A different wavelength

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2006, 12:00am

The issue concerning the future of RTHK is simple once we brush aside all the political fog which is blurring our vision and blocking our thinking. By adopting a 'man from Mars' approach and taking a fresh look, the most pertinent question we should ask is: if there were no government-owned and operated radio and TV station in Hong Kong, would we want to start one?

In this age of small government and outsourcing, I am sure the answer would be an overwhelming 'no'. Whatever objectives our government wants to serve through RTHK, they can be achieved much more cost-effectively by contracting out to private enterprises, which is also much more in line with the overall governing philosophy.

The problem arises because dissidents have elevated RTHK to iconic status with regard to freedom of expression. This is a myth. RTHK was established because, at one time, it was fashionable for governments to have their own mouthpieces. Times have changed, and so should our thinking. A modern government still needs channels of communication to reach the public. You can, if you wish, call this propaganda. Officials can buy this service, or obtain it in a franchise agreement with radio and TV stations. In a state of emergency, the government can commandeer radio and TV stations through relevant legislation. There is no need to own and operate a mouthpiece.

But RTHK exists, so what should we do with it? The dissidents want the administration to leave it alone and continue supporting it with taxpayers' money. What is the point?

I agree that the BBC produces very good news programmes but so does CNN. And I enjoy BBC documentaries - but also those produced by the National Geographic and Discovery channels. What would viewers and listeners lose if the BBC were to close tomorrow? Not much. If the British government and citizens wish to continue to support the corporation, it is their choice, but there is no rational ground for us to follow suit.

If our dissidents love RTHK so much, the best way out for all stakeholders is to privatise it, and find some pro-democracy, freedom-loving investors to buy it out. The government could lay off workers, use proceeds from the sale for lavish severance pay, and stipulate that the new company has to rehire them. Thus, the administration would be relieved of a big political and financial burden.

Most RTHK workers would welcome this change. Under new private ownership, there would be no government 'interference'. If it still managed to produce good programmes, as now, RTHK would attract many sponsors. In fact, the government would be one of its major clients, sponsoring programmes to serve minority interests it deems worthwhile.

Some may object to this proposal because it values the service currently provided by RTHK only on a commercial basis. This is not my argument. The government can choose to sponsor programmes to serve non-commercial objectives in the new RTHK, as well as in other media, but the decision rests with the administration - not the management. For the management, there is only one criterion to judge their performance: the market. They have to give people what they want, putting them in direct competition with private radio stations. This conflict cannot be resolved unless the playing field is level; when RTHK goes private. Otherwise, there is no way RTHK can decide what to produce, how to evaluate programming success, and how to coexist with competitors which have paid a hefty franchise fee and have to fight for their survival in the market.

The current situation is unfair to everyone. Do we really need a committee of wise men to state the obvious?

Lau Nai-keung is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate