An equal say over election day
THE Boundary and Election Commission has worked hard to devise a lengthy set of guidelines for canvassing leading up to next month's Legislative Council elections.
However, serious doubts about the effectiveness of the ground rules emerged soon after nominations for the polls closed on Monday.
Chapter eight of the rules deals with the conduct of the electronic media during the sensitive campaign period. The commission (BEC) has made it clear the rules are meant to cover not only news and public affairs sections, but all programmes on radio and television.
'Candidates,' it asserts, 'may take part freely in current affairs and other programmes on TV and radio which are not election advertisements and which are conducted on an 'equal time' principle.' Under this principle stations are supposed to offer all candidates from one constituency the same airtime in any programmes involving election hopefuls. The commission says such a practice is vital in ensuring election campaigning is conducted 'fairly and equally'.
Nevertheless, the two commercial broadcast TV stations have shown little respect for the guidelines. On Tuesday night, both ATV Home and TVB Jade violated the principle of equal time in their most popular shows.
ATV's Hong Kong Today invited Christine Loh Kung-wai of Hong Kong Island Central to take part in an interview with a controversial 47-year-old finalist from this year's Miss Asia Pageant. Ms Loh's only competitor in the election, Peggy Lam Pei Yu-dja, was not invited.
The host of the programme introduced Ms Loh as a 'feminist activist'. Given her leading role in the campaign for equal inheritance rights for female indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories, few would challenge her credentials to speak on women's issues.
Yet, the election guidelines would have dictated that Mrs Lam be included in the televised discussion.
Just an hour after the programme was aired, Brian Kan Ping-chee of the Community, Social and Personal Services Functional Constituency was seen on a so-called 'info-tainment' programme, the Show by Shobai, on the Jade channel.
The horse trainer is only one of five election hopefuls eyeing the ninth new functional seat, which represents a wide cross section of the working population ranging from civil servants to night club hostesses.
The other four eyeing the vacancy are Elizabeth Wong Chien Chi-lien, Michael Siu Yin-ying, Fan Kwok-wah and Kwok Yuen-hon.
The quiz show, which has recently attracted the highest ratings among all programmes, usually involves about five celebrities and a participant from the audience. The station did not explained why Mr Kan was invited.
It remains to be seen whether the commission will consider these two programmes as having breached the guidelines.
Yet, the election guidelines are not legal rules and there is very little the watchdog body can do to penalise the stations.
If it regards the programmes as unfair, the commission can make a denunciation or censure in a public statement.
It may also refer the matter to the Broadcasting Authority or other relevant groups for appropriate action.
Yet, before the commission comes to a decision on this, another controversy is brewing.
A commercial pollster recently approached several news organisations to promote its package for conducting exit polls on September 17 - polling day. The plan is for the firm to make available latest voting trends to the broadcast media on an hourly basis after the ballot booths are opened.
The fee for a poll at each of the 20 geographical constituencies is put at $50,000. The idea sounds attractive to some broadcasters, because there is normally very little substantial to report during the mostly uneventful polling period. Hourly exit poll results would certainly make the election newscasts more exciting.
But the commission remains adamant that: 'Any announcement of results of exit polls or predictions, particularly in relation to individual candidates during the polling hours, may affect voter behaviour and have an impact on election results.
'The BEC, therefore, appeals to the media and organisations concerned to refrain from announcing the results of exit polls or making specific remarks or predictions on individual candidate's performance until after the close of the poll.' The commission's conservative stance on the matter has been challenged by some academics and pollsters. It has been argued that exit poll findings should be regarded as part of election-related information to which voters are entitled to help them make an informed choice.
It is also debatable why activities which 'may affect voter behaviour and have an impact on election results' should be banned.
A public debate occurred prior to the 1991 Legco elections. The ATV news department was then keen to broadcast exit poll figures, but eventually gave up the idea on the advice of the Government.
The situation this year is even more complicated because of the establishment of an Election Committee to return 10 of the 60 seats on offer. The commission reportedly decided to allow those on the committee - who are all elected District Board members - to have until midnight, or about one-and-a-half hours after the public poll closes, to cast their vote.
The arrangement will make life easier for the board members, most of whom will also be heavily involved in last-minute canvassing. Some have also doubled up as candidates for other constituencies.
This, however, will create a major difficulty for the pollsters and news organisations alike as they will have missed the deadlines for late newscasts.
The value of the exit poll results will be largely diminished, as most viewers may have already gone to bed. Serious doubts are bound to emerge in the minds of media managers about whether it will be money well spent to finance exit polls.
Some research institutes, including those from Hong Kong University's Social Sciences Research Institute, have pledged to take up the issue with the commission.
Not only the 138 candidates have signed up to test their popularity, the commission also appears to have put its own credibility on the line.