It is a fact of life in journalism that you are going to get complaints. News reports are like institutional food. All the consumers have opinions, many of them critical.

This is not a problem. In the first place, all feedback is informative, even if on careful examination it appears to be unjustified or, like most of the complaints received by the Broadcasting Authority, based on an erroneous view of what happened on the programme concerned.

RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

People complain that you said things you did not say, or wrote things that you did not write. In that case what you said or wrote was not clear enough.

It is also useful for reporters to be reminded that the consumption of their work is voluntary. However good the information or noble the intentions, the output fails of its purpose if it is not read, watched or heard.

As Samuel Jonson put it long before mass media were invented: The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give. For we that live to please must please to live.

So when considering complaints about content, we have to respect them all. There is another kind of complaint, though, which is about the way the news operation is conducted. When it comes to the discussion of reporting methods we are entitled to ask whether the person complaining knows what he is talking about.

And this brings me to Mr Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Industry, whose attack on RTHK last Thursday had the sort of factual basis and rationality that I associate with anonymous complaints written in ALL CAPS and purple ink.

The piece of reporting at issue was an interview conducted by RTHK reporter Yvonne Tong over a video link to Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organisation bigwig.

The World Health Organization’s assistant director-general Bruce Aylward (right). Photo: RTHK screenshot.

This all went swimmingly until Ms Tong asked if, in the light of Taiwan’s success in combating Wuflu, the WHO might reconsider Taiwan’s membership. Taiwan is at the moment not a member.

This question admitted a number of possibilities. Dr Aylward clearly did not wish to discuss the matter and he could have said so. He could have come up with an emollient space consumer like “I am sure we will be looking back at many aspects of the pandemic once it is over but it is much too early to say what the outcome of those deliberations might be.”

He could have tried the more modest “This is a matter for the member states of the WHO, of whom I am a mere servant.” This might be considered the correct answer, because it is effectively what the WHO eventually came up with.

Instead, Dr Aylward managed to cause a global sensation by sitting in silence for ten seconds, claiming that he could not hear the question, and then cutting the connection. The connection reestablished, the best he could come up with was “well we have already talked about China.”

This has since been lavishly and widely reported. Google “Aylward dodges question” for a global collection.

Do we see anything in Ms Tong’s performance to complain about? It is a characteristic of good reporters that having asked a simple question they do not take kindly to flagrant evasion of it. A reporter who does not instinctively push an evasive interviewee for an answer is not a good reporter.

Was the original question (Will the WHO reconsider Taiwan’s membership?) a problem? It may be what bothered Mr Yau, to whose views on the matter we now turn.

Mr Yau’s views are contained in a press release which is ostensibly a “response to media inquiries”. They start with a canter through RTHK’s charter, which includes “engendering a sense of citizenship and national identity through programmes that contribute to the understanding of our community and nation; and promoting understanding of the concept of “One Country, Two Systems”.

Then we get this: “The Secretary holds the view that the presentation in that episode of the aforesaid programme has breached the One-China Principle and the purposes and mission of RTHK as a public service broadcaster as specified in the Charter. It is common knowledge that the WHO membership is based on sovereign states. RTHK, as a government department and a public service broadcaster, should have proper understanding of the above without any deviation. As the Editor-in-chief of RTHK, the Director of Broadcasting should be responsible for this.”

Edward Yau. File photo: RTHK screenshot.

What on earth is going on here, apart from a small tsunami of pompous constitutional bilge? Ms Tong’s error, it seems, was to mention Taiwan. There was nothing in the programme about “one country two systems”. Does Mr Yau, one wonders, expect RTHK broadcasters routinely to refer to Taiwan as “the rebel province”?

We have I hope not yet reached the stage where news media are damned for lack of patriotism not if they praise Taiwan, but even if they merely mention that it exists. Ms Tong’s question should perhaps have started “If there were an imaginary island in the South China Sea…”

And where did Mr Yau get the idea that “a proper understanding” of the fact that the WHO is based on sovereign states should come into this. Actually the WHO has no difficulty, when it wishes, in working with entities which are not sovereign states, like Hong Kong (missed that did you?), Macau and the Palestinian authority.

Indeed Taiwan was allowed a sort of membership for some years back in the days when Beijing’s approach to cross-strait relations was based on seduction rather than rape.

File photo: Pixabay.

In short Mr Yau’s observations have no basis in fact or logic and are unworthy of a senior official. President Trump’s tweets make more sense. How could he come up with something so stupid? Is this a symptom of the changing of the guard in the Central Government’s Liaison Office?

Any doubts about the justice of this complaint about RTHK were soon dispelled when Junius Ho took it up. Clearly rubbish then. Nothing to see here.Advertisements

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.