Loud and clear

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2007, 12:00am

A new public broadcaster should be set up from scratch rather than reconfiguring RTHK - that was the recommendation the government heard on Wednesday from the Committee on Review of Public Service Broadcasting.

I welcome the committee's suggestion of establishing a new public service broadcaster in Hong Kong, although it remains to be seen whether the government will accept all of its suggestions. Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology Joseph Wong Wing-ping said the government would issue a consultation document in the second half of this year to collect public views. The future of RTHK is still undecided: the committee made no mention of that, since the matter is outside its terms of reference.

Sceptics have criticised the committee's report for failing to discuss the future of RTHK and for aiming to reduce the role of the long-established broadcaster. It is true that, after the formation of the new broadcaster, RTHK would be reduced to a government mouthpiece with only two channels.

It would no longer produce programmes that serve minorities in society. However, the report suggested that high-quality programmes produced by RTHK could be broadcast by the new corporation.

Democratic Party vice-chairman Sin Chung-kai said making a new public broadcaster would be a waste of public resources: that the operations of both RTHK and the new broadcaster would cost too much. Mr Sin must have calculated wrong. Or he overlooked the part in the report which says that, after the proposed transfer of RTHK's public service broadcasting functions to the new corporation, RTHK's reduced role couldn't justify its continued allocation of seven radio channels - and TV airtime on domestic, free TV channels. In other words, RTHK would no longer need funding of HK$4 billion to HK$5 billion per year.

The report also came under fire because of its failure to discuss the future of RTHK. Some critics noted that RTHK was already a provider of high-quality public broadcasting services, and had built up high credibility and recognition. It should be able to make the transition to being a new public broadcaster, they said.

But they have yet to realise that the review committee was set up, in the first place, because of RTHK's confused role. Conflicts have arisen from the director of broadcasting's two roles - as chief editor of RTHK and a civil servant under the Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau.

Moreover, although RTHK's operations are funded by the government, only half of the programmes it produces target the interests of minorities; the other half compete and coincide with those of its commercial counterparts. It is worth noting that close to 400 of RTHK's 700 staff members are civil servants. It is understandable that they would try to safeguard their own interests in the transition to the new public broadcasting corporation.

The suggestions made by the committee, however, are not without flaws. First, the committee should recommend that the new public broadcaster introduce digital-sound broadcasting systems instead of using RTHK's outdated technology.

Second, the five channels released by RTHK after the formation of the new public broadcaster should be made available by open tender. This could ensure the efficient use of broadcasting facilities and uphold the public's right to choice.

Third, the roles of the chief executive and the chief editor of the new broadcaster should be clearly defined, lest questions arise over editorial independence.

Finally, the government should be extremely careful when it comes to appointing members to the board of the new public broadcaster, to avoid a repetition of the recent saga when the Broadcasting Authority ruled that an RTHK programme on gay lovers was unfair, partial and biased towards homosexuality.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator

I welcome the committee's suggestion of establishing a new public service broadcaster in Hong Kong