Words of advice

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 April, 2010, 12:00am

The RTHK draft charter has been completed. Those waving the banner of editorial independence are saying the document will put a straitjacket on the station's autonomy. They have insisted on maintaining the status quo, and thus have disregarded the obligation under which RTHK has to transform into a genuine public-service broadcaster. It is not a private news organisation but a government department and a public broadcaster. It is still debatable whether the station had fully enjoyed editorial independence in the past or has been manipulated by a few management individuals.

Those against RTHK reform have no convincing reasons for opposing the setting up of an advisory committee except the fact that it will be appointed by the chief executive. The bottom line is that they want RTHK to remain an independent body. But, if it carries on with business as usual, it risks repeating past mistakes. The station, which enjoys a high degree of editorial and management freedom, was plagued by a series of scandals a few years ago.

In fact, the draft charter has not altered the fundamentals of RTHK. Its status remains unchanged and the director of broadcasting will continue to be its editor-in-chief, who is ultimately responsible for all editorial decisions. In short, the reform will not impose any restrictions on its overall operation.

All it does is lay down some ground rules by which the station has to abide to fulfil its mission as a genuine public-service broadcaster. First and foremost, it has to be fully accountable to the public. That's why it is necessary to set up a cross-sectoral advisory committee to ensure transparency. The government-appointed committee will only give advice and support; the ultimate decision-making power remains with the broadcasting chief.

The director of broadcasting is also appointed by the chief executive. So, if detractors question the independence of the advisory committee, they should also doubt the credibility of the head of RTHK. And why would they allow a government-appointed director absolute freedom to run the station but object to an advisory body, which is set up in a similar way? Their objection has no rationale.

Some critics fear the director of broadcasting will toe the government line because he seems to be overly positive about setting up the advisory committee. These worries are unwarranted. Of course, the director doesn't have to be overly friendly with the committee, but that doesn't mean he has to be hostile. The panel will play an advisory role so it will be reasonable to maintain a co-operative relationship.

A proactive approach would be to help the chief executive set some benchmark requirements to make sure appointees are of the highest standard, with a broad representation. It's not constructive to dismiss the committee just because it is government appointed.

At present, the station has its self-appointed consultants. So, shouldn't we question its credibility and doubt whether it is doing its job in monitoring the station without bias?

Without proper supervision, there is always a danger that the station head could be manipulated by a few individuals to run the organisation like an independent empire, which would damage its long-term development.

Without independent advisers, the head could be vulnerable to manipulation, making it difficult for him to carry out his duties and responsibilities properly. Is that why senior staff members are objecting to the committee?

It has been suggested that the government should follow the BBC model and make the appointments as transparent as possible, and that these appointments should be decided by a high-level panel comprising politically accountable senior officials.

But, the bottom line is trust; without that, the administration will not be able to move an inch in policymaking. All proposals, good or bad, will be consigned to the rubbish bin. Is this really what we want before we have universal suffrage?

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator