POLITICS – Depraved HK Newspaper Needn’t Fear HK’s Media Watchdogs 7

What kind of case would it take to spur HK’s media self-regulatory bodies into action? One might think they’d pounce were some amoral local rag to – say – print a picture of the last moments of a bloodied up schoolboy…

Although independently funded NGOs with few legal powers, surely The Press Council and the HK Journalists Association would come down like a ton of bricks should the Oriental Press Group print such an intrusive, graphic image, as they did last November. Moments after an 11-year-old primary school child jumped from a bathroom window, a photojournalist was snapping away on the scene as paramedics attempted to revive him. (How said photographer sleeps at night is another matter.)
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Possibly following complaints, the original story has disappeared from the website but a smaller, low-res image remains on another section of the Oriental Group’s website, as does a follow-up story showing the victim’s distraught parents outside the morgue. There is little doubt his friends and loved ones will have encountered the image – and an article brimming with speculative nonsense – as they googled his name or school at the time.

Both media watchdogs have a clear Code of Ethics which are clear about privacy, sensationalism and violent/gory imagery. The HK Journalists Association goes into great detail in setting out how – particularly child – suicides ought to be covered. Neither have any official power to punish publishers, nevertheless I submitted complaints to both bodies last November…

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The Press Council
The photograph clearly violated part 2, 3, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3 of the Press Council Photojournalism Code of Ethics regarding privacy and violent/gory images (part 2 specifically relating to cases of suicide). It also violated part 3 and 4.1 of the Journalist’s Code of Ethics (with part 3 specifically referring to suicide). The Press Council’s guidelines warn against “intrusion of privacy” or stories that are “prurient, indecent or sensational [in] nature” – they have even given very specific terms with regards to how the press ought deal with child suicides.

The HK Journalist’s Association
The story is a clear violation of part 6 of the HKJA Code of Ethics dealing with “intrusion into private grief and distress.” It also violates part 1 of the Code which describes the duty of journalists to maintain the “highest professional and ethical standards.” and it violates the HKJA guidelines on coverage of suicides. Part 5C forbids the use of the victim’s photograph, part 5D states that the media should “respect the privacy of family members“. Part 5E recommends outlets ought to avoid “simplicity and blaming any party for a particular case” (the article was heavy in wild speculation), whilst part 5A suggests a ‘low key‘ approach. Part 5F was also violated as the article lacked any information about support groups.

The Press Council finally responded last week – 6 months later…

The Hong Kong Press Council (HKPC) has received your complaint about the newspaper The Oriental Daily for publishing an image of a boy that showed the last moment of his life on 1st Nov 2011 is sensational. After the discussion by Executive Committees of HKPC, they unanimously agree that it is a news photo and it is not sensational. The complaint is therefore not sustained by facts. For the privacy intrusion’s part, since complaint should be filed by the boy’s family, therefore we couldn’t handle your complaint.

In short, the watchdog sees absolutely no problem with the coverage and no violation of their own code. A month after the complaint was submitted the SCMP confirmed, in an unrelated article, that “According to reporting guidelines issued by the Hong Kong Press Council, the media should not publish pictures of the deceased”. However, it appears the Press Council is utterly toothless when it comes to recognising simple contraventions of its own rules.

I received three emails from the Journalists Association insisting the case is still being considered. In 2006, they ruled against a magazine for taking photos of a celebrity using a hidden camera. Thus it is hoped that, if the Press Council won’t, they will – at least – pass a meaningful judgement when it comes to the practice of publishing photos of child corpses.

In Britain, a media intrusion case involving a child who was kidnapped and killed led to such a public outcry that it resulted in the closure of a 168-year-old newspaper. It also sparked the ongoing Leveson Inquiry, which will likely lead to a stronger self-regulatory body being established in the UK – one which may call on advertisers and readers to ensure newspapers respect an Ethical Code of Standards.

The British inquiry also exposed illegal collusion between the media and police – clearly, this occurs in HK too as, in the case above, the press were on the scene as quickly as the paramedics.

If profiting from a tragic child suicide case does not spark outrage and an investigation in our city, what exactly would? Government oversight of the media would damage our already falling ranking on the world Press Freedom Index. However, a much tougher self-regulatory body to which all outlets are pressured to adhere is long overdue.