We look at the HK Government's media management strategy, involving abuse of unattributed briefings, and the quotation of imaginary spokespersons, 97.3% of whom are male. The HK media should put a stop to this practice.

The fictitious spokesman
28 February 2010

One of the tendencies of an unelected Government, as Hong Kong has, is to try to avoid public accountability, and to allow future deniability of its statements, by refusing to be quoted on the record. Never a day goes by without some anonymous Government person being quoted as a "source" or "an official". This is particularly true when the Government wishes to respond to criticism without opening itself up to further questions, or when it wishes to float policy ideas which it can later deny having suggested. A tame media almost never makes clear that the person is "speaking on condition of anonymity", because that would tend to raise the question of "why?". They also fear losing access to their sources if they dare even to mention the anonymity.

There are of course circumstances in which a journalist can and should use sources without attribution - for example, if the source is a whistle-blower against his employer, or speaking without the authority of his employer, or has reason to fear for his security, and there is either a second source or some corroborating evidence. In that case, the journalist should explain the reason for the anonymity. But the unattributed briefing is a system which is heavily abused by the HK Government when they want to issue statements without attribution to any accountable official. The media let them get away with this, for fear of losing access to "exclusive" briefings.

Apart from unattributable briefings from real Government officials, the other favourite way that the Government puts out its position is to issue media releases (or what they still call "press releases", despite the diminishing role of printed media in societies), in which they conjure up a fictitious "spokesman" and report that the spokesman said various things. The deceptive idea is that the media will then produce reports with direct quotations from "a Government spokesman", without ever having heard a real-life human speak those words. It creates the illusion that the journalist interviewed the spokesman or at least heard him speak (and knows who spoke), and hence that the media report is the result of a journalistic enquiry of the matter. Knowing who spoke would allow the journalist to consider any conflicts of interest the speaker may have, or any contradictions to past statements by that person. It would also allow for the possibility of follow-up questions. A recent example of the fictitious spokesman was the response to a counter-proposal on the Express Rail Link, in which the "spokesman" dismissed it as not feasible.

Hong Kong's media should put a stop to this practice. Instead of quoting a fictitious spokesman, what journalists should write is:

"in a written statement, the [Government*] said"
(*or insert name of Bureau or Department).

Drop the spokesman - he doesn't exist. Strip him out of the press release and report the Government's statements directly. Perpetuating the fictitious spokesman makes the journalist complicit in deception of the public. If the media stop the illusion, then the Government will have no reason to use it.

Many readers of Hong Kong's media might think that the words attributed to a "Government spokesman" were actually spoken by a warm-blooded human, at least internally, to a Government statement-writer. Webb-site devised a simple test of this hypothesis: if the spokespersons really existed, then you would expect a fair proportion of them, if not close to half, to be female. But if you search the Government's press release site using Google for the following phrases, here are the results:

Phrase Hits Share
spokesman said 15,400 97.28%
spokesperson said 426 2.69%
spokeswoman said 5 0.03%

If nothing else, this indicates a clear bias in the minds of officialdom that to be authoritative, a fictitious spokesperson should be male, not genderless or female.

Responding to this allegation of bias, a Government spokeswoman said "You're right, this just isn't fair. All these fictitious men are appointed as spokespersons, but hardly any fictitious women like me. I am going to file a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission".

© Webb-site.com, 2010

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