I GOT IT WRONG. I thought Vladimir Putin would stay on his side of the border. But nope, not correct at all. I. Got. It. Wrong. Journalists get thousands of things wrong in our careers, and in that regard, I consider myself the Chief of Sinners.
We try to excuse ourselves by saying that journalists create only our “first rough draft of history”. That’s true enough, and historians, academics and investigative writers eventually tell the world what actually happened—months, years or decades later. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that reporters sometimes do harm.
All journalists get things wrong, but I think I can honestly say (at the risk of sounding egotistical) that I have made more and bigger mistakes than many of my colleagues. I get things wrong A LOT.
We make a range of different types of mistake. Here are seven wrong decisions out of the hundreds I have made, ranging from small ones, to larger ones, to one huge error.
1. When working in the UK I learned the hard way that Evelyn and Vivien are male names there, as are Hilary and Kim. Not only that, but if you are writing for UK publications, complexity is added by the fact that the concept of “the two sexes” is now a Forbidden Idea. (Advice: refer to all quoted individuals as “the person said”.)
2. On a related theme, I once hosted an event at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club where I had to make a snap decision on which pronoun to use for a person of indeterminate (transvestite? transgender?) sexuality and chose “he”. She was not happy.
3. On a darker note, I once decided to waltz into an intriguing underground meeting place in Shanghai to write about “local color”. Turned out to be a lair for members of the Shanghai underworld. The gangsters did not appreciate a visit from a foreign journalist. I had to resort to bribery and corruption to get out alive. I still shudder at the memory. There’s a thin line between bravery and foolhardiness and the more “gonzo” among us journalists often drift to the wrong side, creating problems rather than solving them.
4. In 1989, several friends who were eyewitnesses to the June 4 events in Beijing told me that nobody died in Tiananmen Square but two or three hundred died in fighting outside. I told them they were wrong. In fact, I spent 20 years pointing, in print, to a document about thousands of students machine-gunned or run over by tanks in the “Tiananmen Square massacre”. I pointed out that Wu’er Kaixi had watched it happen.
Time passes. Today, thanks to Wikileaks and historians from the West and the East, I now know that my eyewitness friends were right and the single document that told the more popular gruesome story of ten thousand people horribly killed has been completely discredited as deliberately harmful fiction. The students themselves pointed out that main witness Wu’er Kaixi wasn’t even in the Square. Sorry, eyewitness friends. Got that wrong for two decades VERY LOUDLY.
5. In 2019, at least eight Hong Kong readers contacted me with credible reports of their children being offered cash to throw bricks and set fire to places owned by mainland immigrants. The prevailing feeling in all foreign newsrooms and most local ones at that time was to absolve protesters of wrongdoing and blame police for everything. I put none of those readers’ stories in the newspaper, and regret it now. Hong Kong people were not well-served by us in the media in 2019.
Same with police officers who told me horrific stories which I did not print. People say I am brave for going against the prevailing narratives, but it’s not really true. I share the tiniest fraction of the material that the genuinely courageous, honest, good people of Hong Kong send me.
6. In November of that year, the press reported that police were besieging some 1,600 students at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I had an office at that university (my job title was “Fellow”) and I knew the inside story, which was that campus was being occupied by arson-loving, bomb-making strangers, at least 95 per cent of whom had zero connection with the university. My rate of success in persuading journalistic colleagues of the real story? Zero per cent. Some communicator I turned out to be!
Later, arrest figures showed that only about three per cent came from the university. Failing to get anyone to listen to your message makes any journalist feel like a failure.
BIGGEST JOURNALISTIC MISTAKE I EVER MADE
7. I still shake my head over this one.
In the early 1990s, I was visited socially several times by a very senior U.S. official from a multi-billion dollar global organization. Jim Green of the World Bank was in charge of dispensing aid to alleviate poverty-linked hunger across Asia.
When flying between New York and mainland China, he would stop in Hong Kong and have dinner with my wife and myself. On each visit, he told us stories we had never heard before, saying that the Chinese had started a poverty alleviation project that was so successful that many regions no longer needed aid.
Jim was one of the most sincere, honest, good-hearted people I had ever met, yet my brain simply could not take in his tales. I reacted negatively. But they’re commies! China’s a giant prison! It’s dystopia! Everybody says so! It’s in the papers!
On one visit, around 1993, Jim, who had a big heart for the people of Asia, told me that his organization had closed their last hunger aid project. “The Chinese don’t need us,” he said. “It’s fantastic news.”
To my everlasting regret, I wrote not one word about the stories he told me, although I trusted him implicitly. I was too busy demonizing the Chinese. That’s what journalists did. If you took one step away from that line, you were “cancelled” with the damning label “pro-Beijing”. (Still true today.)
Just a few years later, in the second half of the 1990s, the United Nations and the World Bank were regularly reporting that the Chinese leadership had been implementing a poverty alleviation program that had lifted more women, men and children out of starvation-level poverty than any other body on the planet.
For anyone who cares about the poor people of the human race, that is the biggest and most important story of the past three decades.
The story had been placed in my lap, years earlier, right from “the horse’s mouth” (weird British idiom, don’t really know what it means), and yet I hadn’t printed a word of it.
Why not? I don’t have a neat answer.
WE’RE NOT AN EVIL PROFESSION
Journalists are not evil people, or at least not more evil than any other professional group. But the problem is that we shape public opinion, despite the fact that we, like all people, are prone to confirmation bias, to telling the story in our heads rather than the real story, to cherry-picking facts to bolster a narrative, to getting caught up in a shared narrative (democracy good! China bad!) instead of listening and learning.
In particular, I feel that Western-style journalists, whatever the colors of our skins, are prone to pan-politicization or hyper-politicization (over-politicizing everything in ways that are unhelpful to society). I don’t see that so much in home-grown Asian journalism.
FAKE NEWS LAWS
What to do? It’s interesting that even in the UK now, a country obsessed with civil liberties, there are laws against fake news, and a press council that can force the media to print corrections.
If we copy the same idea in Hong Kong, even if we cut and paste the same words for the same laws, I can guarantee that the usual suspects will be wheeled out to announce that it’s the last nail in the coffin of a dying city.
But I think things have reached the stage where Hong Kong will get negative publicity whatever we do. So we’ve got to stop caring about what people think, and just do the right thing. Fox News, CNN, BBC, New York Times, Reuters, AFP, Bloomberg, do your worst. Keeping you happy is not the priority. The well-being of our society is our priority.
One day, I hope, many journalists will take the same journey that I have taken. We’ll all start to become a bit more open-minded about Asia, and especially about Hong Kong and mainland China, and realize that we very often get things wrong – on a small scale and a big scale. The profession will realize that it’s time to stop shouting about the people of the region and start listening.
There are some good lessons to be learned. I think it will happen one day.
But I may be wrong.