Motives a mystery in radio storm

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2004, 12:00am

If the circumstances behind the early termination of Albert Cheng King-hon's contract were unclear when serious talk about it surfaced last week, the row that has developed since then between the talk-show host and station director Winnie Yu has only muddied the waters.

The holes in the arguments of both sides - not to mention their vastly different interpretation of events - make it difficult for the public to understand the truth. Meanwhile, worrying questions about the climate for political debate in Hong Kong are raised but left unanswered.

The public interest would best be served by a complete airing of the facts behind Cheng's departure and the station's handling of it. This, however, is largely dependent on some forthrightness being shown by Cheng and Ms Yu. But considering that both sides appear to be pursuing their own conflicting, and undisclosed agendas, this is far from a certain outcome.

Cheng's latest charge is a serious one. He alleges that Commercial Radio wanted him to leave the show but continue to receive payments so long as he did not run for a Legislative Council seat in next month's elections.

Ms Yu, for her part, insists that it was Cheng who initiated talks about his leaving. The backdrop to the conflict includes a management reshuffle at the private broadcaster and changes to the lineup of hosts for the call-in chat show Teacup in a Storm, which Cheng made popular. Ms Yu has now taken over day-to-day operations of the station, while stand-in hosts of the show, Leung Man-to and Ivan Choy Chi-keung have been replaced.

Perhaps the biggest mystery in all this is the timing of the row, which has burst into the open as Cheng prepares to file his nomination papers for the September Legco poll. Why has neither side spoken up before now? The course of events leaves open the possibility that either, or both, are exploiting media coverage for their own purposes. Last night, Cheng claimed Commercial Radio notified him that it was ready to reinstate him. The latest twist deepens the mystery and raises more doubt about the whole truth behind what's being said in public.

The past week's intense media speculation about Cheng's intentions to run for Legco and his non-committal answers highlight his mastery of the public relations game. What we do know is that he has generated maximum coverage for his possible participation in what will be the closest Legco race ever, while also increasing the chances of exiting his radio career with a generous payout.

To the extent that there has been manipulation of the media, the potential is there for a cynical backlash from the voting public. If Cheng's serious complaint of bribery against Commercial Radio, followed up by a filing of a complaint with the Independent Commission Against Corruption yesterday, turns out to be part of the campaign, the repercussions could be worse.

But considering that the letter from Commercial Radio which Cheng says contains the offer in question has now become part of an ICAC investigation, it may be many months before the public has the information needed to make its own assessment.

Raising these questions about the motives of the two parties does little to diminish the serious concerns about freedom of expression that the whole episode generates. There is now much uncertainty about the future of Teacup in a Storm. If Commercial Radio's intention is, as stated by Ms Yu, to tone down such programmes and make them less confrontational - despite their popularity - we do have to wonder whether the scope for broad political debate in Hong Kong is becoming too narrow.

All eyes will be on how the reshuffled management deals with staff concerns and whether Teacup remains the open public forum it has always been.