Facts are sacred, comment is free - and fact-based comment most precious of all

Pro-democracy protesters remove barriers before clashing with police on a road in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong early on Oct 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pro-democracy protesters remove barriers before clashing with police on a road in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong early on Oct 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

In 1921, C.P. Snow wrote an essay on journalism for The Guardian newspaper to mark its centenary and his 50th year as editor.

In it, he coined the words that by now have become famous: Comment is free, but facts are sacred. It was a call to newspapers to remember their base: news gathering.

I got to recalling CP Snow’s dictum about comment and facts this week, as Hong Kong protests draw ever more hyperbolic commentary from the glitterati media. Many western commentaries tend to view the protests through ideological-tinted glasses as youth movements clamouring for democracy and human rights.

But in The Straits Times, we have tended to run commentaries that are less ideological in nature, from people who know Hong Kong and its Basic Law.

This week, we ran a useful piece by  Lim Chin Leng, who  is Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, and a  member of Hong Kong's Committee on Pacific Economic Cooperation. In this article, he reminds our readers that Hong Kong has an existing framework for constitutional debate and political reform.

He goes back to a crucial Article 45 in Hong Kong’s constituition, the Basic Law, which says  that "the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures".

“The ultimate legal authority to interpret that ultimate aim lies with the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), a body which is also vested with legislative power under Chinese socialist legality,” he notes.

He adds: “ In practical legal terms, all roads lead to the Basic Law, what it says and how it should be interpreted. It is also the Basic Law which provides for the possibility of a democratically elected Chief Executive; the colonial government having shown no interest in replacing the governor with such a person.”

Prof Lim was too gentlemanly to point out, but readers would recall that the British, having bypassed  a chance to institute democratic elections in Hong Kong when they governed the territory, are now eagerly presenting themselves as a state that will stand up for the rights of the people in Hong Kong.

Another fact-based commentary The Straits Times ran  this week on a hot issue is senior correspondent Toh Yong Chuan’s piece  on How the Public Guardian can live up to its name.

There’s been plenty of free comment online and off on the case of the China tour guide who befriended an elderly woman, moved his family in to live in her bungalow, and became her nominated “donee”, with lasting power of attorney (LPA) to manage her legal and financial affairs should she become mentally incompetent. The elderly woman was later diagnosed with dementia and said tour guide duly took over handling of her affairs. A court case is in progress and the LPA and the Office of the Public Guardian, a government outfit whose job is to act as registry of such LPAs, has come under scrutiny.

Yong Chuan’s article  establishes the facts and limits of what the OPG can and can’t do. He establishes that banks and real estate agencies have guidelines for their staff in such cases, but that they aren’t mandatory rules, just guidelines. He then comes up with a list of practical suggestions on how to tighten the process of activating LPAs to prevent abuse.

The  article is hard-hitting as a critique of the Office of the Public Guardian, but it does not go overboard in criticising the personalities involved.

In this respect, C.P. Snow’s  other bit of advice is less quoted but equally wise: “Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair.”

For us at The Straits Times, we tend to agree that comment is free, facts are sacred. But I would add one more category -  fact-based commentaries are precious.

And commentaries devoid of cant, backed  by a person’s domain knowledge, and preferably leavened through with  years of exerience from experts such as Prof Lim, are the most precious of all. More so when they are frank, but fair.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong blogs weekly on notable commentaries.