Another week, another outrage. If our government really wishes to improve its public image it could start by discouraging its Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, from giving press conferences, or at least from unscripted ones.

This week’s unhappy inspiration: after two years of stoutly defending its presence in Hong Kong we have abandoned the Rule of Law.

The problem, raised by a reporter, is that Hong Kong’s import and export rules include some restrictions on the transfer of “genetic material” across our borders. Would this, the reporter wondered, be an impediment to sending COVID tests to Shenzhen for processing?

Now Ms Lam could have said that the government had not thought of this, and would check it out and – if necessary – could use emergency regulations to suspend the restriction for COVID purposes. This would have been soothing, and in all probability true.

But faced with the assembled press Ms Lam finds it difficult to resist the temptation to condescend.

“I trust that we have all seen many war movies,” she said, “in wartime there is no sense in talking about procedure and reviewing things … In an environment as urgent as this, we cannot let existing laws stop us from doing what we should do. This is not the mentality for fighting a war.” Full story here.

Dear me. First a reality check. An epidemic is an epidemic and a war is a war. The martial metaphors of which Ms Lam has become a habitual user are just that – metaphors. 

Fussell points out in “the Great War in Modern Memory” that the war as metaphor was almost unheard of before World War 1. So many people participated in that bloodbath either personally or vicariously that great lumps of its verbiage – the front line, no man’s land, in the trenches, over the top and so on – entered the mainstream of language.

That does not change the underlying facts. Hong Kong is not Kyiv. Even if war were an acceptable excuse for throwing the rule of law under a bus it would not be an applicable excuse here.

Governments – particularly unpopular governments – like the military metaphor because it implies that any criticism of them is unpatriotic and may give aid and comfort to the enemy. This is hardly relevant here. The virus does not care what we think of it, or what we think of Ms Lam’s administration.

If Boris Johnson had been making the same point as Ms Lam he would (he is a clown, but a classically-educated clown) have quoted the Roman orator Cicero: Silent enigma leges inter arma or “In times of war the law falls silent”.

But this is a statement of Roman law, not the modern stuff. Modern states entering a war will pass a law – which goes through the same processes as other laws, though commonly quicker – detailing which rights are to be suspended and which extra powers they are taking, for the duration of the conflict.

The new law – in the UK it is known as DORA, for the Defence of the Realm Act – is subject to the same judicial interpretation and restraints as other laws. The conspicuous case is Liversidge v Anderson, decided in 1942, in which Lord Atkins said “In this country, amidst the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace.”

Having disposed of the legal point we are left with the interesting thought that we have a Chief Executive who derives her inspiration for the finer points of crisis management from war films.

I realise that Ms Lam spends much of her time living alone in Government House and a good movie is a pleasant and rewarding way of passing the evening. But which war films is she watching? Searching my memories of a favourite genre I cannot think of any film which implies, however indirectly, that the head of a semi-autonomous city or indeed the head of state, can abrogate the rule of law, even in wartime.

Clearly Ms Lam’s Netflix repertoire does not include Judgement at Nuremberg, which is mainly devoted to the idea that international humanitarian law is not suspended in wartime. You can imagine her identifying strongly with the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men, but that movie is all law and no war. 

There are, of course, plenty of examples in war movies of people doing things they may later regret in order to preserve their lives. Officers disobey orders they think misguided and other ranks flee, or kill people trying to surrender. But these are not the actions of governments.

It would be nice of someone made a film exploring the moral dilemmas involved in things banned under international law like the use of gas, maritime blockade or the bombing of non-combatants. Such topics, perhaps, do not lend themselves to drama.

Ms Lam might usefully view the rather obscure but watchable The Man who Never Was. This concerns a British deception operation at the height of World War 2, in 1943. The idea was to drop the dead body of a bogus British officer laden with misleading dispatches within reach of German spies.

For this purpose a dead body was required. The country was fighting for its future and the scheme was a life-saver. Nevertheless the team running the operation discovered that all dead bodies are owned by someone, and had to go to great lengths to find next of kin who were willing to give them legal permission to use a corpse for patriotic purposes.

If this search had failed the operation would have been cancelled.

The team were not allowed to say that “in wartime there is no sense in talking about procedure”. The Rule of Law, like other forms of virtue, means nothing unless you stick to it at times when it has a cost.

Well here’s one for my “I never thought I’d see the day” book. Lead headline in the Standard on Monday – in 60 point (that’s one inch high if you’ve never been a subeditor) all caps type – contained the word “testicles”. Or to be strictly accurate, TESTICLES.

The full headline, which certainly grabbed the eye, or at least the male eye, was “COVID could shrink testicles”. This was a challenging story to illustrate, but the Standard rose to the occasion with a close-up of two presumably male hands crossed over the fly zipper area, in the pose often adopted by footballers forming a “wall” before a free kick. All this would be a mere curiosity if the story lived up to the headline. Unfortunately it did not.

The content of the story was news from a research team at Hong Kong U. To be fair to the reporter concerned I think he considered it a straight science story for the inside pages. Otherwise he would not have included such mellifluous but opaque phrases as “necrosis of seminiferous tubules”, which don’t mean a great deal to most of us.

But someone couldn’t resist the opportunity for a bit of what I call medical moralising. This refers to well-intentioned attempts to persuade you that what is bad theologically is also bad for your health and vice versa.

Thus in my youth we were repeatedly warned that people who masturbated would go blind, for which I believe there is no scientific evidence at all. At my rural grammar school the boarders, generally urban, were told by the rustic day boys hair-raising legends about what could happen to you in ill-advised liaisons with farmyard animals.

The Morecambe branch of Madame Tussauds Waxworks Museum still featured, when I arrived there in the 70s, a room devoted to the perils of untreated syphilis (long since an eminently curable disease) with waxworks of corroded faces alternating with framed Biblical quotes about the wages of sin.

Now I do see that it might seem a good idea, since we are trying to get everyone vaccinated, to start a scare story about COVID messing with your reproductive facilities. On the other hand the two great pools of the unvaccinated are kids – who can hardly be too worried about this yet – and the over 80s, who are mostly, I imagine, past it.

So this desirable objective hardly justifies perpetrating a deception, which started in the first paragraph, and consequently was perhaps the work of a sub editor eager to ginger the story up a bit. This went  “COVID could shrink men’s testicles and affect their virility as they recover from the coronavirus, microbiology researchers at the University of Hong Kong have found.”

The word over which there should perhaps have been more thought all round is “men”. The HKU researchers had done a perfectly respectable study of the effect of the coronavirus on the sex life of …hamsters.

Scientists often conduct studies on the health and habits of small rodents – rats and mice are the usual victims – to which they can do things which would be unethical if perpetrated on humans. The hope, of  course, is that the results will “translate” to humans. This hope is rarely gratified.

The question of whether and if so how much animal experiments translate to humans has itself been the subject of study. I am not aware of any figure for hamsters but the proportion for mice is only 10 per cent. This means that the chances are nine to one against that your seminiferous tubules are safe, at least from COVID.

The HKU people would no doubt reply, and I shall do this for them, that studies of human victims of the virus in the US have revealed some post-recovery reproduction problems among men. But this raises another question: if scientists elsewhere are making good progress in studying this problem in real humans, is it ethical – is it nice? – for scientists at Hong Kong U to sacrifice the sex lives of unsuspecting hamsters to produce information of questionable value about the same problem?

The answer to that question may be that the HKU team were engaged in a primarily veterinary pursuit. They studied the effect of COVID on hamsters so that hamster owners would no longer be distressed or puzzled if their little furry friends no longer bred like rabbits – or hamsters. But in that case this point should perhaps have been made clear in the press release.

Readers who persisted with the story – which continued on Page 3 – found the good news. Researchers in the US had found that there was a decline in reproductive effectiveness among men who had suffered from COVID, but normal service was resumed after 60 days.

They also found that the average loss of fecundity was only 18 per cent. So in the view of Boston University prof Amelia Wesselink it was still worth trying: “There’s not necessarily any harm in trying to conceive shortly after having COVID, but it may just take a bit longer,” quoted the Standard.

Thanks, Amelia.

Our government is apparently helpless to stop millionaires holding parties in clubs and restaurants, where invited senior officials can gather in defiance of COVID restrictions. However, faced with three domestic helpers sharing the same piece of cardboard under a Central flyover, It swings into action.

The spate of fines for domestic helpers gathering in groups of more than two is a classical example of the government getting unnecessary stick because its members can’t keep their mouths shut.

It seems there was some anxiety last week about the danger of the lady helpers getting together on their day off. Leaflets had been distributed and warnings issued. Nobody would have noticed – except the helpers themselves, if Carrie Lam had not decided to say a few words on the matter at a press conference on the ensuing Friday. 

“We”, said Ms Lam, temporarily joining the police force, “shall not show mercy any more”. And on the ensuing Sunday 17 fixed penalties were duly imposed, all of them on helpers. This is actually rather a small number, considering the thousands of domestic helpers who share a Sunday day off, and suggests that the warnings had been quite successful.

But “not showing mercy” is not a good look. If Ms Lam wants Hong Kong people to “feel her emotions” (her reason for not wearing a face mask at press cons) she might try to avoid the sort of phraseology that suggests we are listening to a hard-faced bureaucratic robot.

In the interests of accuracy she should also avoid suggesting that in the interests of public health helpers should be encouraged to stay “at home”. The government’s official position is that no helper is at home in Hong Kong; their presence is permanently temporary, however long they stay, and consequently never leads to the right to stay, which effortlessly descends on bankers, academics and journalists after seven years.

What officials now seek is for the helpers to stay at their workplace.

The new “merciless” approach produced a predictable reaction. Some people set up a website to collect donations to defray the penalised helpers’ fines. This swiftly collected more than $100,000.

Enter the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Law Chi-kwong, who opined on a radio programme that the people collecting money “may be suspected of abetting a crime”, and added that he had asked the Department of Justice to look into it.

 The money collection people then took legal advice, and decided to scrub the whole idea. Contributors will get their money back.

Two years ago I would have said that this was quite astonishing. There is no law against you paying other people’s fines. I first discovered this many years ago when I was still a kid. My father, at the time a respectable and prosperous business person on excellent terms with the law and order industry, attended the local Magistrates Court to appear as a witness.

While he was waiting in the public gallery he saw a lady convicted, unjustly in his view, of a minor motoring offence. So he paid her fine. Nobody suggested that this was illegal, abetting the offence or anything of that kind.

For a current example we can consider Judge Frank Caprio, who has achieved fame (website here: https://www.caughtinprovidence.com/) because his cases are regularly televised. People send him money with the intention that he should use it to pay the fines of hard-up defendants, which he does, quite shamelessly, before the cameras.

Mr Law, though, followed the recent repression playbook in which the national security law looms over us all. “You may have good intentions, but we can’t rule out that you are maliciously obstructing our whole anti-epidemic effort.” Is that subversion? Who knows?

The point which will not have been lost on the money collectors, though, is that “abetting a crime” would imply the usual sort of procedure and trial. “Maliciously obstructing the government”, on the other hand, sounds like a year in jail on remand before you even meet your government-selected national security judge.

So Helping Helpers, the group concerned, marks a new record – an NGO appearing and disappearing in a matter of days. Clearly the flow of advice from the mainland is not confined to medical matters.

The underlying problem behind all this is that the fixed penalty has been set too high. Fixed penalty tickets are usually kept to small amounts because they are effectively an instant fine without any of the usual safeguards against error or abuse.

This is reflected in the penalties imposed for other offences subject to similar procedures: minor driving offences $250-$1,000; smoking $1,500; littering and kindred offences also $1,500. Earlier in the epidemic the penalty for gatherings was $2,000.

The sum of $5,000 is not only more than the statutory monthly wage fixed for domestic helpers. It is more than the standard social security payment for an able-bodied adult – or indeed for a disabled one unless he needs constant care. It is also much more than the “fruit money” on which people in my age group are expected to survive.

This is the sort of legislation you get when you have a legislature purged of opposition.

It seems strange not to write about the epidemic when it is the main thing in most of our lives at the moment. But there is a danger here. When toddlers are dying in the arms of their helpless parents complaints about disruption of holiday arrangements look in dubious taste.

So please – I record; I do not complain. For me, as for most Hongkongers who can afford them at all, holidays were actually the first thing to go. It occurred to me the other day that I have now slept in the same bed for some 800 consecutive nights. I don’t think this has happened before.

Our city is a small place. Unlike many less lucky expat citizens I have not missed funerals or weddings in distant countries. It is electronically easy to keep in touch with distant siblings. Travel is a luxury. But still…

Then the artistic hobbies started disappearing. Wind instruments are fine things but nobody wants to find out if the virus can survive transmission through the tubes. In any case, performances are out. The pub where I used to drum in the traditional Irish fashion struggled through the restrictions for a while and then closed for good. The dance scene came briefly back to life last year but now all the venues are closed again. 

Work, of which I do not do much, became increasingly from home and is now entirely so.

So here I sit on a New Territories hilltop, quite close to locked down already. I go out once or twice a week for shopping. Last week I had lunch with a friend and we both felt it necessary to explain why we were taking the risk. Actually it is not that dangerous at present because restaurants are deserted. But you have to get there.

The sensation is a bit prison-like, but it is prison as experienced by Ms Meng Wanzhou in house arrest in Vancouver. Large house, helper, garden, allowed out during day…

Fortunately the latest dog is young, restless and very fit. So I am dragged out of the house quite a lot. I have observed the anthropology of our local piece of country park with interest. Last year our walk involved encounters with the other regulars – who number maybe half a dozen – and the occasional long-distance hiker. 

Our path into the hills was not particularly famous or popular. It seemed quite a lot of the people who came down it had missed the turning to Shatin. Some of them were not quite sure where they were.

Since the closure of almost everything, walking in the hills has become much more popular. I am surprised by the number of working age people who can apparently get away for long hikes on weekdays. Are they all “working from hill”?

At weekends we get a lot of family parties looking for somewhere for the kids to play. Official playgrounds are all closed. As well there are a lot of hikers. We have not quite reached the level of overcrowding in the famous picture of people queueing for the difficult bit of Everest. But some of the more popular trails must be getting close.

For shorter walks the dog and I go round the small car park at the top of Sui Wo Road. This also has changed. Traditionally, couples park car and walk to the nearby Lions Lookout for romantic contemplation of the Shing Mun valley in the moonlight.

When restaurants were required to close at 6 this was supplemented by outdoor dining. Some groups just spread a blanket on the nearby patch of grass. Other groups had more elaborate arrangements involving folding chairs and tables.

On the evening of Saint Valentine’s Day the dog took me out at 9 pm and the car park looked different. Eventually I realised that this was because all the cars had their inside lights on. The car park was full, and every car contained two people having a romantic dinner.

One does not stare through car windows, but walking the dog provides an excuse for strolling slowly by and it appeared that the fare on offer ranged from His and Hers pot noodles to an elaborate arrangement involving a table rigged up between the two front seats with six quite appealing dishes on it.

I am not sure whether this counts as impressive or sad. Obviously it is only open to young men with access to a vehicle so it is a solution for  the affluent. Whether dinner led on to other things I do not know but at midnight when I took the hound out again some of the cars were still there – with the lights off.

Meanwhile Omicron was working its way towards us. Last week there were cases in Sui Wo Estate down the road. This week, one on our estate. This is not a huge problem. We all live in separate houses so there is no shared lift. As long as nobody else gets it we shall not be subjected to compulsory testing, let along lockdown.

Still, now that Dynamic Zero has been supplanted by Dynamic Several Thousand it is worth wondering how we got here. After all the original COVID was a bolt from the blue. Nobody was expecting it. Omicron, on the other hand, has been working its way towards us for months. Yet we were not ready.

I am reminded of the scene at the end of “Chernobyl” where one of the heroes contemplates the history of Chernobyl the town: “It was mostly Jews and Poles. The Jews were killed in pogroms and Stalin forced the Poles out. Then the Nazis came and killed whoever was left. And after the war, people came and lived here anyway. They knew that the ground under their feet was soaked in blood but they didn’t care. Dead Jews, dead Poles, not them. No-one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them. And here we are.”

Here we are indeed. 

Sometimes it’s the little things that give you away. Lurking in the Chief Executive’s announcement of new measures to control COVID was this: “every measure that we now introduce has been undertaken in other jurisdictions, including some places and countries which are very proud of their human rights, their democracy and so on.”

Now it would perhaps be unfair to infer from this that the CE, Carrie Lam, now realises that Hong Kong is no longer a place which is very proud of its “human rights, democracy and so on”. That is, after all, not the line our leaders have been pushing to the foreign press, which is routinely chided for suggesting that things have changed in the last year or so.

What got to me, though, was that little bit on the end: “and so on”. This is not the way you conclude a list of things you care about.

Ms Lam would not, for example, enumerate the purposes of compulsory national security education as being to inculcate “patriotism, respect for the law and so on”. This would be disrespectfully casual. The Declaration of Independence does not start with the rights to “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and so on”. The Pope would not urge priests to strive for “poverty, chastity, obedience and so on”.

This is an ending reserved for things you don’t take very seriously, or even don’t believe at all. Mr Trump, for example, believes that in the last presidential election Joe Biden hacked voting machines, Mike Pence neglected his duty, millions of votes were fraudulent and so on. That works.

This is not a criticism of the government’s latest anti-Covid measures. Having wasted the long months in which cases occurred only in single figures we now have to undertake a frantic effort to get elderly folk vaccinated, and in the meantime there are no good choices.

What bothers me is the knowledge that Hong Kong’s human rights – we have already ditched democracy – are in the hands of people who know little and care less of what they mean and what they require.

Which brings me to my esteemed former employer, the Hong Kong Baptist University. So far, it must be said, BU has avoided the worst excesses of the territory-wide clampdown on student representative bodies. It has a long tradition – rooted I suppose in its origins as a post-secondary college with a religious inclination – of paying rather more respect and interest to the needs of undergraduates than other local institutions. Elsewhere teaching is regarded as an irritating distraction from the real function of universities, which is to produce research which boosts staff prospects and pushes the university up ratings tables … which for all their pretensions measure little else.

However, Baptist University still has a student union, and consequently still has a student newspaper, or had until January. This publication is or was called Jumbo – a play on the university’s Cantonese name, which is Jumwui.

The latest edition, according to now former assignment editor Alex Chan, caused problems with the university, which told the editors it had received complaints about it from “people outside the school”. Unfortunately the university was not forthcoming about who or what these people were, an interesting question.

After all Jumbo is not exactly a mass circulation publication. It is produced by students for students. Hawkers do not stock it. Why would anyone outside the university be reading it? With all due respects to the editors’ efforts we can I think exclude the possibility that there is a secret cabal of connoisseurs who regard Jumbo as the unappreciated Chateau Lafitte of student journalism.

The sexual urge takes a wide variety of forms but we can also, I suppose, exclude a kinky erotic enthusiasm for amateur editorial output.

This leads me to speculate that the elusive reader was not seeking interesting information about the views of Baptist University students, but was hoping to extend to the student press the purge which has already decimated the adult media. In this he or she has succeeded.

Problematic content, apparently, included an editorial which included the phrase “Rule of law is dead, the student union is dead, Hong Kong is dead, freedom is dead. News is merely an anthology of obituaries.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but in its essentials a widespread view.

There was an article about a dead actor, and an interview about elections with a live member of the BU staff. The term “Wuhan virus” did not go down too well, apparently, and the school wanted “clarification” of a report about a flag-raising ceremony on campus.

The university ordered the January edition withdrawn, and also instructed the board to remove calls for submissions from its social media outlet.

The editorial board got the message when its email account was closed and office emptied. The board then resigned en masse, not a huge sacrifice as they only had a month to go. The new board, supposing some masochists can be recruited, will have to decide what to do with the January issue. The university, meanwhile, has been told by its lawyers to report the issue to the national security police as a possible violation of the national security law.

This is not surprising. My experience of lawyers evaluating newspaper copy is that they never tell you confidently that the story is OK. You always get a fence-sitting “might be this, might be that” and so on, for anything more innovative than the stock prices.

Then we come to the most exciting bit. “HKBU also said it could not ‘promise to guarantee’ student safety if the newsroom chose to publicly attribute its decision to resign to the actions the university took against the magazine’s January edition, Chan said.”

I hope, I really hope, that there has been some misunderstanding or mistranslation here. If Mr Chan finds a horse’s head in his bed next week we shall all know that matters are worse than we think. And so on.

The opening of the legal year is the occasion for a speech by the Chief Justice. Some of this is traditionally devoted to practical matters – digitisation, manpower, new courtrooms – and some of it is traditionally devoted to praising the Hong Kong legal system in general and its independent judiciary in particular.

The speech does not change a great deal from year to year. I notice one or two details have dropped out since Chief Justice Ma’s swan song in 2020. This year’s offering did not repeat Ma CJ’s list of requirements for a fair trial, which included “every person charged with a criminal offence is also entitled to be tried without delay.”

This seems to have fallen by the wayside. The current CJ, Andrew Cheung, did include “There are still a significant number of criminal cases pending before the District Court arising from the events in 2019.” This is a rather shameful situation, considering that the other item from Ma CJ’s speech which no longer features is the right to bail, which the national security law has effectively abolished.

An independent judiciary is a wonderful thing, but it does not prevent people being detained for years without trial if that is what the law allows. Judges, as one writer put it, “will loyally chug off in whatever direction they are pointed.” Cheung CJ lovingly enumerated the protections for human rights provided in the Basic Law and the Bill or Rights Ordinance. He did not mention the erosion of these rights by the national security law, which over-rules both of them.

All this was perhaps to be expected. The CJ’s speech is an opportunity to rally the troops. A critical analysis of their work would not be welcome or appropriate. All the same there were some surprises.

Cheung pointed out that judges on the list to hear Nat Sec cases are already judges. They have been selected by the usual process and taken the usual oath. This is of course true, though it sounds a bit like saying that all drivers are good drivers because they have passed the test.

More alarmingly we came to this bit: “Criminal liability will continue to be determined in accordance with the applicable law and the strength of the evidence presented before the court. Those who are proven guilty will be convicted and those not so proven will be acquitted. Convicted defendants will be given punishments that their crimes deserve, no more and no less. This is our job…”

The problem with this is that it flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that judges do in fact vary in all sorts of ways. For a detailed analysis His Lordship could try “Noise”, by Danny Kahneman and others, which looks in a rather academic fashion at the variations in decision-making by judges and other professionals.

We should note in fairness to judges that they are a tempting target for this sort of analysis because their judgements are public and also expressed in quantitative terms: the length of a sentence, the size of a fine or an award. Studies of other professionals making complex decisions – insurance adjusters, forensic accountants, university admissions officers or company appointment teams – do not suggest that judges are unusually unpredictable.

Readers who do not wish to attempt a whole book may enjoy this passage from an anonymous lawyer who writes as “The Secret Barrister”:

“No two judges are the same … Who you get is often determinative of what you get. If there has been a trial the same judge will usually pass sentence, but where a defendant has pleaded guilty, it is normal for a judge to be randomly allocated for the sentence hearing. Frequent flyers become well acquainted with the judicial personalities in their local courts, and the seasoned criminal opposite you can either break down in tears or dance on the table with jubilation (I’ve seen both) when you tell them the identity of their sentencing judge.”

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and how it’s broken p 282

The importance of this for our purposes is that if we accept that all judges are different, then we cannot lay all worries about the list of judges hearing Nat Sec cases to rest by saying that they are just like all the others. Indeed if all judges were the same there would be no need for such a list.

We are then led to wonder what qualities are sought in those on the list, or avoided in those not on the list. Unfortunately the selection is an opaque “black box”. Like so many top jobs the appointment is nominally by the Chief Executive. She is allowed to consult the Chief Justice but is not bound to, and is not bound to follow any advice she may receive from that quarter. Does she receive advice from other people? It seems likely. Who? We don’t know.

Interested spectators are reduced to trying to interpret the selection criteria from the performance of the chosen team. This does not suggest that those criteria include a robust enthusiasm for human rights, a propensity to examine critically the evidence and arguments put forward by the prosecution, or a commitment to speedy trials.

Indeed the level of delay achieved in Nat Sec cases has given rise to a scurrilous rumour in detainee circles that the Department of Justice’s preferred strategy is to avoid Nat Sec trials altogether, by keeping defendants in jail on remand until they plead guilty to get it over with.

This is of course nonsense. No conscientious lawyer would adopt such a policy. The fact that it is believed shows how much confidence in justice has been eroded by unconscionable delays in hearings for people who have been refused bail.

While we know very little of how judges are put on the list to hear Nat Sec cases we have a little more knowledge of how they are put off it. The list is apparently updated every year, by the CE again.

This is a serious drawback. The general principle governing judicial independence is that judges should have no fear of consequences if they make decisions which are unpopular, either with people generally, or the government, or the prosecution.

This is why judges of the US Supreme Court are appointed for life, and judges in Hong Kong can be dismissed only by a panel of other judges. Judges in common law countries generally serve quamdiu se bene gesserint, which means as long as they behave themselves. Lawyers love their Latin.

I am prepared to believe that there are quite a lot of judges who are happy not to be on the list of those allowed to hear Nat Sec cases. There may even be some who regard their exclusion as an honour. However it seems to be generally agreed in the legal profession that while being on the list doesn’t do you much good, being hoofed off it would be a serious career calamity.

This arrangement is not compatible with judicial independence.

Nothing makes a good headline like a new cancer scare. So the Consumer Council should have known what the resultant headlines would look like when they sounded the alarm over … coffee.

Coffee? Is nothing sacred? William Blake complained that “priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys and desires.” Now that we no longer take much notice of priests, it seems the scientists have taken over the important task of telling us that anything we enjoy is bad for us.

The Consumer Council’s case against coffee is that 45 of the 47 samples it tested contained acrylamide, which it described as a “genotoxic carcinogen”. Consumers should “pay attention to how much coffee they consume,” said the chair of the council’s research and testing committee.

The first thing that puzzled me about this was the absence of a standard. In this sort of investigation you generally look for some figure issued somewhere by a regulator or scientist, above which the danger is supposed to lurk. But the Consumer Council’s figures were all, without exception, inside the limit recommended in the European Union. Hong Kong does not regulate acrylamide at all.

And so to Google. Acrylamide is not a toxic chemical introduced to coffee, or anything else, as a piece of industrial food modification. It is a natural result of food, especially foods containing some kinds of starch or sugar, being cooked at high temperatures. High concentrations are typically found in chips, crisps, other versions of cooked potato, and toasted bread. Roasting and deep-fat frying reach the required temperature; boiling and steaming do not. So rice is presumably OK. Nobody disputes that acrylamide is also found in coffee, because the beans are roasted.

Indeed this has been assumed for so long that the Consumer Council’s report that two of its samples did not have acrylamide looks a bit suspicious.

It is also universally accepted that acrylamide has been shown to produce cancer in laboratory animals. As the US Food and Drug Administration puts it: “In laboratory studies, acrylamide caused cancer in animals, but at acrylamide levels much higher than those seen in foods. FDA is now conducting research to determine whether the much lower levels of acrylamide in food pose a health risk to people.”

This brings us to the second generally accepted point, which is that it has not been shown that acrylamide causes cancer in humans. The European Food Safety Authority says that “Currently, studies on human subjects have provided limited and inconsistent evidence of increased risk of developing cancer.”

The corresponding body in the UK has “The assessment confirms that acrylamide levels found in food have the potential to increase the risk of cancer for people of all ages. However, it’s not possible to estimate how much the risk is increased.”

The Food Standards Authority Australia and New Zealand states that “There’s no direct evidence that acrylamide can cause cancer in humans. There is evidence that it can cause cancer in laboratory animals. Therefore, FSANZ believes that it is prudent to reduce our exposure … in food.”

Other authorities are less impressed by the reports on mice and rats, which notoriously do not always transfer to larger animals, like us, consuming smaller quantities of the studied substance.

Cancer UK says that “Good quality studies have not shown that acrylamide from food causes cancer in humans.” The US Cancer Society also believes that “dietary acrylamide is unlikely to increase the risk of people developing cancer”.

Hovering over all these carefully chosen words is the thought that science these days is not particularly scientific. The ferocious competition for research grants and publication produces a strong preference for dramatic, or at least substantial, results. Finding that something does not cause cancer is a disappointment.

Readers who wish to go into this sort of thing in more detail need “Science Fictions”, a book by Stuart Ritchie. To which I am indebted for this hair-raising example of what the system can now produce: “Biotechnology company Amgen attempted to replicate 53 landmark preclinical cancer studies that had been published in top scientific journals … A mere six of the replication attempts were successful.” And so on.

For coffee, though, we can point to one specific study, conducted for legal purposes. This arose after a California judge had decided that Starbucks should, in conformity with a state law which requires purveyors of carcinogens to display a warning to consumers, tell its customers that coffee might be giving them cancer. This would have applied also to other coffee sellers.

There were, of course, appeals. The matter was submitted for a decision to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazards, which looked at more than 1,000 studies and found no substantial evidence linking coffee to cancer.

USA Today quoted Sam Delson, a spokesperson for the Office, as saying that coffee was a mix of hundreds of chemicals – carcinogens and anti-carcinogens. “The overall effect of coffee consumption is not associated with any significant cancer risk,” Delson said.

So it seems that coffee consumers (of whom I am one) can relax, and the Consumer Council’s research was a little overstated, or possibly out of date. The California court case was decided in 2019.

Someone who was eager to beat up the council, which I am not, might even dub its coffee comments “false news”. A more charitable conclusion, perhaps, is that this is an example of scientists being seduced by the desire to make a news splash. Mr Ritchie offers plenty of others. Cancer is a frightening word. It should not be brandished lightly.

The Chief Secretary, John Lee, seems to have selected himself as the government’s specialist in the campaign against “false news”, probably culminating in some upcoming legislation on the topic.

This means, I fear, that his own efforts in the journalism direction are likely to be subjected to careful scrutiny. His latest effort was a letter to the editor of The Economist. Alas it is not in this week’s edition. Perhaps it was too late. Perhaps not, for it had some problems.

The Economist, possibly freed from inhibitions by the fact that its Hong Kong correspondent had already been expelled, roundly condemned the recent Legco election as “rigged”, and “a travesty of democracy”.

Mr Lee characterised this as “a baseless accusation”. He pointed out, according to RTHK, that free speech and the right to run for election are protected by the Basic Law. I don’t know what that might have done for the international reader but it would have been greeted with hollow laughter in Hong Kong.

His more interesting offering was that no country would allow “treasonists, traitors, foreign agents or other forms of non-patriots to take part in its political system”. Really? No country? Has Mr Lee checked with all 193 countries in the United Nations that they have adequate mechanisms to purge their political system of “non-patriots”?

Critical readers of The Economist might be expected to notice that there is an important word missing here. That word is “convicted”. Countries which bar traitors and foreign agents from their political systems generally leave the question of who that might be up to the courts. It is not left to the discretion of the returning officer, a committee of uniformed government minions, or a committee of non-uniformed big-wigs with the unofficial advice of the local Liaison Office.

Can we think of a country which does not bar traitors, etc. from its political system? Easy. The people barred from running for seats in the London Parliament come in four categories: prisoners serving their sentences, lunatics, priests of the Anglican Church and Lords.

The reason for the last two is that the church is represented by its bishops, who are ex officio members of the House of Lords. And the Lords, of course, have their own arrangements.

What, no ban on traitors? Well to be fair that was not a practical problem for a long time. Convicted traitors and spies were decapitated or shot, which effectively prevented them running for election. Non-patriots have never been barred. Irish Nationalists were elected in the 19th century, Welsh and Scottish ones in the 20th.

Sinn Fein candidates run in Northern Ireland on a platform of explicit preference for their province to be transferred to the Irish Republic. They do not take their seats when elected, because to do so they would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless they run, are elected, do not take their seats, and run again.

English by-elections regularly attract a variety of eccentric candidates, of whom perhaps the most celebrated called himself Screaming Lord Sutch. He repeatedly stood as the candidate of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. After his death in 1999 the party carried on, and has had some successes in local elections. Its manifesto for parliamentary constituencies is deliberately satirical rather than practical, although some policies it pioneered, like all day pub opening, have been implemented by more respectable parties.

So I’m afraid Mr Lee is quite wrong in supposing that no country bars “other non-patriots” from its political system and indeed even traitors and spies, having served their time in prison, would be allowed to try their luck. Avoiding false news is harder than it looks.

For a more subtle catastrophe we can turn to Mr Grenville Cross, who has evolved from defending the government’s legal brainwaves to defending everything. As a result his offerings have become more frequent and less interesting, but I was drawn to the headline (repeated in all pro-government print channels) “Electoral reform: hypocrites in glass houses should not throw stones”. I remind readers, as usual, that newspaper headlines are not written by the reporter. But this one sums up Mr Cross’s drift accurately enough. His targets are two conservative MPs and Benedict Rogers, who is not yet an MP but clearly has hopes.

Mr Rogers’s criticism of the new electoral arrangements was comprehensive and colourful: a “rubber stamp, puppet, zombie, quisling, Hong Kong branch of the National People’s Congress”.

Deplorable stuff, no doubt. But where comes the hypocrisy? Mr Cross complains that Conservative candidates are “thoroughly vetted” before they can be considered by local associations, and the qualities sought include “core beliefs and values”, which Mr Cross interprets as excluding independent thinkers.

He points out, quite truely, that MPs who dissent from the party line are sometimes expelled from the party, which means they cannot run as Conservatives again. He adds, also accurately, that people so excluded are rarely successful in running as independents, or under another label.

But at this point he has torpedoed his own argument. These unlucky people are not unelected because they have been excluded from the polls by the Conservative Party, the returning officer or a government vetting committee. They are free to run and who wins is decided by the electorate.

It is entirely normal and common for parties to decide who may be allowed to run under their flag. I do not doubt that there are similar mechanisms in the DAB, although one wonders whether they are necessary in view of the recurring rumours that such matters are decided in the Liaison Office.

Of course if you have run the Conservative flag up your mast the electors may be a bit suspicious if you reappear under another banner. Mr Cross’s colourful history might also be a political liability if he ever ran for office.

But parties everywhere try, with varying degrees of success, to ensure that their election candidates support the party’s aims and ideology. And getting the bum’s rush from the Conservatives is not always the end of the line. Enoch Powell survived the experience and returned to parliament as an Ulster Unionist. Nor is the party’s blessing for a “safe” seat a cast-iron guarantee of success. In 1997 a particularly seedy conservative MP was unseated by a crusading journalist running as an independent.

I am not personally a fan of Mr Rogers, nor of Mr Cross’s other targets, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss. But they must be acquitted of the charge of hypocrisy. Mr Cross is not comparing apples and oranges. He is comparing apples and unicorns.

The fact that British parties decide who may run on their behalf does not in any way excuse or explain the new Hong Kong system, in which the government in effect chooses its own legislature. Mr Cross’s version of this is that candidates had “to show they were capable of shouldering the responsibilities involved in running an advanced Chinese metropolis”.

Looking at our new Legco, can you repeat that without giggling?

Last Christmas I was very kindly invited to a carol service. I have always had a soft spot for carol services but in Hong Kong there is apparently a great shortage of traditional ones so it seemed unfair for me to intrude on a rare commodity.

I am not, you correctly infer, a very religious person. At least as far as organised religion is concerned I was inoculated by my boarding school, which required us all to troop down to the local church every Sunday.

I suspect this had more to do with giving the staff a morning free from us than with the attractions of religion, but the ritual had to be observed. We had two sets of clothes, the latest ones for Sunday and the others for weekdays. As the weekday ones expired the Sunday ones were demoted and replaced.

The service was always the same, except for the hymns and the sermon. We followed the Book of Common Prayer, which despite centuries of adjustment was still recognisable as the masterpiece penned in the 16th century by the political weasel and literary genius Thomas Cranmer.

When I started work at the then Baptist College I was surprised by the prayers which preceded all Faculty and Senate meetings. The surprise was not that there were prayers – I had been warned about that – but that the prayers were delivered extempore in more or less modern English. Where was Mr Cranmer?

Well he had not of course forseen this particular requirement. The Book of Common Prayer does not actually have a suggestion under the title A Prayer for Wisdom at the Meetings of Academic Bodies. So the Chaplain had to make up his own. And indeed this seems to be the way it is done these days.

The other literary delight on offer in the Midhurst Parish Church on Sundays was the Bible in the Authorised Version. This is also a masterpiece. Although it was produced by a committee they had the good sense to follow much of the solo translation which William Tyndale had produced a century or so earlier.

Owing to the inspiration provided by one of my primary school teachers I had developed some facility in public reading and as a result was often called on to read the lesson. In early outings at Midhurst this was an unalloyed pleasure. The church owned an enormous Bible which sat on an eagle lectern. The acoustics were, by church standards, quite good. A bit of stage fright added spice to what was otherwise a rather repetitive occasion.

Later the church sprouted a trendy new vicar, who introduced a trendy new translation of the New Testament, which did not impress me at all. The other regular reader and I both tried to get the Old Testament assignment but for some reason my style was considered more suitable for the modern stuff.

Anyway the purpose of this digression is to make it clear that though I am rarely seen in a church these days I am quite familiar with the ritual, at least as it was done in rural English churches in the late 1950s.

Returning to the latest carol service I was dismayed to find that not only had the Bible been fixed, but someone had been at that other mainstay, Hymns Ancient and Modern. This used to be so universal in Anglican churches that they had a sort of notice board into which you could only insert numbers. These indicated the numbers of the hymns to be attempted, always from the same book.

It seems that some of the traditional carols no longer pass doctrinal tests and have been modified accordingly. I am told by a connoisseur of these matters that this work is ongoing and new versions are promised with more “inclusive” language. I tremble at the thought of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentle Persons”, or “We Three Monarchs”.

The Bible had also undergone numerous changes. Some of the readings were not familiar to me but I can almost recite from memory the second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, the one which starts with the announcement that “all the world was to be taxed”, and finishes with “there was no room at the inn.”

Both these phrases have now disappeared. I realise that the “tax” was actually a census so changing that improves comprehension. I am less happy with inserting “the Roman world” instead of the world, because while that may be helpful it is not what Luke wrote. The room at the inn has also been changed. I hope this was not just from puritan horror at the thought that Our Lord narrowly missed being born in a boozer.

Anyway this raises a serious question, which I am probably not qualified to ask, but here we go anyway: is it really a good idea for a religion to express itself in the most everyday language it can find?

This is, after all, by no means the usual practice.

Here is a passage from Nassim Taleb (usually considered a business writer, but versatile)

“Keep a [religious] language away from the rationalisation of daily life and avoid the corruption of the vernacular… the Catholic Church translated the services and liturgies from Latin to the local vernaculars; one may wonder if this caused a drop in religious beliefs. Suddenly religion subjected itself to being judged by intellectual and scientific, without the aesthetic, standards. The Greek Orthodox Church made the lucky mistake, upon translating some of its prayers from Church Greek … of choosing classical Arabic, an entirely dead language. My folks are thus lucky to pray in a mixture of dead Koine (Church Greek) and no less dead Koranic Arabic.”

Fooled by Randomness pp 76-7

The whole point of religious texts is that they are unchanging. Consequently serious believers have plenty of time to establish what they mean, even if the language is archaic or foreign. And there is something about exotic language. It suggests learning, authority, mysticism.

Other professions shamelessly take advantage of this. When my tonsils were untimely ripped from my throat because the medical profession had not discovered that they do actually have a useful function, the operation was performed by an ear, nose and throat specialist.

You will not find such a person today. He or she will now be an otorhinolaryngologist. Which means exactly the same thing. Lawyers are worse, with their voire dire, eiusdem generis, mens rea and such like. As for officials, don’t get me started.

Anyway the thing which makes me sad about all this is that the standard of writing in a society is affected by the standard of reading and hearing. In the days when most English people were regularly subjected to the Bible as translated in the early 1600s and the Book of Common Prayer more or less as written even earlier, they were nudged in a useful direction.

One was not encouraged to revive archaisms like the use of “thou” and “art”, but to write in a simple, graphic, and often monosyllabic way, which as much rhythm and music as the meaning could bear. The loss of this helpful influence must I suppose be born in the interests of doctrinal clarity. It still seems a shame.

Now here is a puzzle. On the one hand we have government officials assuring us that all is well with the Hong Kong media. Carrie Lam says recent troubles at some outlets have had no “chilling effect”. The Secretary for Justice says the government is merely enforcing the law and “cherishes press freedom.”

At the same time there are unmistakable symptoms of media misery. Journalists say they have gone from “Fear” to “Son of Fear” to “Fear Unchained”. Before the next sequel some of them are leaving the theatre.

Indeed, even as officials were assuring us that all was well, three media outlets closed their doors, saying that after the swoop on Stand News they no longer felt safe in the business. Reporting the last two departures the Standard, ignoring the official line that all this has nothing to do with politics, cheerfully announced the “End of the road for two more pan-dem outlets”.

At the end of the week the Economist stated that “the last significant independent news outlet in the city is Hong Kong Free Press”, an accolade which supporters of that publication might find flattering but also a bit ominous.

How did this big gap in perceptions arise? There is a general tendency, with which many journalists are familiar, for people like lawyers, academics and senior civil servants to think they know all there is to know about the media.

This starts from the view that “I could have done this if I had wanted to”, which is true. News work requires a variety of different qualities but anyone who is literate and interested can find a slot to suit him or her somewhere.

Hong Kong newspapers were particularly eclectic in the old days. I worked with people who had been policemen and people who had been convicts. Some of my colleagues had left school at 16 and some of them had PhDs. Many of the expats had been English teachers, because this was the traditional second job of fresh grads arriving in Hong Kong to try their luck. The first job was bar work while they did the British Council teacher training course.

But journalism does require training and practice. The fact that you could have done it does not mean you have an informed opinion about it now. You could have been a brain surgeon but if you didn’t do the training that doesn’t make you an authority on the matter.

Of course all media consumers are entitled to their own views of journalists’ output. You’re paying for it. As Johnson wrote: “The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give, for we that live to please, must please to live.”

Knowledge of the way the business works, on the other hand, must be acquired, not assumed. It is almost axiomatic that if you listen carefully to the judgment in a media case there will be a moment in which it becomes quite clear that the judge has no idea how we work.

It is all very well for the Secretary for Justice to say that the national security law is perfectly clear. That may, for lawyers, be true.

The view from the sub-editors’ desk is different. I have dabbled in journalism for nearly 50 years and for most of those years I knew the applicable law well enough to keep out of trouble. I was an investigative editor for three years; as a columnist my comments on the colonial government were sufficiently critical to prompt a deliberately planted rumour that I was a Communist, a pleasing irony. I have never been successfully either sued or prosecuted.

I have read the national security law and seen what lawyers have done with it. I no longer feel able to tell one way or another whether a story may safely be published or not.

True, this is a new law, and new laws often go through a period in which people are not quite sure what they mean. Hints arise from the early cases, but owing to the Dickensian speed at which the Department of Justice operates we haven’t really got any of those yet. Even the exact meaning of “Free Hong Kong; revolution of our times” awaits an appeal, pending which just putting it here produces a little frisson of anxiety.

In the meantime the weight of the law appears to fall particularly heavily on some media outlets and not on others. It is quite understandable that distant observers, deprived of a close-up view of the department’s commitment to fairness and human rights, should jump to the conclusion that the government is simply suppressing critical voices.

This is reinforced by some procedural eccentricities which have crept in of late. What they amount to is that for a media organisation just being accused of a violation is a death sentence.

Ronny Tong made one of his less inspired observations after the demise of Stand News that the government had not closed it, and he was a bit puzzled as to why it had closed itself.

Let me try to help out here. The chief editor has been arrested and jailed. The computers and other office equipment have been seized by the police. The bank account has been frozen, so it is impossible to pay the surviving staff. It is impossible to continue publishing with no computers and no staff.

It may be that the government hopes to see an independent media sector manned by eager volunteers dispensing news via flocks of highly trained pigeons. But news web sites deprived of their equipment, money and staff are bound to close. What else are they to do? This is an alarming development because it occurrs before anyone has been convicted of anything.

It is interesting to compare this with the experience of other places which, as we are constantly reminded, have their own national security legislation and also legal limits on media.

The last time an editor in the UK was jailed was, I think, in 1949, when the editor of the Daily Mirror served three months for contempt of court. The newspaper had described the acid bath murderer as a murderer while the trial was still in progress.

Oddly enough in the same year the then editor of the Morecambe Visitor – later the scene of my first dip into journalism – was prosecuted for seditious libel. He was acquitted by a jury.

In both cases no equipment was confiscated, no accounts were frozen, and no employees had to be fired. Both the newspapers concerned are still with us.

Try though one must to impute the kindest possible motives to our government it is difficult to believe that officials are unaware of the effects of their actions. Knowing that a mere accusation can result in the immediate closure of a media outlet is intimidating for the staff of any organisation in the business, and also perhaps a dangerous temptation to people who disapprove of it.

I agree that this is not adequately described as a “chilling effect”. It is more like a big freeze. A cherished freedom is being dismantled before our eyes. We do not have capital punishment for people, even after a trial, but we have capital punishment for news media on mere accusation.