RTHK best served by a chief from its own ranks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2010, 12:00am

The search for a new head for RTHK is on. Applicants have to be permanent Hong Kong residents with at least 15 years' media or broadcasting experience, but a university degree is not a must. The station's staff union has insisted on finding a replacement through internal promotion rather than open recruitment.

The demand implies that an outsider will never be fully supported by staff. It also means that it will be doubly hard for the new boss to carry out his work, especially when he needs to clean up the mess and put the house in order. RTHK is notorious for its cumbersome and inefficient operational structure. These problems will no doubt discourage many capable candidates.

Many have unfairly complained that RTHK does not have editorial independence. Just listen to one of its talk shows, LTV Cafe, and you will see how much editorial freedom host Luke Tsang Chi-wah and his co-presenters have. They can openly discuss the work of the RTHK chief and the problems of the job. The press freedom they enjoy is exceptional because many local media organisations do not have the same level of autonomy.

In fact, after the government announced that it would allow RTHK to continue its operation and pledged additional funding to help it develop its digital broadcasting services, Tsang criticised the decision on his show. Had there been editorial censorship, he wouldn't have been able to do so.

Critics like Tsang were right to warn about the many internal obstacles at RTHK. Apart from the long-existing staff resistance, there is also constant pressure from the Communist Party, as well as the pro-Beijing forces that often treat the media as a propaganda tool. On the other side, we have the self-righteous academics, politicians and those who support the broadcaster's independence. The future broadcasting chief will have to cross swords with all these people, on top of having to handle the countless problems that come with the job. The position can be likened to a political minefield and he could create enemies on many fronts.

Realistically, a search for suitable candidates outside the station - people who fit the bill and have the audacity to face up to the station's inherent problems - does not look promising. And those who qualify may not even find the position attractive with its monthly salary of HK$165,000. Unless the person has a strong sense of mission and wants to make a difference in this broadcasting revolution, it will be almost impossible to find the right candidate outside RTHK.

The only viable option is through internal promotion - basically a Hobson's choice. At present, two of the best candidates within the station are assistant directors Cheung Man-sun and Tai Keen-man.

To be honest, Tai is not a bad option. The government would be better off dealing with one difficult employee than making an enemy of the entire staff. Offering Tai the top job through internal promotion may help mend ties between both sides.

If the new chief is not promoted from within, I am afraid the position might attract the wrong candidates; those who are interested only in the high-profile attention and status of the job, without having any real interest in overhauling the station. If the new head wanted an easy ride, he might adopt a hands-off management style, which would spell disaster for RTHK.

Another possible candidate is Tsang - not only does he know the ins and outs of the station, he also has extensive experience and wit. The government should seriously consider these internal choices. Only those from within the station have the knowledge and capacity to venture into this treacherous territory.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk