[SCMP Column] Polarising media just feeding prejudices

March 11, 2015

When I left journalism after 20 fulfilling years, mostly with the Financial Times, I left aware of a deeply depressing reality: people had for 20 years read my articles not to be informed, but to filter anecdotes that supported their prejudices.

It was part of what I flippantly called a prevailing “Ah but …” philosophy: people selected their medium of choice (the SunApple Daily, Fox News, whatever) because these provided the richest stream of anecdotes that supported their existing prejudices. Armed with these anecdotes, they could join a yum cha lunch with the family and friends on any given Sunday confident that whatever the conversation, and however contrary to your own views the prevailing opinion might be, they could protect their prejudice by interjecting with “Ah, but …”, and inserting the anecdote of choice. At a stroke you have ensured your world view – or your opinion on a particular issue – has been immunised from assault.

As a journalist who went to great lengths to examine and balance the arguments on a wide range of political and social issues, this “Ah but …” philosophy was deeply depressing. People remembered and referred to you if you provided anecdotes that supported their prejudice. But they conveniently ignored you if you did not.

Anecdotes brilliantly feed our need for things to be simple. Which is fine if things are indeed simple. But if they are not, they are a malevolent menace that helps to insulate us from the anxieties that the complexity of the real world inevitably creates. Flagrantly partisan media have clearly prospered by providing anecdotes to people who share their prejudices.

Social media have taken the habit to extremes. They have provided the soup that has nourished astonishing and irrational prejudices against mainland visitors in Hong Kong, in particular in recent weeks on “parallel trading” activity. The social media have polarised and entrenched the Occupy arguments, making it almost impossible for balanced discussion to occur.

So let’s try to step back a little and remind ourselves why such bitter, xenophobic views have erupted across Hong Kong, and what might be done to restore some balance and humanity to currently poisoned debate.

In certain respects, it is a measure of the remarkable tolerance and patience of Hong Kong people that such troubling undercurrents have not emerged earlier. Because for most Hong Kong people, the 17 years since the crash in the Asian economies in 1998 have been simply awful – and all the more painful when remembered against the astonishing wealth-building of the two preceding decades.

First there was the property market crash that cut property values to 30 per cent of their 1997 peak levels. For those who did not own property, the hardships came from unemployment peaking at almost 8 per cent, and falling real incomes. Average household incomes around HK$19,000 a month in 1997 tumbled to HK$16,000 in 2003 – a 13 per cent fall in real earnings over a six-year period savaged by Asian flu in 1999, the dot.com crash in 2000, and then of course severe acute respiratory syndrome. And just as things began to improve, along came the global financial meltdown in 2008. Over this period, Hong Kong suffered at least six years of deflation, and household incomes did not recover to 1997 levels until 2011.

In Europe, six years after the 2008 crash, a combination of deflation, job losses and a loss of welfare benefits have spawned xenophobia, racism, and the emergence of extreme right-wing political parties on an alarming scale – whether Marine Le Pen in France, or Paul Nuttall and the UK Independence Party in the English heartland. Compared to these alarming political developments, Occupy is the acme of moderation.

Hong Kong’s upheavals are uncomfortable, but they are not difficult to understand, and the causes of unrest are clear. Any youngster joining the Hong Kong workforce since 1998 has felt only stagnant earnings, job uncertainty, an absence of any bright light in the future, and home prices rising up into the unreachable stratosphere. By now, those youngsters will be in their mid-30s, and will be unable to paint any optimistic scenario for the decades ahead – for themselves, for their parents, or (if they have them) for their children.

Our task is not to punish and corral those at the heart of current protests, but to start building a strategy that restores a sense of purpose and hope. Most likely, our futures are going to be entwined with those of our Pearl River Delta neighbours, so the sooner we see them as neighbours and not enemies the better. The polarising media must meanwhile realise the harm they are inflicting on a community that remains still today among the most cohesive, cooperative and tolerant in the world.

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