Kroll investigates our Cyberport coverage
27 May 1999
Last Wednesday 19th May, Webb-site.com received an e-mail addressed to the editor, regarding the proposed Cyberport property development in Pokfulam, which has been awarded without a tender process to Richard Li's Pacific Century Group, in joint venture with the Hong Kong government.
Clueless in Seattle
The writer of this e-mail claimed to be "doing some free lance writing for a trade journal out of Washington". He later claimed to be writing for a Seattle-based trade journal. The writer (we will call him "Bob" to protect his career prospects) went on "As the intention of this project is to promote Hong Kong as an international IT outpost, it is of great interest to a number of people in the States who either do business in Hong Kong, or travel to Hong Kong frequently."
Bob referred to negative criticism of the project from "a number of people" and wrote "I will be in town for a few days and would like to meet with you and discuss your views on this project". In his e-mail, he asked us to reply to an e-mail address at one of the web's freemail providers, yahoo.com. As regular readers will know, we have published a number of articles about this project and the way it has been awarded, and it would be fair to say that our views are negative.
"So what?" you might think. Well unfortunately, Bob was not perhaps as IT-literate as an IT journalist would be. The detailed header on his e-mail reveals that it was sent at about 2.30pm in the Hong Kong time zone, from a PC on the Asian sub-domain of Kroll-Ogara.com. A few seconds later it passed out through the Kroll-Ogara mail gateway in the US Eastern time zone, and then arrived at our mail server. The wonders of modern technology meant that we were on to him from the beginning:
Received: from kroll-ogara.com ([18.104.22.168])
by server6000.net (8.8.7/8.8.4) with SMTP
id CAA19386 for <[Webb-site.com's address]>; Wed, 19 May 1999 02:29:15 -0400
Received: from kohkpc37.asia.kroll-ogara.com by kroll-ogara.com (SMI-8.6/SMI-SVR4)
id CAA04179; Wed, 19 May 1999 02:28:37 -0400
From: "New User" <@firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: [Webb-site.com's address]
Date: Wed, 19 May 1999 14:29:45 +0800
X-Priority: 3 (Normal)
X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook 8.5, Build 4.71.2173.0
X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V4.72.3110.3
We later checked with Sam Kaplan, a spokesperson for the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, who confirmed that they had no recollection of Bob and they had not commissioned any article on the Cyberport, which they had not heard about.
For those of you who don't know, Kroll is a world-wide investigation agency popular with Earth's leading corporations and governments for investigating other people's affairs. For more information on Kroll, visit the Kroll Associates web site, or the Kroll-Ogara web site (hey, they even get free publicity here). Alternatively you could look at the piece by their Executive Managing Director for Asia, Stephen Vickers, which was published in a recent issue of Time Magazine. Incidentally, we wonder how a Managing Director could ever be non-Executive, but perhaps the more words the better in US titles.
Having Bob for lunch
We decided to humour Bob and play along. We replied that we would be happy to spare some time. Less than 24 hours later, on Thursday 20th May, Bob called. He had "arrived" in Hong Kong and was keen to meet up. He was "staying with a friend" and the only way to contact him was through a rented mobile phone. How convenient.
On Monday, Webb-site.com editor David Webb bought our hapless investigator lunch at a bar in Central, and was grilled by Bob (somewhat more than the steak in his bookmaker sandwich) about our coverage of the Cyberport. What were our motives? Where did we get our information? In our piece "Cybervillas", how did we calculate that 75% of the floor area is residential? Why did we write the piece Pacific Roundabout about the Pacific Century Place Beijing property?
Our information is all from the public domain folks - all we did is piece it together. Bob wanted to know - did we think there is a conspiracy against Pacific Century, or the Cyberport project? We don't. Anyone who is awarded a project in such unusual circumstances is bound to generate a lot of publicity. We are not involved in any conspiracy. Webb-site.com works alone, but is not alone in the opinions it holds. We cover a wide range of Hong Kong issues and our motives are clearly stated.
Lunch went on like this for about an hour and a half, occasionally deviating to other topics but the core focus of the Cyberport continued. All the while, we were wondering who had commissioned Kroll, what was the scope of the investigation, and what does this say about freedom of speech and the press in Hong Kong? Is everyone who makes critical comments about the Cyberport being investigated?
Time for some answers
We decided to get some answers. We told Bob that a lot of material on the Cyberport is sourced from a broker (it is not) who preferred not to publish in his own name, because his firm would not approve. We could ask our broker if he would be willing to meet Bob. Our "broker" was actually David Ibison, Business News Editor for the leading English-language local paper, the South China Morning Post. Hey - in the internet era we have to give print media a chance!
The meeting was at 6pm Tuesday, in a hotel bar in Central. Our "broker" would be there. Bob showed up, completely unaware that his cover was blown. As the lounge singer sang "Send in the Clowns", Bob quizzed our "broker" about the Cyberport. Was there a conspiracy? What were his sources? Mr. Ibison is well-informed about the project, and his cover was maintained until we decided to drop it and ask Bob why Kroll was investigating Webb-site.com and its editor.
It's a Mushroom
After a few minutes of hopeless denials, during which Bob dug himself a deeper and deeper hole, he confessed. Yes, he was working for Kroll. No, he didn't know who their client is. He was just doing a one-off job, he had just graduated, and he really hoped to get a full-time job with the firm (will he - what do you think?). He pleaded that his knowledge of the investigation was limited. "It's a mushroom" he says, presumably at this point feeling like he was floating around in hot goulash. "It's a need-to-know basis".
Well, what we need to know is, at what point does the investigation of journalists writing articles on matters of public interest, and in this case based solely on public disclosures, become harassment? Are we really heading for a situation in Hong Kong where we are unable to write critical articles without being investigated by "the world's leading risk mitigation agency" as they call themselves? Are all critics of the Cyberport, including the so-called "ten developers" and legislators being investigated? How far does this go? Are we being watched as we write? Is this "press freedom with Hong Kong characteristics?"
We spoke to Stephen Vickers, Head of Kroll for Asia-Pacific. He confirmed that Bob was their contractor but denied that Kroll was investigating Webb-site.com or its editor, or our critical comments on the Cyberport. He confirmed that there is a "wider project" which is "on-going" but could not say what it was about, what Bob was working on, or who they were working for, citing client confidentiality and an inability to reach "key people". It's funny how, with investigating agencies, privacy only seems to work in one direction. Mr Vickers declined to comment on whether Bob had a valid employment visa to work in Hong Kong.
The investigation of Webb-site.com sets a dangerous precedent that may deter other writers from writing negative criticism of corporate events in Hong Kong - if you are thinking of doing so, think twice - you may end up under the Kroll microscope. Perhaps the greatest irony is that you are reading this on the internet. With internet journals such as this one under investigation, what is the future of Hong Kong's drive to become the e-portal for Asia?
© Webb-site.com, 1999
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