The controversy over paid political programmes on Commercial Radio is rapidly spinning out of control. Critics have been slamming the programmes sponsored by the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and, thus, affecting their production. Meanwhile, the station's director of strategic planning, Vincent Wong Wing, has been inconsistent in his explanations, raising more questions than answers. This is prompting many to fear that the station could be facing the worst management crisis in its history.
Unfortunately, the DAB has been dragged into the political storm and has become a major target for those who are determined to challenge the government's broadcasting policy. I worked for this highly reputable station many years ago and am still in the broadcasting industry. My concern is that it should handle this mess properly, avoiding potentially disastrous consequences.
No spokesmen except Wong have addressed the issue since the controversy began, and his comments have been causing a lot of damage. The most surprising part of all this is that the station seems to have knowingly broken the law, which requires the Broadcasting Authority's approval to put advertisements of a political nature on the air. This is not what we would expect from a 50-year-old company with a long history of good practice and sound principles. But no one in senior management seems to have noticed the nature of the crisis. Wong should not be allowed to continue to do and say whatever he pleases, because he will end up ripping the station's reputation to shreds.
When the dispute began, Wong strongly denied that any political sponsoring or political advertising was involved. His explanation was that the DAB is not a registered political party; therefore its sponsorship is not political in nature. That's like saying a white horse is not a horse, which is absurd and childish.
When asked if the decision to sell the airtime had been profit-driven, Wong tried to shirk his responsibility by saying it was decided by the advertising department. He stressed that all programming would remain independent from commercial influence. This was all very incoherent, as if he didn't know what editorial independence meant.
Advertising is advertising, whether the packaging is soft or hard. To maintain editorial independence, advertisements must not be allowed to interfere with programming and editorial direction.
To make things worse, Wong later changed his story, saying the DAB deal was a deliberate move to push the boundaries and broaden the scope of free speech - to see how the Broadcasting Authority would handle the issue of political sponsorship and advertising.
If that's the case, could he be implying that the station has turned into a political platform ready to challenge the government's broadcasting policy as well as its authority?
There are activists who have openly defied the law by carrying out illegal radio broadcasting on Citizens' Radio, which is considered a form of civil disobedience. But, as a business entity, if Commercial Radio is engaging in civil disobedience, has the board given its approval or is it just a personal comment from Wong?
The matter has come to the point of no return. Someone at the top, such as the station's deputy chairman, Winnie Yu, should clarify the matter. The community programmes in question have lost their credibility, while the station is operating practically in defiance of the law. Burying its head in the sand is extremely self-destructive for the station. It is also unfair to the DAB, which is getting nothing but negative publicity for the huge fees it has paid.
Next month the Legislative Council's broadcasting panel will look into the matter. Freedom of speech and civil disobedience are serious political topics, Wong shouldn't have taken them lightly or used them as excuses to cover his mistakes. He has painted the station into a corner. It desperately needs someone at the very top to help find an escape channel.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator