Trade unions are getting a bad press lately – not all of it undeserved – but at their heart they’re about decent pay and working conditions. When I asked my father Jack Spackman why he started the Hong Kong Journalists Association his answer was simple: It was a matter of dignity.
“It was undignified, for example, that firefighters should turn their hoses on reporters and photographers,” he said.
“At a fire, where our people were only trying to do their jobs, Her Majesty’s firemen treated us as though we were urban terrorists.
“Two years after formation, which officially was on April 1, 1968, the Association was still complaining to the Director of Fire Services about one of these hosings, as well as protesting to the police about reporters being threatened and pushed around.”
Jack said from the start the HKJA worked to get new ideas about treatment of journalists into the heads of government and business leaders and media owners.
“We got better typhoon gear by asking for it. We also, after a lot of argument, got blankets and pillows to go with the camp stretchers for the reporters and editors trapped in the office during typhoons.”
They were small issues, Jack said, but at their heart was a struggle to make the craft of journalism a respected one.
“We figured that if we could improve the lot of working journalists we would also automatically raise the standards of our profession,” he said.
To that end the HKJA did a deal early on with the Singapore Hotel in Wanchai for the use of its conference room every week at no charge, other than what was spent on drinks and food, to run its Forum series.
“We had some fierce debates, all thoroughly educational for young journalists, even if some of the discussions finished in a barney. We ran a most informative Forum or two on the stock market at a time when it was wallowing between peaks.
“And our program on the emerging subject of feminism provided, I believe, the first public forum in Hong Kong for Dr Judith McKay, who was to become a vigorous anti-smoking campaigner.”
At one of these meetings, according to the late Hong Kong journalist Kevin Sinclair, a newly-arrived South African reporter gestured to the “scrawny figure passionately addressing the gathering. ‘Who’s that?’ ‘That’s Jack. He’s the second best chairman in China.’ “
Jack served as chairman of the HKJA for five years but he often said his aim was to get the expatriates – himself first, if possible – off the committee and to see young Chinese journalists take up the cause.
His dream was realised and by the time he returned to Hong Kong in 1993 for the HKJA’s 25th anniversary it had been led for many years by local journalists.
The HKJA’s modern struggles are not about typhoon cots or firehose drenchings and its latest report on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong makes for grim reading.
One aspect of the report which struck me was the growing secrecy surrounding government business, with fewer press conferences and more statements, along with other well-worn strategies to keep the Fourth Estate in the dark.
It was a complaint my father and his generation of journalists had themselves made often in Hong Kong.
“It was always my experience that governors did not give interviews – unless perhaps one had a big Fleet Street byline. For the rest of us it was a constant struggle against the Government Information Service barricades,” Jack said.
“As society’s watchdogs, cut off from the source, we fell back on some old reporter’s techniques – I remember Government House being particularly annoyed that I seemed to be very familiar with the governor’s schedule.
“What they didn’t know was that the governor’s driver used to drink at the Kennedy Road shops and I was always happy to buy him a beer.”
It’s a shame, if an unsurprising one, that journalists in Hong Kong are still fighting the good fight to shine a light on the activities of the powerful.
Back in 1993 Jack slammed the habit of keeping the press corps waiting outside the gates in the Beijing snow for scraps of information on the progress of the handover talks. Twenty years later the HKJA was still complaining that journalists were routinely shut out of even the basic details that meetings between China and Hong Kong officials were even occuring.
What chance its 2014 report will contain news of any improvements?
I was disappointed with Jack’s 25th anniversary speech to the HKJA. I wasn’t there for its delivery. He sent me a copy but, by the time we met up, his health had deteriorated and we had other things to talk about.
Just four years after the events in Tiananmen Square, and with concerns mounting over the future of press freedom in Hong Kong, it seemed odd to me that he should play for laughs with a riff on ‘governor watching.’
But what seemed to me then to be the irrelevant ramblings of a dotty old relative look now like a reminder of a potent weapon against the powerful, too easily forgotten in dark times – ridicule.
For each governor who had routinely refused interviews during his 20 years in Hong Kong Jack trotted out an anecdote of usually petty acts of ridicule by the press.
“For Sir David Wilson we chose the Sartorial-Tonsorial Trail. Every time he appeared we took a good look and the results of this research clearly indicated that he should get a new tailor and take firm action on the disaster area that some might have described as his hairstyle.
“My standing instruction to our reporters was that in the event of us ever getting an interview we must ask him who his barber was. All quite trivial, but in the absence of real news the only thing we could do to keep our governor’s name and face before the public.”
Jack’s speech wasn’t all trivia. He quoted J.B. Priestley – “When fighting for democracy, be democratic” – and urged the assembly to: “Go forward fellow members. Build our organisation to take its place in the new Hong Kong. Leave politics to the politicians, but don’t let them get away with anything.”
But then, like any good showman, he finished with a quick aside which, he said, led him to believe still in the power of the press:
“Wilson had settled well into the job by the time he and Lady Natasha came to the Press Ball of 1988. At one point in the evening she leant across toward me, nodded in his direction and asked me: ‘Do you like his new haircut?’
Dark clouds on the horizon – Hong Kong’s freedom of expression faces new threats – 2013 annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association
Self-censorship ‘common’ in Hong Kong newspapers, say journalists – South China Morning Post, 23 April 2014
Beijing’s pressure tactics in Hong Kong – China Digital Times, 14 June 2014
And finally, a tribute to the old man from the International Federation of Journalists