Even discreet and cautious political leaders like Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor can sometimes lose their cool and put their foot in their mouth in public.
The latest example is the chief executive’s outright irritation at an RTHK reporter, who asked her a question in English over her housing and land policies, after Lam took similar questions earlier in Cantonese, during a routine media session before the Executive Council meeting on Tuesday.
Saying that “we don’t need to waste time”, Lam demanded that simultaneous interpretation be arranged for such media events in the coming days.
Lam’s remarks, which were perceived as a sign of her impatience with the English language press, immediately provoked a backlash from the news media.
Even though Eric Chan Kwok-ki, director of the Chief Executive’s Office, quickly rallied to the defense of his boss and tried to contain the unexpected public relations crisis, the Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed deep concern over Lam’s remarks, saying her “dismissive attitude towards media questions raised in English is totally unacceptable”.
Then finally, Lam issued a statement at 11:51 pm on that day apologizing for any confusion that was caused.
When the RTHK English channel reported the news, it especially reminded listeners that “English is an official language in Hong Kong”, and that Lam herself told Legislative Council members back in May that she would be more than happy to undergo a Legco question-and-answer session in English someday.
In the meantime, some netizens wondered whether Lam would have deemed it “a waste of time” if a reporter had asked the same question in Mandarin.
The majority of reporters covering local news in Hong Kong are bilingual, to state a fact.
The reason why they often ask interviewees or government officials to answer in different languages is that they need to get straight sound bites in order to allow the public to hear the exact words uttered by the interviewees or officials in the language the public chooses for their media consumption.
Given this, arranging for second-person interpretation, during government press conferences, would be meaningless and unhelpful as far as the reporters on site are concerned.
Perhaps our chief executive should draw some insights into how to deal with the media from the soft-spoken Steve Hui Chun-tak, the former assistant commissioner of police (information systems wing).
Hui, who earned the nickname “4 pm Hui Sir” during the 2014 Occupy movement, is widely remembered for his catchphrase “I will now recap in English” in evening press conferences during the period of the pro-democracy protests.
Showing that he understood the understood the needs of the English language media, the then police official won the gratitude of reporters, particularly those working for foreign organizations, as well as members of the public.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 4
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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