Advertising abyss

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 October, 2010, 12:00am

The pan-democrats may be digging a hole for themselves by demanding that the government allow political advertising. In August, three months after Commercial Radio accepted sponsorship from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and sold a time slot to lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing, causing a public outcry, the Broadcasting Authority fined the station for breaching regulations.

At the heart of the issue is whether the government should open up the airwaves to allow political advertisements. The pan-democrats argue that, because the administration had previously used various electronic media channels to advertise its 'Act Now' campaign on political reform, it would be hypocritical to ban others from advertising.

On Thursday, the pan-democrats again raised the issue at a Legislative Council panel meeting on information technology and broadcasting, pressing the government to change the regulations to permit political advertising in the electronic media.

As an investor in the electronic media industry, I agree with the proposal purely from an economic point of view, because it would open up another source of income, especially during election time. But, if we had to balance various political pros and cons, it would not be such a great idea.

The pan-democrats no doubt hope that the move would allow them a bigger voice in the public arena to promote democracy and raise their profile and popularity. But, in reality, public reaction is unpredictable and irrational; the change may hamper rather than help the development of democracy in Hong Kong.

The pan-democrats seem to believe that a relaxation of the rules would help them rally support during politically sensitive times, such as the June 4 anniversary and the July 1 rally. They are wrong.

Any matter can be packaged into a public or political issue, regardless of the date, as long as there is mileage to be gained. Selling a political idea is not as easy as promoting a sports event such as the World Cup. There are many unforeseeable factors.

Take minimum wage legislation as an example. After its passage in July, we are still unable to break a deadlock on what the wage level should be. So, if the airwaves were eventually opened up, the rich and powerful business sector could use the electronic media to their advantage. They could package their case to win public support by saying the proposed HK$33 hourly rate, favoured by labour unions, could hurt the economy and raise unemployment.

When it comes to exploiting and controlling the media, no one can do it better than the rich businessmen; the pan-democrats and the public do not have their resources or their money.

Many media organisations will, of course, welcome the idea because it would greatly increase their profits. The problem is, no one can guarantee that some journalists will not take advantage of political advertisements to 'manufacture' news to influence public opinion and create political rifts.

Allowing such a powerful medium to be bought for political purposes would set a very dangerous precedent. Our media advertising rules on political activities and elections may be strict, but they are fair and effective. There is a limit on advertising funding, to allow everyone to compete on an equal footing. That means those who are financially capable cannot simply use money to buy support and win votes; they will need to work hard to gain recognition in the public's eye, just like everybody else.

The pan-democrats would do well to remember that allowing political advertising could open the floodgates to negative campaign ads and thus political mudslinging. This dirty tactic is as old as politics and is highly popular in the United States.

The pan-democrats already have the upper hand in pushing for universal suffrage. They can feel the public pulse better than the businesspeople. So why change the rules of the game when you are winning?

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator