23 February 2019
Erdogan’s successful campaign is a powerful reminder of what happens when a government controls the most powerful tool in electoral machinery - the media. Photo: Reuters
Erdogan’s successful campaign is a powerful reminder of what happens when a government controls the most powerful tool in electoral machinery - the media. Photo: Reuters

Media in jeopardy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s successful campaign to acquire dictatorial powers is a powerful reminder that the over-simplistic algorithm of ‘one man one vote’ does not equate to the concept of objective democracy.

Perhaps the word democracy itself is misleading.

A society in which the interests of all, especially minorities, are represented and which aims to create and maintain a fair balance between all competing interests is what we aspire to, although it appears to be an elusive goal to achieve. In this respect it is an accurate reflection of that most eclectic of qualities, human nature.

The principle that if the majority disapprove of their elected government they can simply vote it out of power, is overly facile.

A sitting government controls the electoral machinery, just as Beijing pulls Hong Kong’s strings. It can engineer the outcome by the simple expedient of setting the boundaries of the constituencies so as to tilt the balance by empowering those it perceives as its supporters. Hong Kong’s Business, Fishing and Hung Yee Kuk constituencies are prime exemplars of this device.

Aside from such institutional methods, the most powerful tool in an electoral process is the media.

Despite the remarkable spread of information via the internet, most communication of information still comes via radio, TV and the press.

Whoever controls the media has the power to shape public opinion. Joe and Jill Citizen do not have the time, even if they had the inclination, to investigate the facts behind the issues of the day. They glean their information from what the media deliver.

The truly professional journalist’s objective is to inform, not to color public opinion. Despite the best efforts of press barons like Rupert Murdoch with their politically slanted gutter rags, there are countless journalists around the world who hold true to their fundamental tenet of speaking truth to power.

Many of them pay for their principles with their lives and freedom.

The more effective they are, the greater the danger they pose to the megalomaniac autocrats and their corrupt coterie of supporters. Why else are they imprisoned or assassinated, and not just in Russia and Turkey but in Hungary, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere. To date in 2017, 38 percent of all journalists killed were covering politics.

The genuine professional, particularly the investigative journalist, is the scourge of autocratic governments and in the front line of the defenders of a free and equitable society.

Why do I add the qualification ‘professional’? Frederick Forsyth, the journalist turned novelist tells in his autobiography ‘The Outsider’ of the advice dunned into him by his mentor Frank Keeler at the Eastern Daily Press: “Check, check and check again. Then write.”

This is the vital quality of the true journalist, to inform accurately. It is also what distinguishes journalism from the social media.

Paul Starr, writing in New Republic in March 2009 said “newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems.”

So, how are we to view the catastrophic failings of the UK print media in relation to the Brexit referendum? Where was the critical analysis of the arguments for and against? Other than The Financial Times, the papers spewed ill-considered ignorance and speculation for the consumption of a largely undiscriminating public. Hypothesis was served up as fact and only now is a betrayed readership having to come to terms with the undefined complexity of extrication from a 40-year web of rules and regulations.

The great editors of the past insisted on their independence to maintain professional integrity. All too often, today’s editors are subservient to their owner’s opinions.

Which brings us to what once upon a time was Hong Kong’s flagship of English language newspapers. Save for very occasional pieces by Philip Bowring and the entertainingly bilious Jake Van Der Kamp, all the old style journalists have decamped to quality online publications like Economic Journal, Asia Times and Hong Kong Free Press.

The “Mourning Post” is a shining example of what a newspaper should not be. The egregious massacring of the English language, especially op-ed pieces that have obviously been translated from an original in Chinese, the ludicrous typographical errors and the inspired failure to get to the heart of any story surely would be laughable were it not such a tragic fall from journalistic grace.

That it is now not even a thinly veiled mouthpiece for Beijing-speak should not come as a surprise given its ownership. If I want news about the PRC, I read China Daily, an infinitely better informed, better written and presented publication which does not pretend to be anything other than an organ of government. I don’t see the point in paying for regurgitated news agency stories and coverage of local events that is usually woefully late and even more woefully reported on.

The only positive news to come out of this is that the Post’s employees have no fear of being imprisoned or assassinated.

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Queen's Counsel

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