Fake news: fact checking always pays dividends

Local | Grenville Cross SC 22 Jan 2020

Although commentators who criticize the Hong Kong government and its police force often get things wrong, their errors are not always spectacularly exposed. When they are, it is something to be savored, particularly by those who value honest commentary.

On January 11, police arrested a female protester outside the UK's Consulate General, in Central.

She was found with a can of spray paint and was suspected of causing criminal damage. She was part of a small group of people who had been mounting a static protest outside the consulate for several weeks.

The police explained that they had simply responded to a crime report from the consulate.

This, however, did not pacify their critics, who - without even basic fact-checking - accused them of trespassing on consular property, presumably hoping to ignite a diplomatic row with the UK.

Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun duly stirred the pot, announcing that the police could not enforce the law at the site without the consulate's consent - and this message was picked elsewhere.

The co-founder of the London-based Hong Kong Watch, Benedict Rogers, was the first to pounce.

In an unseemly rush to judgment, he said he found it "extremely disturbing" that the riot police had acted as they did, and their conduct was "unnecessary."

He called on the British government "to issue an urgent statement both in defense of the right to peaceful protest and its own boundaries and diplomatic protocols."

Hard on Rogers' heels came Luke de Pulford, from the governing Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.

He announced that "it seems clear from the primary documents that this was inviolable UK land, and that the police should not have been operating there at all, except at the invitation of the consul general."

For good measure, he then called upon the police to explain themselves.

Quite clearly, neither Rogers nor De Pulford, whose remarks were widely reported in the British media, had checked the actual situation and were relying, instead, on unreliable reports. These undoubtedly came from people with an interest in placing the police force in a bad light and embarrassing the government.

In consequence, after the position was clarified, both men have both been left with egg all over their faces and zero credibility.

On January 14, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office set the record straight.

It confirmed that its consulate had advised the police "of a potential criminal act being committed outside the consulate" as a result of which an individual had been arrested. It then added that the arrest had been made on land which "does not carry any special status under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations."

This means, therefore, that - having received a crime report - the police acted properly in arresting the suspect and fully respected diplomatic norms.

Since the truth was established, nothing more has been heard from either Rogers or De Pulford. No apologies have been forthcoming to either the police force, whose actions they impugned, or to the British public, for causing unnecessary alarm or, in the case of Rogers, to the Foreign Office, for taking its name in vain.

This fiasco is a classic example of fake news run riot. Lessons, hopefully, will have been learned.

If Rogers and De Pulford, and those they represent, now appreciate that they must thoroughly check any reports they receive from Hong Kong before jumping to conclusions, some good may yet come of it.

Fake news is not only misleading but, in these sensitive times, it can also cause real harm.

Grenville Cross SC is a former director of public prosecutions

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