Media: Hong Kong's gore wars

A man is pictured in bed with two prostitutes - the day after his wife killed herself and their two children. This time even the paper that has set new standards in sensationalism had to say sorry.
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It is rare for a newspaper publisher to clear the front page for an announcement apologising for the paper's coverage of a major story. However this is what readers of Hong Kong's lively Apple Daily saw when they opened their paper last week.

Jimmy Lai, the maverick publisher, admitted that Apple had crossed the fine line between reporting the news and helping make it happen. He did not say so, but Apple was aided and abetted by most of the rest of the media. The result has been the emergence of an acrimonious public debate.

The story in question has all the elements that stimulate the adrenalin of popular journalism. It started with the suicide of Chan Lam Man-Fong, a 41-year-old woman apparently distraught over her husband's infidelity with prostitutes across the border in China. Before plunging to her death from a 14th-floor flat she murdered her two young daughters by pushing them out the window.

So far, so bad. Next her husband Chan Kin-Hong turned up on television where he was seen having crossed the border to see his girlfriends. Apple, always ready to go the extra mile, then splashed an exclusive picture of Mr Chan in bed with two women who were described as "female hairdressers".

How did Apple get the picture? Simple, it paid almost pounds 500 to Mr Chan through some indirect route. To say that the picture became a talking point is something of an understatement. Hong Kong's sensation-seeking Chinese language television channels switched over to blanket coverage, led by the number two station, ATV, and enthusiastically followed by the market leader, TVB.

Cheng Kei-Lap, a director of the TVB programme that covered Mr Chan's affairs most closely, later explained that the channel had lost 700,000 viewers over two days to ATV and so had to follow its lead.

The written media were no less restrained. Apple's main rival, the Oriental Daily News, made up for missing the picture by starting a hate campaign against Mr Chan, whom it dubbed the "human scum".

It is hard to think of Mr Chan as an angel, but, whatever the truth of his situation, he quickly became a hounded man, attacked on the street, abused on the estate where he lived and barred from his wife's funeral by relatives who put up a sign in the mourning hall that read: "Animals not allowed into this hall."

While Mr Chan was trying to cope with the consequences of his behaviour, politicians and pressure groups were busy stirring up a media-bashing bandwagon. The Democratic Party, Hong Kong's largest, produced a public opinion survey showing that only 11 per cent of respondents now believed the media. "The red light is on" for the media, said Andrew Cheng, a Democrat legislator. He advocated the establishment of a monitoring group to regulate news organisations and punish those violating a code of ethics.

A Christian group, called The Society of Truth and Light, launched a boycott of newspapers and television programmes that had given sensational coverage to the Chan story. It claimed success, while admitting that only 2,300 people had joined the boycott.

Nevertheless, the whole affair has revived a campaign to establish an institution similar to the Press Complaints Commission. However this is opposed by journalists' organisations, which fear that Hong Kong under Chinese rule might be subject to political media censorship if such a body were established.

Behind the talk of high moral principles and ethics is a savage media war that is driven by the need to maintain profits during this time of economic recession. Apple, which was founded just under four years ago, literally changed the face of Chinese newspapers by its bold use of pictures and its Western-style approach to layout and by reclaiming the front page for news. Before the launch of Apple all other newspapers regularly sold off their front pages to advertisers.

Within a year most other newspapers had started looking like Apple and had grown more and more frantic to outbid the upstart in finding sensational stories.

The other newspaper owners were particularly incensed by the success of Apple because its founder, Jimmy Lai, had no newspaper experience but had proved himself to be a marketing genius with the launch of the Giordano casual clothing chain, which had become Asia's premier mass-market clothing brand.

Mr Lai defied all known local practices by hiring a television executive as editor and filling many other senior posts with former television staff. The relatively staid world of newspaper journalism had been eclipsed by the advent of far more racy television journalism. Mr Lai wanted to bring some of this pizzazz into the print media. Meanwhile, he took the unusual step of establishing a large number of focus groups to discover what the public wanted from a new paper. Dummies of the new paper were shown to the groups who gave their verdicts and had a considerable impact on the new publication.

The autocratic style of management that prevails in most Hong Kong newspapers was replaced by Jimmy Lai's hands-on presence on the editorial floor and no-holds-barred meetings, at which views on all subjects were exchanged.

The result was that Apple rapidly became the second-highest selling newspaper, forcing the market leader, the Oriental Daily News, to compete in true Murdoch style by savage price cutting. This led to a wider price war, resulting in the death of three newspapers.

The war then subsided but was started again by the Oriental, which was desperate not to be pushed off the number one perch. This time round Apple decided not to lower its price but to compete in terms of editorial content.

In practice, this often meant increasingly sensational journalism, propelling Apple's rivals into greater depths of bizarre reporting. Yet, remarkably, even the most populist papers maintain far more detailed foreign, business and political coverage than their British counterparts. Serious stories about how interest rate changes have affected the stock market sit in close proximity to lurid tales of murder, sex romps and other standard tabloid fare.

However, it is sensation that sells papers. The day after Apple's apology, its front page was covered with eight pictures of a particularly gruesome murder in which a mother and her three-year-old son were killed in a chopper attack. Apple's main picture of the day showed a blood-splattered flat where the attack took place.

Meanwhile, on the day of the dramatic apology, Apple enjoyed a sell- out. It would appear that, in Hong Kong, saying sorry is also a way of selling newspapers.