Response to consultation on New Radio Television Hong Kong
Commerce and Economic Development Bureau
2/F, Murray Building
Response to Consultation on New Radio Television Hong Kong
We are writing with our response to the above consultation paper.
We generally welcome the Government’s commitment to public service broadcasting. However we have reservations about some of the specific proposals in the consultation paper and hope that these will be reconsidered.
Goals of public service broadcasting
The consultation paper touches on overseas experience, but we would expect a more thorough-going review in order to develop the best possible model for Hong Kong. The decisions already taken by the Government, as set out in the paper, are only cursorily explained. We would refer you to the Unesco work on public service broadcasting: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/publications/mendel/preface.html.
Public service broadcasting has a valuable contribution to make everywhere, but this is especially true in Hong Kong given pressures on free speech as a result of the Handover. As the consultation paper rightly says, RTHK is a bellweather for free speech in Hong Kong. It is therefore important that the present review support and entrench the values of free speech and objective reporting in Hong Kong.
Another important goal of public service broadcasting is to foster cultural development. Commercial broadcasters are driven by audience numbers, on which advertising revenues depend, and this can lead to a decline in programme quality. A public broadcaster, on the other hand, is able to pursue quality programming with relatively less constraint. Public service broadcasting can enrich society’s culture.
Unfortunately, the proposals in the paper fall short of these goals.
Need for independence from government
Our strong preference would be for RTHK to be established as an independent institution rather than as a government department. Independent establishment would allow RTHK to ‘spread its wings’ in creative and cultural endeavour. If RTHK remains a government department it will always be under pressure to toe the government line. Additionally, the ‘bureaucratic’ procedures which are necessarily part of government will hinder RTHK in work that requires a rapid response, such as news and current affairs. The culture of the civil service, in terms of staff rank, promotion, performance-based pay, ability to hire-and-fire, is also not appropriate for a media organisation, which has to react quickly and creatively to changing public tastes. Finally, we believe that there may be commercial potential in RTHK’s archive, which as a government department it would have little incentive to exploit.
Along the same lines, we would prefer RTHK’s funding to be provided through some channel other than the annual government budgeting process. For example, RTHK could be provided with an endowment. Again, this would secure for it some breathing space and distance from daily contact with the government.
As the paper proposes, there should be a charter to guide RTHK and against which its performance can be measured. Some of the proposed headings of the charter appear reasonable, although ‘fostering social harmony’ appears questionable since it seems to imply avoidance of controversial issues – the very opposite of what a public broadcaster should be about. The detail under these headings is in some cases questionable too. For example, ‘civil society’ would more normally be interpreted as the less formal ‘bottom-up’ self-organisation of people into interest groups and associations for betterment of themselves and society, rather than top-down promotion of official views and values such as the One Country Two Systems formula.
We accept the need for body to monitor RTHK and hold it to account for meeting public broadcasting objectives – assuming these are appropriately defined, which is not wholly the case in this paper (see above paragraph). However, this body should not be ‘Advisory’, since that suggests providing input on editorial policy (notwithstanding the paper’s denial of such intent). Rather, we suggest that the body should focus on performance evaluation only – and should have an appropriate name such as ‘Performance-monitoring Committee’ or something similar. The Committee’s mandate should make clear that it is to monitor RTHK’s fulfillment of public service objectives on behalf of the public, not on behalf of the government.
To operate effectively, the Committee needs to be supported by a Secretariat of its own, rather than by the RTHK staff since the latter are not independent. The Trust Unit which supports the BBC Trust in its work of monitoring the BBC, provides an example.
We are not sure why it is necessary for the RTHK to have a dedicated fund to ensure community-based programming. If the entire funding of RTHK is to be provided by the Government, we would think it sufficient for this objective to be incorporated in its charter. If the fund should nonetheless be created, we do not see the need for the Advisory Committee to get involved in decisions on how to spend it (which would compromise the Committee’s independence); rather, RTHK should make the decisions and be judged on its overall performance.
Finally, we hope that RTHK will be granted at least two television channels, one for English and one for Chinese. As a suggestion, the Chinese channel could be more orientated to local production, while the English channel could draw in more programming from abroad.
We hope that the above comments are helpful.
George W H Cautherley (高德禮)
Vice-chairman, Hong Kong Democratic Foundation (香港民主促進會副主席)
9 November 2009