Breach of rules on political ads, from any spectrum

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2010, 12:00am

Commercial Radio has been heavily criticised for letting political parties 'interfere' with its editorial independence by allowing them to buy airtime, and letting the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong sponsor programming.

Not only has it stirred public debate, it has also caused internal discontent. But the critics have got the wrong end of the stick; it has nothing to do with editorial independence.

By allowing Democratic Party vice-chair and legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing to buy airtime - to rally public support to join last Sunday's march for universal suffrage - the station made another mistake while trying to cover up the first.

We know it was just a business decision, but the fundamental issue is not about whether we should allow political advertising.

It's about abiding by the law and following the broadcasting code of practice.

The radio frequency spectrum is limited in Hong Kong and, because the airwaves are public assets, their use is regulated under the Broadcasting Authority ordinance.

According to the code on advertising standards, no advert of a political nature can be broadcast without the authority's approval. Thus, the station obviously breached the code.

Even though the DAB is only buying sponsorship to promote community issues, it is still political advertising no matter how it's packaged.

And Lau's direct advertising to rally support for universal suffrage was 100 per cent a political advertisement.

The station has undeniably breached the code of practice, and thus the authority should deal with it seriously.

The central issue is not about compromising editorial independence by allowing political advertising.

The crux of the matter is that the station knowingly breached the law.

As a lawmaker, Lau did not have a leg to stand on when she defended her case, saying that it was not political advertising because she spent only HK$38,000 to run short clips while the opposition DAB spent HK$500,000 on sponsorship over a three-month period.

As a member of the Legislative Council's panel on information technology and broadcasting, Lau should have known better.

It is not about the duration and cost of the advertisement; such a radio message, no matter what style and form it takes, is still a political advertisement.

Even more ridiculous was that the station tried to use the excuse that the community programme sponsored by the DAB was an internal production with no outside involvement: the political party was merely a sponsor and nothing more.

Obviously the station is trying to circumvent the rules and exploit possible loopholes.

In fact, Commercial Radio is copying what cigarette companies did years ago, when a blanket ban on advertisements was implemented.

Many of the cigarette companies sought, instead, to sponsor sports events and various high-end products to overcome legal hurdles as to what was still classified as a tobacco advertisement.

The sad reality is the hypocrisy of it all. The pan-democrats had one set of rules for themselves and another for their opponents.

Rules are rules, and everyone should abide by them.

No one should be above the law.

And, no matter how they sell it, with soft or with hard packaging, a political message is a political advertisement.

The remaining issue is for the Broadcasting Authority to look at this case thoroughly and deal with it openly and fairly.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.