TV stations bad sports over Games coverage
What is so outrageous about the row over broadcasting rights for the London Olympic Games among three local TV stations is that nobody, least of all the government, seems to understand that this is, first and foremost, a public interest issue.
For the TV stations, especially iCable, which has bought the rights to televise the Games, live broadcasting of the Olympics may be a weapon of mass destruction in the ratings war and a sure-fire marketing ploy to sign up new subscribers.
But the Games, like the Fifa World Cup, are also a major international event that turns the entire world into a global village by providing its inhabitants with a common, transfixing experience, albeit only for a few weeks. By one estimate four billion people will watch the opening ceremony on July 27.
Excluding a significant portion of the local populace from watching the Games, therefore, amounts to a sort of social ostracism. This was exactly what happened two years ago when similar wrangling among TV stations resulted in up to 50 per cent of Hong Kong people being prevented from watching free-to-air live coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Many of these disappointed, deprived soccer fans are still seething with anger. 'You'd know how I felt if you had been jilted, shunned, blackballed or stood up for dinner. Only it's 10 times worse,' one of them told me recently.
But the government just doesn't get it. That the TV stations are not run in the service of public interest we know well enough. But is it too much to expect the government to show a certain concern for the welfare or well-being of the public and a basic grasp of the relevance of the Games to the people?
Echoing his predecessor, Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan, who decided to fold her hands and watch as the TV stations quarrelled over the World Cup, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung - whose motto may be 'offend no one but the people' - said it was not the role of government to interfere with the decisions of the three broadcasters.
Well, if you can't step in, at least step forward. What the government should have done, as soon as TVB and ATV failed to reach an agreement with iCable, was to tell the TV stations, publicly and in no uncertain terms, that what is at stake here isn't just broadcast rights but public interest, and that they are not only running a business but performing a public service.
Almost 90 years ago, American journalist Walter Lippmann argued in The Phantom Public that for all the talk about public opinion and public interest, most of the time the public existed merely as an illusion and an abstraction, a myth and a phantom.
According to Lippmann, society is made up of agents and bystanders. The agent is someone who can act on the basis of his own opinions to address the substance of an issue, while the bystander is the public - merely a 'deaf spectator in the back row'.
What the prescient Lippmann failed to imagine, however, is that even a back-row seat for the public as spectator isn't always guaranteed.
Perry Lam is a local cultural critic