process which makes material publishable without changing it. Window or Whippet News: the skills are the same.

Whether this is applicable to opinion writing does not, for most of us, come up. If you stick to news the facts should be the facts.

Editorial writers, who are accustomed to writing down opinions expressed by someone else – the editor, proprietor, or perhaps a committee – have sometimes taken a pride in their versatility.

One man wrote, according to legend, for two New York newspapers with diametrically opposed political views. Sometimes he would write a piece for one denouncing as unmitigated bilge the opinion he had expressed in the other the previous day.

But that is not really relevant here. The question is what are the rules for the columnist who is allowed, and expected, to express his own opinion, and what he should do if the rest of the newspaper does not agree with him?

Personally, I have always looked at this in a backwards sort of way. News media should be encouraged to provide platforms for the widest possible range of views. An outlet which only puts out stuff it agrees with is failing its readers.

But a wide range of opinions is only possible if a wide range of opinion writers are willing to see their work on the same page as things they thoroughly disagree with. The more odd or unpredictable your views the more you need to find an editor who believes that diversity is a virtue.

When Alan Castro was editor of The Standard this belief was implemented with enthusiasm. Although Mr. Castro was an early pioneer of the “Beijing is beautiful” school of thought he made a conscious effort to include pro-Taiwan columnists, and happily tolerated loose cannons like me.

I still remember his horrified reaction to a piece I wrote urging the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which at that time was still illegal in Hong Kong. But he printed it.

Unfortunately, this view of media obligations was not universal in those days, and is almost extinct in Hong Kong now.

This is not a personal complaint. As a columnist or reviewer you find that opportunities come and go. Different page editors want to implement their own ideas, which may or may not include you. Individual pieces may hit a nerve somewhere and you read to your surprise in your usual slot that “Tim Hamlett is on holiday”. Best not to ask what went wrong. You never know whether the reason given is the real one.

I try to remember that your departure is the last thing people are going to recall about you. Better to go quietly into that good night than to go whingeing. A thought which Mr Frederick Fung might usefully have considered a few months ago.

Anyway, I no longer need the money. But it does seem that Hong Kong media are becoming increasingly separated by ideology. And if you try to create a space where a variety of views are expressed you find that the holders of those views are not prepared to participate.

Pro-government people will not write for independent publications, and independent people will not write for pro-government ones, which indeed do not want their output. The historic practice of Ta Kung and Wen Wei, which only print stuff which they – and the Liaison Office – agree with, is spreading.

People in one camp will raise eyebrows if they just agree to be interviewed by publications in the other. Where is the marketplace of ideas where different opinions can contend, can be compared and contrasted? RTHK is still trying, bless ‘em, but it’s a government department.

RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

So I am sorry Mr Vines is absenting himself from the pages of the Post, though not very sorry, because I stopped reading it years ago. Mr Lo says “none of us has noticed”, without saying who “us” is in this context. Did he go round the office asking or is it him and his dog?

I fear a lot of other people will not have noticed either, because they no longer expect to see a wide range of views in the Post. This is not a criticism of the Post, which is in this respect much like most of the other Hong Kong media.

They really should do something about the headlines, though.

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.