“You know, I skip to work somewhat [thinking] there is renewed meaning in what we’re doing. But other times, I struggle to go to sleep, because you know… who’s next?“
On Monday, Features editor Clarissa Leung spoke to the co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press, and Leeds Alumnus, Tom Grundy. The National Security Law has made reporting from Hong Kong more dangerous. Yet Tom Grundy remains determined to uphold the values of free press more than ever.
1. What is your journey from being a student, to a journalist, and finally the founder of an online media outlet in Hong Kong? Was this always your goal?
Well, I guess journalism, I had some interest in. I studied New Media and Communications at Leeds. Of course, in 2001, New Media was things like DVDs… [laughs] I remember when we were taught how to make DVD menus and certain computer languages like ColdFusion. I guess software suites that were of that time gave me the basis in Journalism. But of course, what one couldn’t afford was the funding … you certainly had to be in London or a centre like that if you want to do a job in Media. And I certainly couldn’t afford this after graduating and ended up teaching for 10 years actually on a government programme in Hong Kong. But I was always interested and blogging and getting involved in politics as I made Hong Kong my home. I guess it happens when you hurl towards 30. I figured, “well, now or never.”
“I was studying when the Umbrella Movement happened, and so I was forced to become book-smart and street-smart at the same time.”
And so I got permanent residency, quit my job, I studied a Journalism Masters at Hong Kong University to update my Leeds University undergrad and refreshed my skills. I was studying when the Umbrella Movement happened, and so I was forced to become book-smart and street-smart at the same time, cutting my teeth doing broadcast journalism, sometimes the BBC, something like that, continuing blogging. That year of Masters took me four years to finish because I was straight into launching Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), which to be honest, I thought would never last until Christmas. [laughs]
But we became the first crowdfunded outlet in the city, and the largest crowdfunding effort that the city has seen, and we raised three times the amount we asked for. In those early years, we were doing a lot of quantity over quality. You know, a lot of pick ups, trying to fill the gap between Chinese and English. But as the years have gone on, we have become more professional with a smaller, qualified team, focusing on original reporting. So we’re doing a lot fewer quality pieces now. We have a Code of Ethics as of this year. We have relaunched. I guess the decisions that have been made in the early days about being a non-profit, no shareholders, no tycoons, no conglomerate behind us, run by journalists, backed by readers, funded by our reader- held us in good stead. You know, now all of that stuff has become quite important under the national security law. Things have changed a lot, so I’m grateful we have a structure that ensures independence, and of course we publish all of our incomes and outgoings of the year in our annual report. I think we’re the most transparent news outlet in the city. So yeah, that’s how I ended up here. Five years later, nearly 18000 news pieces, a team of journalists in a co-working space on Hong Kong island.
We used to have a lot of wax lyrical about press freedom and journalistic independence, and suddenly that became really real and important this year in light of the security law. I think we somehow lost that innocence and had to grow up fast and become basically urban warfare reporters last year when we were doing a lot of frontline coverage of the 2019 protests and unrests. So we upgraded our N95 masks, full face gas masks and bulletproof vests, and now we’ve traded those with Covid masks and reporting on the fourth wave that’s happening now in the city. So yeah, I kind of didn’t expect all of this, but the protests last year gave us more sustainability. We have 700 monthly donors, and you know, we’re still trying to expand this despite the government denying us a work visa for an editor and difficulties recruiting like that.
2. You mentioned the Umbrella Movement. HKFP was found in the same year in 2015. Did the movement play a part in your rationale behind establishing the organization?
Well first, we are completely impartial. We are not pro-democracy or pro-Beijing. I think we are one of the two online outlets that do not take a stance. We don’t have editorials, we have a very strict style. But there was a blossoming of digital media in Hong Kong in the wake of the Umbrella Movement. Hong Kong has a really strong civil society, people’s willingness to pay for news, if you check the Reuters Media Report, is very high, compared to other countries. People want to support press freedom and understand the importance of it.
The trouble in Hong Kong is that the vast majority of media outlets, basically those in print, are outright owned by the [Chinese] Communist Party, owned by people with business interests in [mainland China] and owned by Chinese conglomerates like Alibaba, such as the South China Morning Post. So, we wanted to create something more independent and I think most of the online outlets are quite fiercely independent.
But as I say, things have changed a bit since then and we’re focusing a lot more on scoops, exclusives, original reporting, interviews and things like that. Because, you know, now we see it’s a bit more competitive with the English Stand News and the Apple Daily are doing some reporting in English, so we have evolved with the times. But certainly, we have sort of emerged from the teargas of the Umbrella Movement and continuing now, on the report of the aftermath of the 2019 protests – Hong Kong’s rather rapid integration into China and what’s happening week by week with this draconian, quite broad security law.
3. You have talked about how press freedom in Hong Kong has been fading in recent years. Do you have any regrets, fears or concerns for yourself, your organization or your employees, especially now with journalists being arrested?
Fears and concerns… maybe half my day? The rest of my day, I love my job! It’s a completely abusive relationship sometimes. You know, I skip to work somewhat [thinking] there is renewed meaning in what we’re doing. But other times, I struggle to go to sleep, because you know, who’s next?
So we know the security law came in as a response to the 2019 protests and unrests, and it’s so broadly worded. It basically has an effect on all sectors in Hong Kong, whether you’re in academia, the arts, and the press is not immune in that we’ve already seen a raid on Apple Daily, the only pro-democracy newspaper newsroom [in Hong Kong]. And we have seen journalists arrested just a few weeks ago at the public broadcaster RTHK. We’ve seen the proprietor of the Apple Daily arrested as well, as this law actually states that there will be supervision of the media, you know. Who knows what’s gonna happen in the coming months and years, when we would actually see outright censorship in Hong Kong?
“We’ve taken more draconian measures, such as literally locking our desktop computers to the desks.”
But at HKFP, we’ve just scrambled to react and futureproof our operations the best we can. We have sought to get legal advice, business advice, set up back-up entities like back-up bank accounts and maybe a business entity abroad if we have to. We’ve taken more draconian measures, such as literally locking out desktop computers to the desks, all of our devices that we use are encrypted now using apps and whatnot.
But we love Hong Kong. This is our city. Of course, very worrying what’s happened at the pro-democracy Apple Daily, because it seems that authorities will go for certain outlets and journalists in very mysterious and indirect sort of ways. You know, one journalist has been arrested for simply accessing the licence plate system as part of her reporting on alleged police misconduct… But basically, the bottom of the line for our newsroom and my journalists is that we’re going to keep calm and carry on, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
4. Do you feel like there’s a difference in Hong Kong’s journalism compared to 5 years ago when you first founded HKFP?
[Now], we’re up against billions of dollars worth of state-sponsored news outlets that have spanned across the world in recent years through outlets like CGTN, Xinhua and all these officials over Twitter. So there’s a lot more battle of the narrative. We’re just trying to play down the middle, and be as neutral and impartial as we can in keeping our strict, traditional standards we were taught at Leeds, at Hong Kong University.
There is less willingness for people to come on record, speak to us even. Just on Sunday, someone withdrew their op-ed before we published it. Other than that, we have deliberately not been acting any differently. We have been for instance, interviewing dissidents, and those who have fled and in exile or wanted by the police in Britain, such as Nathan Law.
5. What would you say to people who want to work in journalism in Hong Kong?
Well, we’ve had a situation where we tried to hire an Irishman and we’re denied a visa without explanation. He was the third Western journalist to be thrown out of the city, after the Financial Times and the New York Times suffered the same. The New York Times is now moving a third of their operations out of the city.
“Not one of my staff avoided being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, you know, myself included.“
Despite all the doom and gloom and the financial concerns about the industry that prevented me from going into it sooner, I would advise my younger self and other journalists, not to actually wait around and just do it. I mean, even in university, one should be pitching, writing, getting one’s byline out there and not being too concerned about being paid until one becomes a graduate. Just act immediately as a freelancer. No one’s going to question it. Start pitching things out would be my advice. George Munbiot, my favourite journalist, has a great section on his website, about career advice. He puts it a lot better than me.
But I think it’s still a great time to be getting into journalism, and a very important time as well. Most of the tools you have to pull this off are already in your pocket. Your phone can do photos, videos. You can write on it, you just need a laptop. So I hope that is some reassurance and inspiration for young people to become journalists.
6. What achievement are you most proud of over the years? Is there something that you reported or investigated that you feel is particularly significant?
No. [laughs] I can’t think… Not one of my staff avoided being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, you know, myself included. One freelancer got arrested. Clearly, that was an important time for the city and for us, to see the city transform in the wake of the protests was also a hell of a story to be on the frontline of history writing the first draft of history.
But to be honest, simply writing the news at the moment and surviving is almost a revolutionary act in itself. That, you know, is not going to win any awards, but to just be carrying on at the moment, I have a lot of admiration for particularly those newspapers that are under fire, for example, the Apple Daily and broadcasters like RTHK.
7. Has working in Hong Kong as a journalist significantly changed your views on digital media, the Fifth Estate or press freedom?
We’ve been having a long debate about this in Hong Kong, about who is a journalist. Are people with large Twitter following journalists? I think the traditional grounding one got in university, the training, the benefits of being in a team and all the trappings that come with having a bonafide newsroom as we have sought to get all the accreditation and bells and whistles to ensure that we are [journalists] should mean something. So it’s difficult to compare the world of bloggers and the Fifth Estate to the more traditional approach to journalism.
“All of these ethical dilemmas that we studied in theory and in books. It all became very real in Hong Kong! “
When you get to the national security law… I think this happens a lot with civil liberties, whether it’s free speech, free expression and whatever. You suddenly begin to appreciate and understand them when they come under fire. You cannot be complacent, and you have to continually exercise them. So we make sure that we turn up to press conferences of Hong Kong’s leaders, and take full advantage of these small opportunities we have to speak truth to power, to hold them to account, be a voice for the voiceless, and all of these cliches we used to hear in university, all of these ethical dilemmas that we studied in theory and in books. It all became very real in Hong Kong!
Last year, we had moral dilemmas about whether for instance, we should livestream people, students escaping from campus when the police were surrounding them. You know, there was debate over whether we should be interfering in a sense, and revealing what their escape routes and plans were, and request to blow up people’s faces in our reporting.
Likewise, for the value of press freedom, you suddenly appreciate it when they stop rounding up journalists and raiding newsrooms. I mean to give one example, were it not for whistleblowers and journalists in the very early days and weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, it would have been very difficult to [get] a grip of the outbreak; as fast as Beijing was able to [break the news], but of course, it’s still hindered by the lack of press freedom there. If journalists were able to report immediately what was going on… You can understand the value of having a free press to hold the authorities to account when things like this happen. So yeah, we kind of appreciate it a bit more in Hong Kong ‘cause it’s so under fire.
8. Where do you want to take HKFP from this point forward – are there any specific future goals?
I have to take one day at a time, and we just want to make sure we’re here to tell the Hong Kong story to the world basically, as long as possible!
Tom Grundy studied BA New Media and Communications at the University of Leeds, and is now the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press, the first crowdfunded English online media outlet in Hong Kong which strictly abides to principles of journalistic independence and impartiality.
Header image credit: Hong Kong Free Press