A Salvo Against Radio Hong Kong

The following may look at first like a coordinated effort against RTHK (Radio Hong Kong).  To appreciate the significance of this campaign, it is necessary to understand the media landscape in Hong Kong.  Television is the most frequently used media here, but the most popular content on television is highly commercial (e.g. drama, entertainment) and apolitical.  There are many newspapers in Hong Kong, covering the entire political spectrum so that people self-select to read those newspapers that match their political inclinations.  And then we have radio, where the talk show format is the primary source of in-depth analyses of current affairs.  The two biggest radio networks are the privately owner Commercial Radio and the government service RTHK (Radio Hong Kong).  Thus, radio has primacy with respect to current affairs in terms of reach and influence.

First of all, Oriental Daily reported an article that appeared in the most recent issue of The Mirror Monthly Magazine.  The author is Xu Simin, who is a former member of the Chinese National Political Consultative Standing Committee.  The title of the essay is "If RTHK does not amend its evil ways, there will be popular anger" (港台不改邪,勢必激民憤).  Xu asserts that there is not a single publicly owned electronic medium in the world that attacks its own country and government except for RTHK.  

According to Xu, during the colonial era, RTHK was the faithful mouthpiece of the British colonial administration.  After the return of Hong Kong to China, RTHK became the platform to promote the Democratic Party and the legal community to promote their political positions.  A comparison showed that the Democratic Party members have appeared on RTHK eight times more often than members of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Better of Hong Kong and eleven times more often than members of the pro-business Liberal Party.  Furthermore, the common people are often deprived of their freedom of speech.

Without naming names, the article pointed out that former officials at RTHK became defenders of democracy after the return, and used political neutrality, editorial freedom and fair objectiveness as their defense.  Xu makes this assertion: any public radio station that wants to play the game of political neutrality, refuse to carry through its duty to promote public policies and to explain the government to the outside has not reason to exist.  Xu specifically refers to the recent sequence of events in which the RTHK program Headline News 《頭條新聞》 demeaned the resignation of Tung Chee-hwa, satirized the debate over the 2-year versus 5-year term length of his success and poked fun at mainland Chinese citizens, the National People's Congress and the National Political Consultative Committee.

In my opinion, this is a serious misunderstanding of the role of public radio.  First and foremost, public radio is there to serve the public interest, which may or may not be identical to the interests of the government.  The government proposes a policy and some segments of the population raises criticisms and objections.  The public interest will not be served by RTHK repeating the talking points of government spokespersons ad infinitum.  Public radio will serve the public best by providing a public platform through which the government and the critics can discuss their points of differences.  This essential service is not always available through commercial media, and that is why public radio is there.

In terms of the statistics cited, the point is not about the relative frequencies of appearances of the DP, DAB and Liberal Party members.  On most issues, the government takes one position and some segments of the pan-democratic camp take the opposite position, while the DAB and Liberals are generally sympathetic to the government.  It makes much more sense to let government officials debate their critics directly.  I don't know what the numbers are, but I'll bet that government officials lead all the political parties in terms of appearances on RTHK.

As for the charge that the common people are being silenced, the typical format for a talk show is that the host invites representatives from two sides of an issue and makes sure that the most significant aspects of the issue are covered first.  Then public comments may be invited, but there will always be some restraints on time and space so that not everyone can get to say everything that they wanted to.  This is vastly different from 'silencing' people.

But on the same day, Oriental Daily and sister paper The Sun published a joint editorial with the headline RTHK Made Repeated Stupid Mistakes, Malfeasance of Senior Officials Means Malignant Tumor Must Be Excised (港台混帳屢犯刑罪 高層失職須除毒瘤).  The combined coverage of these two newspapers gives this joint editorial the highest circulation in Hong Kong today.  Does this represent a coordinated attack on RTHK, especially given the very severe language (i.e. 'tumors')?

The editorial begins with a discussion of errors and mistakes made at RTHK:

RTHK is a government-operated organization that requires the infusion of HK$500 million in public funds.  Every cent of that money should be spent for a good reason, especially in a time of budget difficulties, as a matter of public interest.  Unfortunately, senior officials at RTHK seemed to ignore the public interest, while their subordinates have used the organization to reap private profits.

The most prominent example is this recent case:

Last week in district court, a former program co-ordinator at RTHK and a couple of directors at a production company were found guilty of forging false bids to defraud RTHK (and hence the public).  The three had been accused of rigging the bidding when RTHK outsourced program production.  Between 2000 to 2002, the three created false bids from other companies in order to ensure that this production company won a total of HK$740,000 in contracts.  According to the judge, the defendants were familiar with the bidding process and deliberately and dishonestly conspired to circumvent the bidding process in order to obtain the contracts and therefore damage the interests of RTHK and the general public.  The judge added further that RTHK's tender documents on its outsourcing were often undated and unsigned, and a chaotic situation pervades.  However, senior officials at RTHK had ignored what was happening.

The editorial also cites a number of other cases, involving employee fraud.  These are administrative and management mistakes, which are quite unrelated to the existential question raised by the Mirror Monthly article.  Perhaps there needs to be a management shakeup at RTHK with respect to administrative and financial controls, but this is not quite doomsday.

The Oriental Daily/The Sun editorial goes on to enumerate some historical episodes of infelicity between RTHK and the Oriental Group.  If one media entity feels maligned by another, there is always legal recourse and the Oriental Group is probably the most experienced practitioner.  But it is a stretch to issue an editorial that concludes with this statement:

The senior officials at RTHK are evil remnants of the British colonial era.  They turn a blind eye to the dereliction of duty among their subordinates, and they join forces with the other evil remnants of the British colonial administration to furiously attack the Oriental Group.  RTHK which is operated with public funds has committed crime after crime, and it is obviously a malignant tumor in the government.  The seven million citizens of Hong Kong must be served by excising this tumor!

Will there be any action against RTHK?  There is zero support for eliminating the service, or even re-defining the role of public radio.  There may be some house-cleaning on the administrative side, because no one is going to defend lax financial controls as a normal way of business.  Editorial interference should not happen since any potential benefit will be dwarfed by the blowback, and nobody needs this headache now.