Fifteen minutes of world fame for downtrodden Hong Kongers
Hong Kong handover:The media have hit the ground running, and amongst those trampled is Stephen Vines
Saturday 28 June 1997
Some 8,000 journalists have registered with the government to cover the big story of the Hong Kong handover to Chinese rule. Believe me, a gathering of this size is an awesome sight. The late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping used to joke that he couldn't visit Hong Kong because he was scared of the colony's press pack.
The truth is that the far from shy members of the Hong Kong press corps are no more than novices in the aggression stakes compared to the full, sweaty, international hack pack in search of a story.
The level of frustration is proceeding steadily towards full boil because of a number of factors. Top of the list is the unavoidable reality that not only has no one been killed during the course of the big story, but, worse - from the cynical viewpoint of the international press - no one is likely to die.
Then there's the problem of the main players. Those who talk, are interviewed out. Allen Lee, the leader of one of the main parties, told me the other day that he seriously doubted whether his throat would survive the barrage of interviews he was obliged to give. Was he not also worried about having to answer the same question far too many times? Mr Lee's eyes rose in a skyward direction; he was too exhausted to reply.
Chinese officials have largely solved the interview problem by remaining silent, although it is just possible to get them on record by working to a prepared script, submitted well in advance. The press minders in the office of Tung Chee-hwa, who will head the first post-colonial government, admit that they do not even have sufficient resources to read the avalanche of faxes requesting interviews. I am assured that they have been filed somewhere.
Even some lesser forms of pond life, who fulfil the essential requirement of being English speaking, have discovered what it's like to have a tad more than Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. I bumped into a friend, a businessman, the other day. He uttered a single word: "don't". That meant don't ask me anything, don't give anyone my phone number and don't you ever again mention me in an article because it only incites other journalists to hit the phone in hot pursuit. "These guys don't seem to realise I have a business to run," he said plaintively.
It's not just the famous, almost famous and aspirant famous who are having problems. Spare a thought for Hong Kong's cagemen, the poor fellows who live in tiny confined bed spaces surrounded by a metal cage. For many of the visiting hacks the cagemen are the "real" story simply by virtue of being at the bottom of the pile and not part of the government's lavish media programme.
If the small army of government press officers had had any sense they would have put them on the official visits programme and thus have instantly consigned these unfortunates to a less interesting status. However, it is an iron rule of journalism that that which is somehow hidden is inherently more interesting than that which is clearly visible.
It is churlish to complain about the efforts of a government that has dished out shoulder bags filled with freebies which impress even hardened attenders at big events. Had the dog not got at it, I would be the proud owner of a souvenir designer watch, alongside a fine polo shirt, a baseball cap, five free rolls of film and, of course, many tons of bumf about Hong Kong.
Journalists are notorious complainers. We are not happy when nothing is happening; we complain when too much is going on; and we are more than ready to proclaim that more or else anything is "boring".
Actually this is not boring. Anyone who is bored by the story of the world's last major decolonisation process should be in another business. The real problem is not quite knowing where to start ,and once started, how to avoid bumping into colleagues and rivals at every twist and turn.
This raises the dread prospect of us all producing the same story - the ultimate sin in Western journalism. (Although I'm told by Japanese colleagues that the ultimate offence in the Japanese media is to report something different from the pack consensus).
That's why I'm keeping the Chris Patten Ate My Hampster story all to myself.
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