Watchdog with less bite?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 July, 2004, 12:00am

Whether or not we like the abrasive style of Albert Cheng King-hon, his Teacup in a Storm talk-show on Commercial Radio has been immensely popular over the past 10 years. He is an important voice in Hong Kong.

In 1998, Cheng was seriously injured in a brutal knife attack, which was believed to have been hatched by those who took offence to his on-air remarks. In May, he took leave from his show without serving prior notice after claiming that he was under immense pressure to restrain his pro-democracy and anti-Beijing rhetoric ahead of September's Legislative Council election. His replacement, veteran politician Allen Lee Peng-fei, also quit shortly afterwards, citing pressures to influence the way he hosted the show.

This month, Cheng made known his intention to return to air after the election. However, after weeks of confidential negotiation with the station, the two sides have decided to bring to an early end their contractual relationship, which was due to expire in 2008.

So much is unknown about the dealings between the station and Cheng that it would be rash for anyone to jump to any hasty conclusions. The station has maintained that it has not been subject to any political pressure to drop Cheng, but is doing so because it wants a change of style by abandoning his emotional approach in favour of an appeal to reason.

Cheng's show reportedly brought in more than $100 million in advertising revenue a year. As political independence of a media organisation must be founded on commercial strength, why would the station weaken itself by terminating the host of a very profitable show? Could it be that Cheng has become so successful that he has also become unmanageable for the station?

Still, it would be difficult for the public to accept that the Commercial Radio has not 'changed course', a label slapped on media organisations perceived to have softened their critical stance towards Beijing. In assessing them, who they employ must always remain an important yardstick. However, equally important is whether the station continues to discharge its function as a watchdog of government without fear or favour and whether the spectrum of views on its platform expands or contracts.

To be fair, the hosts appointed to replace Cheng and Mr Lee are no soft punchers. Their styles may not have been as forceful as Cheng's, but no one could regard them as being less than critical or independent. Unfortunately, insensitive remarks made by station director Winnie Yu during on-air exchanges with Cheng and Mr Lee, have prompted one replacement, academic Ivan Choy Chi-keung, to consider quitting.

As a victim of past attacks, Cheng cannot be blamed for taking seriously any threats against him, real or perceived. His fans will miss his coarse and strident voice. One consolation is that he will still write a column for this paper and Ming Pao Weekly. While the chances of other radio stations hiring him are remote, there is nothing to stop the seasoned publisher and broadcaster starting his own media outlet. Defying pre-handover doomsday talk about the Hong Kong media, some of our most commercially successful publications remain staunchly anti-Beijing. That is also their selling point.

For all who care about Hong Kong, a question worth pondering is why a broadcaster known for being emotional and not always reasonable has come to be seen as a symbol of free speech? Could it be that the powers that be have been so unreasonable in suppressing Hong Kong people's legitimate desires for democracy and better governance that demagogy has been allowed to prevail over reason?

C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy