Off script

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 November, 2010, 12:00am

The decision by Director of Broadcasting Franklin Wong Wah-kay to step down as head of RTHK comes at a critical time with the station at a crossroads. Wong said last week he would not renew his contract when it expires in February because of health problems. Many will agree that he has a tough job, running a somewhat independent 'empire' that has a dysfunctional management system and was plagued by a series of scandals a few years ago.

The station's role as a public broadcaster has still not been clearly defined, although it receives annual government funding of HK$500 million. And its role is being further politicised because some of its programmes are seen by the pro-establishment camp as biased and unfairly critical of the government.

Many of RTHK's problems are rooted in its inability to shake off its former role as the government mouthpiece during the British colonial era. In the old days, broadcasting chief Cheung Man-yee had direct access to top government officials, and seemed to be accountable to no one, allowing her total freedom to run RTHK.

After the handover, a fear of communism prompted it to assume the moral high ground by refusing to toe the government line. The role of RTHK has always been a conflicting one; it has to walk the tightrope between being a government department and a public broadcaster with editorial independence.

To avoid further politicising the issue, the government shelved its plan to set up a new public service broadcaster. It pledged additional funding for RTHK to expand its services on the condition that it would improve management control and fulfil its role as a true public broadcaster.

Unfortunately, after two years at the helm, Wong appears to have achieved very little. His imminent departure has drawn an almost unanimous round of criticism from staff.

But I believe that when the staff say they want to safeguard the station's editorial independence, what they really mean is they want to be able to do whatever they want.

The director of broadcasting is effectively the chief editor of RTHK, who has the power to control its content and guide editorial direction to guard against interference. That is the way it should be with any news organisation. But, whenever Wong tries to do his job by expressing his views, he is criticised for trying to interfere with editorial freedom. Is that fair?

I have long been critical of RTHK's senior management for not fully understanding its role as a public broadcaster. Although it is publicly funded, it is not focusing its resources on programmes that promote and protect the interests of the underprivileged and the community at large. Very often, programmes are politically biased when they should remain objective and provide a neutral platform for debate.

In theory, as a public broadcaster, RTHK is not beholden to advertisers or political parties; it should produce programmes with no commercial or political bias. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Take its editorial treatment of the news of Wong's impending departure. Its coverage was lopsided, focusing mainly on staff reactions and those who support the campaign to promote what they see as RTHK's editorial independence. Some of its programme hosts even used the shows to try to advance their personal and political agendas by attacking Wong. What happened to editorial principles and programme standards?

The government says it will select a successor through open recruitment but RTHK staff are hoping the new chief will come from within.

No matter how this person is chosen, or where he or she comes from, the bottom line is the quality of the candidate; whoever takes up the position will not make a difference if he or she does not have the integrity to protect editorial independence and journalistic principles.

The new chief has to have the vision to define the roles and missions of the station as well as the courage to defend the principles that are important to a genuine public broadcaster.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator