[SCMP Column] A New Pandemic

January 30, 2016

I would like to talk about a new and dangerous pandemic. I call it the “Ah But…” syndrome – ABS for short. It is a threat to every democracy, and the main vector is people like me – journalists.

I actually discovered the “Ah But…” syndrome over two decades ago as a working journalist at the Financial Times. It was a painful discovery. In short, I discovered that most readers devoured my articles not because they wanted to be well informed – though that was of course my hope and aspiration. They read them to gather anecdotes that supported their prejudices. All they remembered were the anecdotes. An article that was right, but at odds with a prejudice, was quietly ignored and forgotten.

Over the years, I have witnessed the awful consequences of this syndrome around many a “yam cha” lunch with family on Sundays. We might be discussing a current topic – for example, the past week’s awful cold spell. Many around the table might agree that the balance of evidence suggests that global warming is a contributor to this unusual chill. But one among us might be a global warming skeptic. All he or she needs to protect and sustain that skepticism is an anecdote that suggests global warming was not the cause – perhaps, say, a claim that solar flares from the sun had created unusual electromagnetic activity around the arctic, creating a polar vortex. Perhaps they would add that Hong Kong suffered a similar cold spell 60 years ago – clearly long before concerns over global warming began to emerge. Predictably, at some point in the conversation, they would interject: “Ah, but….” And the anecdote would follow. Prejudice safely preserved. Wider truth safely dismissed. That is the “Ah but…” syndrome.

The sickness was already bad in the 1990s, but it has reached pandemic proportions today, fanned by pop media, hard cuts to journalist research budgets and most newspapers’ editorial teams, and the anecdotal cookie jar of all cookie jars – social media: “I read it in Facebook. It must be true.”

The problem is particularly acute in Hong Kong – both because our journalism profession is not respected and admired, and because of the particular force of the need for “freedom of speech”. More than once, I have approached a journalist on a local publication (let’s gloss over which one) after discovering a clear and egregious error. The journalist response has always been the same – not to offer to publish a correction or apology, but to say: “I have a right to my opinion.” Despite an honourable determination to protect our freedom of speech, there appears to be a terrible unconcern among some journalists about the journalistic responsibility to check facts.

I recall meeting long ago with a dreadfully depressed friend from the Reuter news agency based in Hong Kong who had discovered that Bloomberg were consistently beating them by a minute or so on market-sensitive rumours. He undertook a client survey on whether they preferred a report fast but maybe wrong, or a minute or two later, but checked for accuracy. The journalistically demoralizing response was clear: give us the rumour undigested; we will worry about whether it is right or wrong later.

For someone who always took my vocation as a journalist very seriously – I was among those inspired by Bernstein and Woodward of Watergate fame, whose unflinching quest for truth led to the resignation of President Nixon – this clear disinterest in your accuracy, and the use of your hard-researched reports as reservoirs of anecdotes not to illustrate truth, but to protect prejudice, was demotivating in the extreme.

But what was a demotivating fact yesterday this is a pandemic reality today. And our democracies are endangered because of it. Because democracies are fragile things, and function well only if citizens are well informed on what are often very complex policy issues. This puts an awesome responsibility on the shoulders of a journalist and if we don’t take this responsibility seriously, democracy is in jeopardy. My father, a committed socialist in 1950s England, worked from 7.00 to 7.00 six days a week on a production line in a factory in the heart of England. He had just 20 minutes a day – in his morning toilet break – to read his newspaper. That information gleaned from 20 minutes sitting on the toilet was what underpinned his participation in England’s democracy. The journalistic challenge of being objective, comprehensive, brief – and if possible entertaining – was an awesome one – and it remains so today in infinitely more challenging circumstances. It is indispensable if people like my father are to participate effectively in a democracy.

The new film “Spotlight” about how journalists at the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up in the Catholic Church – which is a candidate for an Oscar on February 28, and is due to be released in Hong Kong in mid February – is thus a timely reminder of what good journalism is all about, and how pivotal it is in the service of properly functioning democracies all over the world.

In all societies, including Hong Kong, there are people with cherished prejudices who do not want those prejudices ruffled. They constantly seek the anecdotes that support their prejudices and allow them to enter discussions with “Ah, but…” They are supporters of Donald Trump and subscribers to Fox News. They are voters for Marine Le Pen in France, and the Independence Party in the UK. They sit at both ends of the political spectrum, and the challenge facing our “fifth estate” is to stay above those prejudices, and to try to make sure the wider truths are heard. The challenge facing our politicians and leaders is to hear those wider truths, and adjust their prejudices accordingly.

You may recall that the Edelmen Trust Barometer, released at the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago, revealed that among the four key opinion-influencing groups in our societies – NGOs, businesses, government officials and the media – the least trusted were the media and government officials. That suggests our media have room to improve. And I don’t want any “Ah, buts…”
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