The Spacemen Speak

6 December 2008

Dispatches from the Twilight Zone

Windup metal spaceman, by zen, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Relevance is not always an exhaustive criterion in Hong Kong journalism. A vague association, the merest hint of connection, a slim link between national prestige and local humdrum is often all it takes to crank out a feel-good headline. Hong Kong’s minority English-language newspapers, in particular, are adept at trumpeting thinly-disguised irrelevance as news. Not always, but it sneaks in there often enough. Consider the front page of today’s South China Morning Post. The banner headline tells of a high court judge who gave an oral ruling in an appeal case and then reversed his decision when he gave the formal written ruling eight months later. The judicial system under the spotlight, a real case for concern – now that’s worth reading about. But with equal billing at the top of the page is this far less explicable headline: “Astronauts confident HK can weather financial turmoil”.

And thus the spacemen speak.

In a world that matches naiveté and nous, credulity and common sense, this is not an entirely unsurprising headline. But it truly beggars belief that any newspaper, save perhaps the Weekly World News, would even try to cast astronauts as in any way knowledge about a very complex financial crisis. Still, the SCMP is ever willing to pander to the overlords of the north and their lesser representatives. The astronauts, members of the Shenzhou VII mission that featured China’s first spacewalk in September, are in town with their support crew to speak about their experience and, it seems, to relate that experience to Hong Kong, even if by the weakest of analogies.

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Same Old

20 November 2008

More Manufactured Scandal from a Directionless Rag

Shock Shock Horror Horror, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceWhile waiting for the Coroner’s Court to hand down its finding on Vicky Flores’ death this morning I picked up our copy of the South China Morning Post, curious to know what salacious details it might have reported this time around. And it didn’t disappoint. The following post appeared in slightly different form on A Death in Hong Kong earlier this morning. The links to the original SCMP article lead to a PDF file, so everyone can read it.

The South China Morning Post has again reported incorrectly on Vicky’s inquest. Despite the headline on page 3 of the City section today, Vicky did not ‘visit’ a ‘witch doctor’ (otherwise known as a ‘quack’) about her headaches. A friend, supposedly a ‘boyfriend’, did on her behalf, taking a picture of Vicky with him.

So much for attention to detail from the SCMP’s subeditors.

The witness mentioned in the article who made the claim that Vicky was “out of her mind” shifted uneasily in her seat when Irene, Vicky’s sister, questioned her about this, kept looking down and moved her gaze from side to side. She also raised her voice defensively when questioned about how she knew that Vicky didn’t have good relations with her family. Her claim was that Vicky told her so.

In other words, she was presenting hearsay evidence.

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No News Today

18 November 2008

Journalism, Going Cheap

Order & chaos, by mushon, with Creatve Commons licenceMinority language newspapers are rarely the epitome of quality journalism, whether they suffer from under-funding, under-enthusiastic staff or just a simple lack of credibility given a small readership balanced against the necessity to drag in advertising revenue. Hong Kong’s second English daily, the Standard, staggered along as a business paper in recent years, finally devolving into a free 5-day tabloid edition with more advertisements than copy.  Such is the fate of a narrowly focused publication in a shrinking market. But the premier South China Morning Post, an old-school 7-day broadsheet, is having none of that.

Staff members I’ve talked to claim that the SCMP is intent on reinventing itself as publication read by English speaking Chinese and that the subscription data support that claim, although no-one can really say to what extent. The circulation figures seem to be up, which might be a good thing, but it’s hard to tell because free issues are always available at one of the local universities, at least.

Another, and perhaps more substantial, problem with this scenario of expanding the readership is that readers want to read. It might be using a revenue-based business model to determine the success or failure of its circulation drive, but the SCMP needs sufficiently good copy to make that model viable. Unfortunately, and I write this as a subscriber to both the print edition and the online edition (yes, Virginia, some newspapers still charge fees for access), the standard of journalism ranges from the occasionally impressive to more common run-of-the-mill, and bottoms out at irresponsible, which is a polite word for crap.

Allow me to discuss the low end of this scale, because excellence speaks for itself and it’s somewhat difficult to interest readers with repetitions of uninspiring column inches. I’ve mentioned the newspaper’s coverage of Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death in Hong Kong before, with my most negative commentary reserved for sensationalism in reportage about “the ‘occult references’ and ‘weird messages that sounded like mantras'” found on her mobile phone – which were little more than a misinterpreted ongoing conversation with an occasional friend.

That sets the scene for the SCMP‘s coverage of the inquest into Vicky’s death yesterday, the headline of which read “Maid got love letter before death, inquest told”. Hardly exciting news, but the lede increased the tempo:

A maid whose body was found in the sea after she ran screaming from her employers’ home had earlier received a love letter and a text message mentioning biblical “last days” from a man in her home town.

Search Privacy, by mushon, with Creative Commons licenceNow we have an apocryphal message, but the text message in question read, in part: “We are already in the last days. God is offering his holy spirit to us and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ Bible Society”. Anyone who has spent time with Filipinos or in the Philippines will know that forwarding text messages like that is very common, as are small charismatic Christian churches and the like. A literal belief in the Book of Revelations and the proximity of Christ’s second coming isn’t as widespread, but you don’t have to search far for it.

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A Tale of Interesting Times

25 October 2008

Nick Paumgarten’s Literature of Crisis

These are interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and all the more worrying for it. Last week I spoke to a man who has built a reputation as a long-term value investor in Hong Kong’s stock market. “The market’s crazy”, he said, “I’m going to Shanghai for a while”. You just can’t argue with that. But there are other ways of perceiving the situation, and we can’t all afford a cross-country jaunt for the clarity of distance. So I’ve turned not to the dry financial press, with its hyperbole and gloom, but to a writer who knows how to weave a story a little better than well. Sometimes the technique is almost important as the telling, especially in describing what would otherwise be unknowable, or at the very least arcane.

Nick Paumgarten seizes on the role of credit in the current travails, writing in last week’s New Yorker. His brief argument is not in the least difficult to follow – interbank lending has dried up and all else has followed. “Hoarding”, he writes poetically, “is panic’s quiet twin”.  That might seem a little too rhetorical, but allusion can often trump analysis in drawing the bigger picture. First the banks panic, and then they – and everyone else – start to hoard. It follows that when someone mentions recession, no-one really wants to spend. Everyone’s thinking about whether they can keep their jobs, whether their savings will last if they don’t. So things get worse, and hoarding really does become panic’s quiet twin.

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From the Newswires

6 September 2008

The Persistence of Journalistic Bias

Objectivity is the journalist’s catch-cry and crutch. We might presume that it’s simply a function of news writing, but perspective is everything with the written word. When a newspaper journalist mentions objectivity it’s either a shout in rage at the way things are when they should no longer be, or a whimper of shame when happenings prove bias to be inevitable. But is the reading public prepared to scrutinise, to decide when coverage might be other than what it claims?

By and large, we in the minority of the world’s population with access to the Internet still rely on the newswires to bring us the business, to tell us what’s been happening this minute, this hour, this day, this week. And who amongst us seriously asks “is this correct?” or “why is this so?” or how could that be?” Not many at all. We accept that reportage is an approximation of reality, that what might be near enough is probably good enough. And we read on, understanding the world in ways we don’t fully understand ourselves.

But think about the acceptance of approximation for a while. Not only does it mean that we’ll never know ‘what really happened’, but it also indicates that we’re not very concerned about bias, which is what occurs when objectivity no longer pertains. In a maybe-biased-maybe-not world, how do we discern the effects of propaganda, and the extent to which any part of the media colludes with government in presenting a picture of that which has never been? This is not a problem of our epoch alone, as any historian would admit, but it has become particularly un-nerving just now, when so much information can be had, but so few search through it diligently.

Allow me to offer a brief example from that most biased of journalistic pursuits – the coverage of war. Search the archive of the New York Times online and you’ll be able to find a wealth of military coverage, but one particular article is noteworthy for exposing the mechanics of how both sides in a war might twist and break their own credibility in reporting battles, if only we’d stop and think awhile.

Relaying a report from London, the New York Times shows how some American publications covering one war – I’ll discuss which later – have been making “their accounts of the present operations interesting, tactics which seem to be copied, indeed improved upon” by their counterparts on the enemy side. Here is the crux of the problem, whether in war or in peace. Most of what happens is not very interesting, and certainly not interesting enough to fill a daily newspaper. When happenings capture attention, they’re converted into Events and that attention is recycled every day until the next big happening comes along.

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You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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Double Standards

31 July 2008

More on Maid Mistreatment in Hong Kong

A journalist once told me that letters to the editor are the last refuge of the anally retentive, a view I’m often happy to agree with despite my reservations about the suitability of any journalistic advice. But today I read the print edition of the South China Morning Post here in Hong Kong and decided that silence changes nothing. Adorning the front page was an article encouraging the employers of lowly paid domestic helpers to cancel their contracts and rehire them to take advantage of the suspension of an employer-paid levy I mentioned recently.

The absolute irresponsibility of that article and other coverage in the issue should be clear from the letter I wrote to the editor a few hours ago.

Dear Editor,

I am appalled at the tone of your publication’s irresponsible lead article on 31 July (‘4 years off maid levy for some’). Suggesting that employers of foreign domestic helpers can “get the most” out of the levy suspension by breaching a set-term contract, which will force a period of unemployment on their employees, is the epitome of callousness. Leaving aside the fact that any such actions would not be “terminations” as reported (a contract is terminated due to wrong doing, not fiscal expediency), the chances of many employers even bothering to secure agreement from their helpers is small, given that the Immigration Department does not require them to fill out the reasons section of the form they submit when a contract is prematurely ended. This fact alone makes nonsense of the Secretary for Labour and Welfare’s claim that helpers should not fear being sacked because of the new arrangements. What will constrain irresponsible employers?

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City of Silence

26 July 2008

In Hong Kong, Who Speaks to the Unspoken?

There has long been a crucial link between politics and the mass media that plays out in the background of our lives. Leaving aside self-congratulatory accounts of the so-called ‘fourth estate’, the media communicates what politicians want known. Occasional exposés break this comfortable relationship, but even in criticising government action, the media more often than not barely scrape the surface of the issues behind political decisions. The focus remains on the head of the body politic, not the organs that make it function. So it comes as little surprise that media commentary on the Hong Kong government’s decision to suspend a levy placed on the employers of foreign domestic helpers completely misses the point.

First, a little background. Following the economic downturn generated by the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, during 2003 the local government decided to reduce the minimum wage payable to foreign domestic helpers – mainly Indonesians and Filipinos – and tax their employers to the tune of HK$400 a month. You might not see the immediate logic in this, until you realise that the euphemistically named ‘levy’, promoted as a way of collecting funds to help retrain locals disadvantaged by economic restructuring, was meant as a disincentive. Hire a foreign maid and pay for it. The operative word here is foreign; the idea was to have employers hire local helpers. Given the draconian conditions and low pay involved, few took up the offer.

In fact, the much vaunted multi-billion dollar retraining slush fund seems never to have been touched. With every request for information about it the government slides almost effortlessly toward another topic. The media doesn’t press too hard, so the issue fades until the government stumbles in one of its convoluted populist gestures. That happened recently when, as part of hastily assembled package to limit the effects of inflation, the government proposed a suspension of the levy for two years.

Given that the suspension applies to all contracts initiated within the period, it seems like a reasonable saving, until you realise that the HK$9,600 saved over the two years would be barely a few months’ lunch money for many employers, and hardly an amount substantial enough to somehow, miraculously, mitigate against inflation. As the package of ‘relief’ measures includes no incentives for saving, any money retained will most likely go to increased consumption.

Hey, presto! More inflation.

And what about the intended recipients of this ill-judged largesse? Well, some of them just can’t wait until September, when the suspension was first slated to start, and have started giving their maids notice – although in my neighbourhood some helpers have already been summarily dismissed. It would be entirely reasonable to ask why, and the tortured logic behind it is that the employers can save money now by dismissing their helpers and re-hiring, or hiring again, when the suspension comes into effect. Aside from the fact that this is completely illogical – the employers will save the entire amount when they renew the two-year contract anyway – it shows a callous disregard for the helpers themselves.

So, is the media focusing on this breach of human decency? No, not at all – and that observation covers both the English and Chinese language press. Typically, the coverage is mentioning the situation and interviewing NGOs that help maids, and the ever quote-worthy head of the foreign domestic helper employer group. But no-one has bothered to interview a single helper. The English language dailies could easily do that, given that most Filipino domestic helpers here, at least, have a better command of English than some of the reporters. But not a word.

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Speaking in Tongues

23 June 2008

Michael Erard’s Flawed Take on the Future of English

Letters, by jmtimages, with Creative Commons licenceHistory has a habit of playing tricks on those who claim to see the future. Hindsight – that underrated ability to reflect rather than forget – makes easy mock of unquestioned presumptions as they fade into undignified obscurity. It’s common now to speak of English as the coming ‘global’ language, pointing to the multitudes who use it as their second tongue, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. Perhaps that’s why Michael Erard has a different take on the matter in the July issue of Wired.

Erard’s argument is that English, with a tightening grip on intercultural communication given the sheer diversity of its non-native speakers, will change rapidly to suit new circumstances. ‘Panglish’, or a global form of English with many linguistic influences, will emerge soon. This isn’t an original position – it’s been floating around the English-language media lately, with the Telegraph in the UK somewhat vaguely reporting a study mentioned in Scientific American last March. But Erard gives the Panglish line a little more substance, creating an important place for Chinese speakers of English in the change.

Writing first of English in the near future, Erard makes the unsupported claim that “by 2020 native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language.” You could well ask why that particular year and not any other – futurists do like nice round numbers.

And by what calculation did Erard reach the figure of 2 billion people? He gives no answer but the inclusion of those only learning the language is a clue. It’s a guess, nicely rounded up. To include learners, who might never have a fully practical use for the language, as bona fide non-native speakers is a little like including passengers as train drivers. Well, you could argue, they’re both using the same vehicle.

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The Social Language of Ideas

8 May 2008

On Communicating Notions of Change

Edinburgh on the hill 1... by Today is a good day, with Creative Commons licenceBig ideas are tough going. They don’t occur to most people because abstracts are often unwelcome intrusions into practical, steady lives. The best ideas tend to flow into situations where rapid change is necessary, like business or medical science. Commerce is a hotbed of new ideas because profitability is never permanent – forcing change quite simply helps a company outpace the market. And medicine, tied closely to the business of drugs, patents and health management, also has the added burden of ethical concerns. Change must happen because it ensures profitability, saves lives, improves lives. That’s enough to get a lot of people thinking. But what about social problems that don’t seem as urgent? After the age of ideologies, how can big ideas make people think again?

Despite its promise to rectify social ills, Marxism failed because it couldn’t find a suitable form of government. Karl Marx’s profound insights into political economy became ruthless dogma in the hands of state communism, a beast that he and Friedrich Engels failed to envision when describing post-revolutionary governance in their Communist Manifesto. So we have capitalism, which is less an ideology than an assumption – a belief that the market works and everything in it will find a good and proper place, as long as governments don’t overly interfere.

Morning Meeting at the Fish Market, by Lucas Jans, with Creative Commons licenceThat might sound naïve, but we should never forget that the market isn’t a thing, much less a thing manipulated by all-powerful corporations or scheming individuals. Sure, there’s manipulation, but it’s of people. The market is a self-regulating social framework – a network of people interacting with other people. Paul Seabright describes it as the meeting place of strangers in pursuit of self-interest, which is not all that different from how I described the importance of familiar strangers to communities in a recent post. And even in its most negative manifestations, this market – our mega-community – can tell us something about the social language of ideas.

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Puerile Journalism in Vicenta Flores Case

4 May 2008

How to Defame a Dead Woman in One Short Article

wooden shoes & newspaper inlay, by Kokjebalder, with Creative Commons licenceSome newspapers really aren’t fit to line your shoes. I’ve just posted a slightly different version of the following message on A Death in Hong Kong, the blog covering reactions to the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores in Hong Kong. Today the South China Morning Post undertook an exercise in childish smearing – reporting unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta that could only have been motivated by sensationalism. I haven’t named the reporter in case any legal complications arise, but it won’t be hard to figure out who wrote the piece if you check back through my earlier posts on the case.

Allegations Without Evidence

The South China Morning Post today, Sunday 4 May, published unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta Flores under the headline “Occult link to drowned maid”.

An article on page 3 (full online text for subscribers only) mentioned police asking Vicenta’s sister Irene about:

an “occult-like” paper written in Latin that was found among her dead sister’s belongings.

Members of the Justice for Vicky Flores support group, of which I’m a member, were aware of the paper more than a week ago, but had not commented on it because it’s still in police custody as part of an ongoing investigation.

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Muddled Words Aren’t Enough

23 April 2008

How Newsworthy is a Filipino Death?

High Contrast Newspaper, by GiantsFanatic, with Creative Commons licenceAs the days pass it’s becoming increasingly difficult to accept the lack of accurate media coverage surrounding the mysterious death of Vicenta Flores here in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post is still the only news outlet covering the story, today producing an article that suggests police are developing a sense of how Vicenta disappeared. I hope that’s true. But it’s difficult to judge the whether the article is reliable, given that only last week the SCMP reported the case already closed.

An important question to ask is whether all of the informants tapped by reporter Mary Ann Benitez actually know what is happening in the case, and whether she SCMP sub-editors understands exactly what they those sources are saying. In this morning’s article, Benitez first cites un-named “sources” as saying that Vicenta attempted to catch a bus in the Tung Chung district, on the opposite side of Lantau island from where she lived, just an hour before she died. The woman was refused entry for lack of a fare. Benitez then writes that “police said” Vicenta was seen in Tung Chung, and was seen in a bus near the Tung Chung Development Pier.

Eye witness accounts can be confusing, but is this one sighting, two sightings or three sightings?

[Mary Ann Benitez has clarified this point – there was only one sighting and one bus, but multiple sources.]

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