It is an axiom of the news business that there is often a shortage of good stories on a Monday. This is because courts, councils and other reliable arenas take the weekend off and, in the old days, sport was confined to Saturdays.

Over the years this led to some curiosities, like the inordinate attention paid to RTHK’s weekly live discussions in Victoria Park, more or less regardless of whether anything interesting was being said.

So I sympathise when desperate editors make what might otherwise seem questionable choices. But there are limits.

These limits were, in my view, exceeded when the lead local story inside last Monday’s Standard was an effort headlined “HKU pushed to sack Tai.” The Tai involved is Benny Tai, a consistently non-violent political herbivore, much disliked in pro-government circles.

This was hardly news. The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has been pushed to sack Professor Tai for months, notably by pro-government newspapers, like the Standard. When you read the story under the headline there was a feeling that “Staff Reporter” had been tasked with making bricks without straw and, indeed, without clay.

The only thing which had actually happened was that a former member of the University Council, Chan Che-wai, had sent a letter – an open letter, so we could be treated to extensive excerpts – to the current chairman of the council, Arthur Li, urging at some length that Professor Tai should be sacked.

Benny Tai. Photo: HKFP.

There are, it is true, some surprising things about this, not least that there should be anyone versed in the affairs of “Hong Kong U” who thinks that Arthur Li cannot be trusted to do the wrong thing without prompting.

Another surprising thing is that Mr Chan thinks it is appropriate and permissible for him to send open letters to the chairman of the university council about personnel matters involving individual members of the university staff.

I am also a former member of a university council (Lancaster), and I have to say that it would never have occurred to me to do such a thing. A former member is not a member. Mr Chan has no standing in the matter whatsoever.

If I were to write such a letter, moreover, it would not be an open one. The question of how to deal with individual members of the university staff is a private one, and if Mr Chan cannot resist the temptation to bend Mr Li’s ear on the matter, he could at least do so in confidence.

Photo: The Standard screenshot.

Mr Chan’s complaint is that he does not agree with the University Senate’s view of the matter, which is that Professor Tai should remain in the employ of the university. This is cheeky of him. The question of whether a person is qualified to teach is an academic question and is a matter properly to be decided by the Senate, the supreme governing body of the university in academic matters.

It is nothing to do with members of the Council, still less with former members of that worthy body.

Not content with this, Mr Chan proceeded to trample on another fundamental rule. The offending passage attacks the Senate’s conclusion that Professor Tai’s political views had not polluted his teaching, and goes like this: “Whether he introduced his political beliefs in class is something that the senate could not verify, as hardly any of its members had attended his classes. This is just hearsay, and therefore is not admissible as evidence to support the contention he had not done so.”

Arthur Li at a HKU Council meeting in July. File

Just a moment, Mr Chan. If we are going to go all barrack-room lawyer here, then Professor Tai is entitled to the presumption of innocence. It is not up to him to prove that he has not erred in his teaching; it is up to those who wish to see him fired to prove that there was something wrong. On this point, Mr Chan has no evidence to offer at all.

Some people have been reading attacks on Professor Tai for so long that they start from the point that he is guilty and expect anyone who disagrees with them to disprove it. This is not how things are supposed to work.

It may be, of course, the way things work now. Less publicly, I heard last week that an old friend had been hoofed from a part-time gig teaching journalism, because of excessive enthusiasm for press freedom. It seems that approval of press freedom is now interpreted as disapproval of our government, which is revealing.

The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

I fear Professor Tai is now on a list of the people our glorious leader, Carrie Lam, dubs “enemies of the people.” When she first came out with this phrase I thought I could spend a pleasant hour or two tracing its deplorable history.

Alas, someone had already done this. “Enemies of the people” has its own Wikipedia page. In brief, skipping the Romans, it goes back to Maximilien Robespierre, who sent hundreds of people to the guillotine until his fellow-revolutionaries decided they would be safer if Maximilien himself was also required to “cracher dans le panier,” as the French put it.

After that, we have a Royal Flush of 20th-century mass murderers: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. Followed by, rather an anti-climax, the Daily Mail and Donald Trump. I think Ms Lam needs her vocabulary sanitised.

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.