Besides the obvious safety issues raised by Monday’s collision between two ferries which resulted in at least 38 deaths, coverage of the accident has raised ethical concerns both journalistic and ferry industry-related.
To take Wednesday’s South China Morning Post’s extensive analysis of the disaster first, journalists appear to have taken a prejudiced stance in their reportage, referring twice to one vessel (in each case the Sea Smooth operated by Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferries) crashing into the other (in each case the Lamma IV operated by Hongkong Electric).
A reporter called Lo Wei sets the tone on the front page with his or her piece about one of the families travelling on the Lamma IV (the Hongkong Electric boat). Lo writes “They had just settled in to enjoy the outing when a ferry crashed into their vessel.”
Then, on page 2, Alex Lo and Amy Nip get only as far as their second paragraph before they write “barely ten minutes after they had left Lamma Island, the vessel owned by Hongkong Electric would be struck by a ferry, causing its stern to sink”.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the previous day’s SCMP had carried an article headlined “38 die in Hong Kong ferry disaster”, credited to staff reporters, in which Hongkong Electric’s Director of Operations, Yuen Sui See, was quoted as saying, without proffering any evidence for his assertion, "The ferry rammed the side of our boat. They didn't bother and just left".
In fairness to the Post’s staff, the article carried the following “digest”, published at the top of the webpage: “A boat owned by Hongkong Electric carrying more than 100 staff workers and their family members collided with a ferry in waters off Lamma Island at about 8.23pm on October 1, 2012”.
This is the kind of factual, objective and even-handed reporting one would expect from a newspaper that had pretences to any repute whatsoever, the kind of reporting that is, as we have seen, sadly missing from later accounts.
Another aspect of the reporting that causes concern is the way in which the coming together of the two vessels has been portrayed. A graphic on page A20 of Wednesday’s edition shows the Lamma IV moving across the path of the Sea Smooth at right angles from the right, with accompanying text informing the reader that “when crossing the path of another vessel, the one on the starboard (right) has right of way”.
However, this appears to be a piece of gratuitous and misleading information since, as another graphic (opposite on the same page) and an article (on a previous page) – not to mention common sense – clearly suggest, the collision was to all intents and purposes the marine equivalent of a head-on crash. One vessel (the Sea Smooth) was heading to the Lamma Ferry Pier from Victoria Harbour, while the other (the Lamma IV) had recently departed from the Lamma Ferry Pier for Victoria Harbour.
Journalists Olga Wong and Ada Lee quote a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers, Louis Szeto Ka Sing, as saying it was likely that “the two skippers had not tried to avoid one another until the last minute, causing the ferry’s bow to crash into the other boat’s stern”.
Szeto continues, “The likely scenario was that neither of the vessels, travelling at full speed, gave way to the other, but when they came to realise the danger it was too late”. (Indeed, the fact that it was not the bow itself of the Sea Smooth which was damaged but the left-hand side of the vessel aft of the bow suggests that the pilot may have made a last-minute attempt to veer away.)
Which disturbingly suggests that standards of piloting on the seas round Hong Kong are little better than standards of driving on the roads of Hong Kong, where a predominant attitude among road users from cyclists to bus drivers, by way of motorcyclists, taxi drivers, minibus drivers, truck drivers and private car drivers, is to get there before the other bugger.
I await the outcome of the enquiry – slated to last for six months – with interest. I wonder in particular what the eye-witnesses, especially those travelling alfresco at the back of each ferry, will be able to remember, and hope they evince a rather better grasp of the facts than some of those reporting on the event.