Gifts, Graft and the Press

Halloween is here, and I was pondering what might be in the cupboards for any surprise treat-or-trick visits from kids in the neighborhood but all I found was an empty cookie tin, which set me wondering.

I bought the tin of cookies from a local bakery that used to be a quiet little shop run by a housewife who baked her wonderful cakes and cookies at home in the southern part of Hong Kong. I recalled quiet lazy weekend afternoons indulging myself, undisturbed, over a sinful combination of cakes, coffee and a book. Well, fat hope. Now the owner has her own factory of chefs to bake her secret recipe for her several busy shops spread across Hong Kong, each easily recognized by the pilgrimage of newly converted cookie monsters.

This little self-owned bakery would have been a stock market darling had it been a listed entity, as its performance charts and probably share price have shot through the roof. What sparked the remarkable turn of fortune was, the rumors go, someone who gave a box of these crumbs to the editor of a newspaper some years ago who became hooked. A two-page feature story followed, which then changed history and led to a sudden onslaught of customers crashing through the gates till this day.

My question is, who gave the editor that box of cookies? If it was the owner, was that a bribe to achieve the remarkable results? Maybe not, if the editor did the feature voluntarily and received nothing more than a tin of consumables which most people would comfortably classify as a gift.

A gift you say? Well then, many companies also have a habit of showering gifts to journalists. Are those gifts considered bribes then?

I recall the good old days in the newsroom. Companies of all sorts, particularly from certain industries, are noted for their goodies, and I am not talking just about samples, products and meals but also all expenses paid “reporting” trips to fancy places with itineraries that further complicated the equation. How would one justify the necessity of driving an entourage of reporters each in a chauffeur-driven Ferrari or Porsche, instead of squeezing the load into a tour bus; pampering reporters with models on the left and right over meals; a half day reporting trip followed by three days of sponsored sightseeing and happy hours at pubs, discos and karaoke? These are just some examples I gathered from journalist friends over the years.

Showering journalists with these gifts is rampant in Asia. In 2010, China’s press watchdog, the General Administration of Press and Publication, reported that it had blacklisted at least 100 media workers and convicted more than 20 journalists for involvement in bribery and blackmailing cases. Ten newspapers, including the Beijing Times and the Guangzhou-based 21st Century Business Herald, received warnings or were suspended for publishing false reports. There were 76 instances of journalists who either took bribes or blackmailed their subjects. But it is routine in Hong Kong, for instance, for reporters to pack gifts ranging from golf clubs to expensive pens back to the newsroom after attending press conferences. In Indonesia and Thailand the problem is considerably worse, journalists say.

Editors must be on guard against such practices. Skewing the news in favor of an individual or company is a serious breach of ethics. There is a clear NO GO reminder about such practices in any journalism school. Serious and responsible newsrooms also bar their reporters from receiving gifts and trips – some even insist on paying for any reporting trip - or at least set guidelines about declaring freebies.

If the offering party belongs to the public sector, the guilt is more clear-cut. If it is from the private sector, the internal guidelines of the company usually say that anything more than a meal or gifts above a certain monetary value would cross the line.

There may be some grey areas on what constitutes unethical business practices and even bribery but if things get “overblown,” such as some of the obvious imbalance between business and leisure, and other unnecessary excesses, for those all-expenses- paid reporting trips, it may be a case of bribing the newsroom, according to a source and former senior official of the ICAC, the anti-corruption watchdog in Hong Kong.

Now, interestingly what about the other way round? I am talking about “gifts” from the newsroom to outside parties. Strange as it sounds, recent reports had it that Hong Kong’s Next Media founder and media mogul Jimmy Lai, known for his support of democratic movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, donated more than HK$60 million over the past years to the pan-democratic parties and the former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who later clarified that some of the money was channeled to China to support underground churches.

But Lai himself, as far as the media has it, was donating to pursue his personal and not business interest, the source added.

Now my last question, does anyone have a problem with giving candies and cookies to kids for Halloween? Happy Halloween!

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence practice specialized in the Greater China region. Email: soovans@gmail.com. This also appears in The Standard of Hong Kong.)