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FCC archives: Advance Hong Kong! Group set up to polish up city’s image

This article is reproduced from the June 1997 special edition of The Correspondent.

The Correspondent's coverage of the inaugural Advance Hong Kong meeting.

The Correspondent’s coverage of the inaugural Advance Hong Kong meeting.

The first meeting of a new group dedicated to improving the world’s view of Hong Kong proved to be ill-tempered. The Correspondent reporter was riveted to his seat at the front of the room. Also on this page, Jonathan Mirsky of The Times and Steve Vines of The Independent in London, share their thoughts on Advance Hong Kong.

If there is one thing the first meeting of Advance Hong Kong demonstrated, it is that there are two sides to every story.

Advance Hong Kong is a pressure group set up by FCC member Ted Thomas to “talk back” to the international media which, he says, is feeding the rest of the world biased stories about how Hong Kong is doomed. The inaugural meeting of the AHK at the FCC was riven with distrust on both sides of the media camp.

A few days before the meeting, Advance Hong Kong had published the following advertisement in the South China Morning Post: “Help us stop 5 billion people being fed garbage.”

The veteran Thomas and fellow Advance Hong Kong member Thomas Axmacher, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Hotels Association, claimed that the foreign media had been busy blackening the name of the territory. The likes of Robert Chua, the owner of a “No news, no sex, no violence” satellite TV channel targeted at China, came along to give support.

“The press has successfully killed the golden goose,” Axmacher had roared, as he blamed the media for 10,000 reservations of Hong Kong’s 34,000 hotel rooms being cancelled for the Handover.

Axmacher and Thomas memorably quoted “taxi driver wisdom” to amen their points. Axmacher said that at recent hotel industry fairs in Tokyo and Osaka journalists had asked “questions like they were coming from the moon”.

Next up was Chua, who complained that “not one single person has ever congratulated me” on the return of Hong Kong to China. Chua said that reporters and commentators had been “misusing their freedom” in their coverage of the Handover story.

After the formal presentations came the questions.

The first came from Bernard Wijedoru, an engineer by profession, whose business card lists him as being a “PRC appointed Hong Kong District Affairs Advisor” and “Committee Member, Association for Celebration of Reunification of Hong Kong with China”.

“No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy,” he began before saying, “Bad news is better than good news.”

The premise of his question was that the territory is a victim of a “Western conspiracy and that (it) cannot succeed except as a western colony”.

Thomas’s response was swift: “No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy,” he began before saying, “Bad news is better than good news.”

Another speaker was Elaine Goodwin who has spent 27 years in Hong Kong and who offered a reminder of what life in Hong Kong is about. She noted that it is safe for a woman to be out by herself at four o’clock in the morning and “we don’t have serial killers because our police catch them”.

Observers at the meeting suggested that both Wijedoru and Goodwin represented Advance Hong Kong’s two partisan lobbies: the older expat community and the pro-China constituency.

The pro-China lobby was also represented by some of the local speakers who appeared to feel more affinity to the future than the past. That at least was the view of speaker Sam Ho, who added that he was “very upset” at all the China-bashing.

The general irritability of some of the supporters of Advance Hong Kong was illustrated after a couple of reporters’ questions to the panel, after which one of them demanded, “Who pays you? Who pays you?”

Towards the end of the meeting matters came to a head, although not a resolution, when yet another skeptical question was posed from the front of the room. Frank, a burly expatriate, then told all the skeptics to “bugger off as quickly as possible. There are plenty of planes”.

As Winston Churchill, who was a Great Communicator long before the spin doctors got into the business, said: “Everyone is in favour of free speech. But some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else also says something bad, that is an outrage.”

Print the negs, by Steve Vines

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines

Why is the foreign media not writing the good news about Hong Kong? Why, say our apparently growing band of critics, must we always accentuate the negative? Like the ghastly mother of the rule-breaking ballroom dancer in the brilliant Australian film “Ballroom Dancing” [sic], we are urged to put on our “happy face” when we address the public.

The sad face should, we are told, be tucked away in a drawer somewhere. The problem is that the public is not really interested in what may be labelled good news or bad news, it wants what may be called real news.

Real news tends to be about people and events at times of change. It may be a very small change, such as the closure of a series of roads, or a really big change like the change in sovereignty due to occur in Hong Kong on July 1.

By definition the news is not necessarily good or bad but interesting because it relates to dynamic events.

Thanks to the efforts of our esteemed FCC member Ted Thomas, an interesting group of fellows, mainly expatriate, public relations men, businessmen and others have been drawn together to form an organisation dedicated to denouncing the foreign press for spreading a negative image of the colony.

At their founding meeting carefully selected members of the audience were called upon to deliver testimonials about how the dreadful foreign media were undermining their businesses. They told tales of meeting taxi drivers in far flung places who had a distorted picture of Hong Kong’s stability.

Fortunately, for the spreaders of disinformation, like myself, Mr Thomas and his cronies came up with an entirely barmy solution to the problem. I say fortunately because I would hate to have to defend every single report filed from Hong Kong, many of which are as barking as the new organisation.

Their solution? Get this: they proposed to sign up a bunch of no hopers drawn from the ranks of foreign journalists (believe me, no one but a no hoper would be party to this scheme) and get them to visit newsrooms around the globe to tell editors that their coverage of Hong Kong is inaccurate and unfair. Presumably the said editors would then have a total rethink of their Hong Kong coverage, kick out the generally well-respected correspondents based here and replace them with the aforementioned no hopers, who would write glowing reports about what’s happening.

The PR men are mobilised, at an hourly rate, like the world’s oldest profession, to improve the message but what are they to do if the message is less than, shall we say, perfect?

Alternately they might be shown the door or even fail to be invited in for a chat. PR men have some strange ideas about what goes on in newsrooms.

Although this is up there among the more crazy of the schemes which I have had the misfortune to witness, it is far from unique. There is an understandable tendency for people to question the  messenger more closely than the message. Bad news is therefore the fault of those bringing the news. The Romans dealt with this rather severely by killing messengers delivering ill tidings. Nowadays we die a slow death (figuratively, I stress) caused by prolonged wingeing.

The PR men are mobilised, at an hourly rate, like the world’s oldest profession, to improve the message but what are they to do if the message is less than, shall we say, perfect?

I spent many years covering the Middle East, specifically the Israel-Palestine conflict. The memory of messenger shooting in those days still haunts me. I recall being harangued by government spokesmen for being part of a ‘Zionist plot’ or alternately ‘an anti-Semitic conspiracy’ because I had reported something which one side or the other did not like.

Lamentably no one has ever allowed me to join their plot. Even here in Hong Kong I have never been approached by the CIA, MI5 or whoever, to do their dirty work. I’m not saying I would help them, but sometimes a chap likes to be asked.

Don’t get me wrong, the average hack, or journalists as we are sometimes called, is no paragon of virtue. We come in all shapes and sizes. All human life is here from low, to lower and, just occasionally we hit some highs. I can say, hand on heart, that some of the very worst people I’ve met are journalists.

I can equally say that some of the best are drawn from the same trade. The idea that this notoriously hard to organise bunch of people could ever be part of anyone’s plot to do down any spot on earth is so absurd that only very gullible people could believe it.

Yet we do suffer from herd-like behaviour and hacks do tend to follow the herd, even if it is leading in a wrong direction. This, however, should not be construed as being part of a plot. It is no more than stupidity. I don’t think there is much to be gained from defending stupidity, but I hate to see it confused with well thought out intent.

None of us is perfect. I’m told that even PR men suffer from imperfection, but that’s no more than a rumour. Mostly we are just working stiffs, trying to get a job done. Lamentably, for the conspiracists, it is no more complex than that.

Ted’s folly? by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

It is always fashionable to attack the press and often with good reason. much of what appears in it is garbage. Or offensive.

An editor recently asked me to go to Taiwan to interview the mother of a kidnapped, tortured and murdered girl. I said I assumed she was joking. Yes, indeed. Much dreck in the papers. As in public relations. For those who missed Mr Thomas’ meeting in late April, this – with a few cuts for space – is how I reported it for my paper. Mr Thomas told me later it was fair.

A group of Hong Kong businessmen yesterday condemned the foreign press for its biased reporting during the period before the transfer of sovereignty to China, and blamed the international media here for causing the hotel, tourist and retail businesses to decline badly.

The newly founded group, Advance Hong Kong, held its first meeting, attended by about 100 mostly foreign tourist agency and hotel managers, factory owners, artists and retail shop owners, who accused international journalists of causing people in Europe and Japan, as one of them put it, to ‘think that Hong Kong was going down the slippery slope and is doomed because of the Handover to China’.

The group was formed and the meeting last night chaired by Ted Thomas, a public relations executive.

China is responsible for its own bad image: Tibet, Wei Jingsheng, US campaign money, Tiananmen – a poisonous cocktail.

“We are going to fight fire with fire,” said Mr Thomas, who announced that he intended to pay the travel and hotel expenses of Hong Kong-based journalists and ‘tell editors and publishers what a great place Hong Kong is’.

Mr Thomas declared at the outset that no one could speak at the meeting ‘except those who are like-minded’. After about a dozen in the audience spoke about the harm the international press had caused the hotel business, whose bookings for the period after the summer were claimed to have sunk by over 10 per cent, and the tourist business, about which the same was said, Mr Thomas told reporters, “I hope you report that the views at this meeting are unanimous”.

James Tien, president of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday, however, that successful international businesses paid no attention to the press and based their views of Hong Kong’s future on what local experts told them.

Mr Thomas has written to me that he can’t yet name what he terms his ‘apostles’ or ‘ambassadors’ because some of those interviewed might not meet his standard and he would not want to embarrass the failures. I warned him that a journalist showing up in a respectable newsroom with ‘good news’ about Hong Kong, and on expenses, would be lucky to be invited to submit a written piece in the traditional manner.

Of course, what Mr Thomas and his supporters allege about the press bad-mouthing and its near-fatal effects is nonsense, especially since they can’t deny most of the local economy is booming. Their selected quote from Keith Richburg says it all, that ‘activists’ had demonstrated. Well, they did and Keith reported it. Just as he recently reported on the man who goes about writing curious messages on walls. That’s what we do: report.

Mr Thomas and his friends say hotel bookings are down. I make two suggestions: First, investigate the effect of the scare campaign last year by the hotels that they would be packed out this summer, urging early booking, and posting outrageous rates. Second, China is coming to Hong Kong. People read Mr Tung’s plans for a ‘stable’ city which – can there be anything weirder? – forbids demonstrations for Tibet’s and Xinjiang’s independence and will not register political parties which ‘threaten national security’.

Things like that worry people. Bookings are down in China too. China is responsible for its own bad image: Tibet, Wei Jingsheng, US campaign money, Tiananmen – a poisonous cocktail. As James Tien says, it doesn’t stop businessmen from investigating here. What might slow them down is another factor, discussed by Philip Segal in the IHT, May 16 and 17: what is the Hong Kong economy?

Of course, press bashing has a corollary: press control. Mr Tung has only to mention the international media in a certain tone at a business lunch and he gets thunderous applause. He never mentions the local press which is not entirely tamed yet, in which his vision of a Hong Kong where research on Tibetan pr Taiwanese independence is illegal and is scrutinised critically.

No, it’s the international press. A foreign reporter recently asked Mr Tung if his, the reporter’s, life would change on July 1. Wait and see, said Mr Tung. I can’t wait that long, said the reporter.

OK, said the future chief executive, read Basic Law, Article 23. And Mr Thomas thinks we’re a threat.