Lowering the bar in more ways than one

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am

The writing is on the wall. By lowering the bar on academic qualifications for the position of director of broadcasting, the government has opened the door for certain candidates - or one candidate - they already have in mind to bid for the vacated hot seat.

Robert Chow Yung, a former journalist and newspaper general manager who co-hosts an RTHK talk show, has confirmed he was approached by a head-hunting company on Tuesday. The government re- advertised the post on Wednesday.

Remaining non-committal on whether he would apply for the job, Chow has argued against the idea that the head of broadcasting must be a university degree holder, as was the requirement when the position was first advertised. He does not hold a degree. Citing the fact that he was promoted two grades within six years, after he joined the ICAC at the age of 24, Chow said: 'I believe they looked at my work performance, not only academic qualifications.'

True, people with higher academic qualifications do not necessarily perform better. In the case of the RTHK head, it can be argued that experience and practical knowledge of the local broadcasting sector outweigh an academic certificate.

But, given the senior ranking of the post in the government hierarchy and the prestige and influence of RTHK, there are legitimate and reasonable arguments in support of the original requirement for a candidate to hold a degree. After all, it is a must for many jobs in a knowledge economy.

That debate will be inconclusive. At issue is, perhaps, a worrying trend of government tinkering with the long-established rules and procedures for political need, as reflected in this recruitment 'take two'.

Ostensibly, there was no shortage of decent candidates for the position in round one. Among the 20 was RTHK acting deputy director Tai Keen-man. The government did not give details of why all 20 applicants failed in the first round and why lowering the academic qualification requirement could lure better candidates.

It is no surprise that pundits have questioned whether the first round was merely a political exercise aimed at paving the way for tailoring the rules for a candidate with the government's blessing because of his or her pro-establishment stance.

If that is the case - or, more importantly, is seen by the public as such - the integrity of the government recruitment system would be seriously undermined. It would not only be unfair to the 20 applicants, but to the public, too. Worse, it would fundamentally alter the nature of the post of the broadcasting chief, turning it into a de facto political appointee in the Tsang administration.

Despite criticism by pro-Beijing figures that RTHK displays a pro-democratic bias, its role and function as a watchdog, independent from government and commercial influence has broad public support.

Previous heads of broadcasting have maintained the much-cherished civil service tradition of political neutrality. That quality, among others, has been vitally important in bolstering public confidence and trust in the editorial independence of RTHK - despite the fact it is part of the government structure.

Pledging to lead a 'can-do' administration, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has emphasised that his appointees to ministerial positions must share and support his vision and policy platform. But critics fear the political benchmark has become an unpublicised criterion for appointments to advisory and statutory bodies.

Undoubtedly, there are sound reasons to open government posts to outsiders, to get the best possible candidate for the job. But public trust and confidence in the integrity of the government and the system will be seriously impaired if candidates for posts like the head of RTHK are chosen for their pro-establishment leanings, not their professional and academic credentials.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large. chris.yeung@scmp.com