Into the lion's den
A week before his retirement as director of broadcasting of RTHK in early February, Franklin Wong Wah-kay made an upbeat prediction.
He said the government-funded broadcaster had entered an 'exciting epoch'. His successor, he said, would have to deal only with 'happy troubles'.
His successor, Roy Tang Yun-kwong, has been on the job less than a week and his troubles seem anything but happy. Tang's selection on September 9 sparked a barrage of criticism from the RTHK staff union, journalists' organisations and academics. They fear a career civil servant with no broadcast experience who has been 'parachuted' in to RTHK will undermine the station's independence.
Last Thursday, his first day at the office, the former deputy secretary for labour and welfare was met by dozens of protesters when he arrived at the station's headquarters in Kowloon Tong. Rolling out a black carpet for the new director, the protesters demanded the government withdraw Tang's appointment and choose someone through internal promotion. Tang gamely said he didn't mind the protest and promised that RTHK wouldn't lose any of its editorial independence.
Whatever he thought of his welcome, Tang had to know that troubles - happy or not - are nothing new to RTHK.
The station has come under attack from Beijing loyalists irritated by public affairs programmes critical of the Hong Kong government. They say that as a government-funded station, RTHK should promote government policies.
At a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference sub-group meeting in March 1998, then standing committee member Xu Simin criticised Headliner, a popular RTHK's political satire programme, as a 'weird' show that attacked the mainland and Hong Kong governments and vilified Tung Chee-hwa, then the chief executive. Xu urged Tung to take more control.
Cheung Man-yee, then director of broadcasting, defended the station three weeks later, telling the South China Morning Post that political satire was a form of expression similar to political cartoons in newspapers. She noted that RTHK produced hours of public affairs programmes every week and Headliner was just one of them.
In 1999, Cheung was transferred to Tokyo for a few months to serve as Hong Kong's principal economic and trade representative. This came after RTHK's Hong Kong Letter invited Taiwan's de facto envoy to Hong Kong, Cheng An-kuo, to discuss the 'two-states theory' championed by Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui - and set off new calls to turn RTHK into a government mouthpiece.
She denied that the transfer was tied to the controversy, saying it had just been time to move on after serving as broadcasting director for 13 years - a time, she admitted in 2004, when she had been under pressure to drop political news programmes of a satirical nature.
Headliner drew new fire in 2001, this time from Tung, who criticised the programme's 'bad taste' for likening the government to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
In 2003, when the government was promoting the controversial national security bill, Beijing-friendly politicians and media slammed RTHK for airing programmes critical of the proposal.
And criticism of RTHK's editorial policies wasn't confined to public affairs programmes. In 2005, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who succeeded Tung after his premature departure, questioned RTHK's broadcasting of horse racing and other programmes that commercial broadcasters were ready and willing to provide.
Franklin Wong - who gained fame by producing the popular 1970s RTHK series Below the Lion Rock, which depicted life among the city's grass roots - was also no stranger to controversy. Soon after he took the helm at RTHK in 2008, he was criticised for his reluctance to openly support the Save RTHK Campaign, a group formed in 2007 by frontline journalists and rights watchers determined to fight to maintain the public broadcaster's editorial independence. His relationship with the staff became more strained when the rumour spread that he was planning to remove two hosts of Headliner. The rumour eventually proved unfounded, and Wong stated publicly that editorial independence was as important to him as his own life.
Wong said it was unavoidable that the government-funded broadcaster would come under pressure in the light of the dramatic change in the political climate in the past two decades.
'You can't please everybody,' he said. 'Even some director-generals of the BBC could not complete their tenure because of criticism of the political stance of the station's programmes'.
The row over Roy Tang's appointment underscores the dilemma facing RTHK, which is a public broadcaster and a government department. Founded in 1928, the broadcaster was separated from the Information Services Department in the mid-1950s. Subsequent directors of broadcasting were veteran broadcasters or producers.
The Broadcasting Review Board, in a report published in 1986, noted that 'as long as it remains a government department, RTHK will be viewed with suspicion by some both inside and outside government. Some feel that RTHK must be subject to government pressure. Whether or not this is true is not the issue. The harm is done if a substantial number of people believe it to be true'.
The board recommended that RTHK be turned into an independent corporation answerable to its own board of governors.
In 1989, RTHK formulated a corporatization proposal. But the colonial government's priorities became building a new airport at Chek Lap Kok and improving the management of public hospitals by setting up the Hospital Authority - all meant to boost public confidence in the city's future in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. In 1993, the government formally shelved the corporatization plan. It was believed to be opposed by Beijing, in any case.
In 2007, the Committee on Review of Public Service Broadcasting recommended creating an independent public service broadcaster from scratch and argued that RTHK was not suitable to be turned into such a broadcaster because it was a government department.
But the government decided in September 2009 against the committee's recommendations. Instead, it proposed designating RTHK the city's public service broadcaster, and pledged fresh resources to support RTHK's development, including moving it to a new site at Tseung Kwan O and developing digital broadcasting. At the same time, RTHK would continue as a government department.
Franklin Wong said RTHK's dual position as a government department with the independence of a public broadcaster was a good arrangement for the station.
'Many public service broadcasters in developed countries became cash-strapped in the wake of global financial crisis,' Wong noted. 'Some former colleagues at RTHK told me that they dare to criticise the government and big companies because of their status as civil servants, which guarantees their job security. There would be another set of problems if RTHK became fully independent.'
Wong, who joined RTHK in 1966 as a programme officer, was selected in an open recruitment exercise in 2008 after then director Chu Pui-hing sought early retirement after an embarrassing incident involving a karaoke bar hostess outside a Causeway Bay lounge.
Roy Tang, who has never dealt with RTHK or public broadcasting, was chosen to take the helm after the government failed to identify a suitable candidate during a nine-month recruitment effort.
Professor Leung Tin-wai, head of Shue Yan University's department of journalism and communication and a member of the now-defunct review committee on public broadcasting, said the appointment of an administrative officer as broadcasting director only reinforced the image of RTHK as official media. 'The government's pledge of editorial independence for RTHK is a sham. The recruitment exercise only wasted taxpayers' money,' he said.
But review committee chairman Raymond Roy Wong urged the public to give Tang time to prove himself. 'Whoever is the director has to abide by the RTHK charter, which guarantees its editorial independence,' said Wong, a former TVB news chief.
Wong agreed Tang faced a steep learning curve as he has no experience in public broadcasting. 'But it won't help the development of RTHK if staff members adopt a confrontational approach from the very beginning,' he said.
Down the years
1928 The government launches its first radio broadcasts under the call-sign GOW. After undergoing numerous name changes it settles on Radio Hong Kong (RHK) in 1948
1949 Broadcasting operations are taken over by the Information Services Department
1954 RHK is separated from the Information Services Department
1976 Renamed Radio Television Hong Kong
1986 The Broadcasting Review Board recommends RTHK be turned into an independent corporation
1989 RTHK formulates a plan for corporatization
1993 The government shelves the corporatization plan
April 2006 Audit Commission issues a damning report accusing RTHK of failing to comply with government regulations and procedures over staff management, entertainment expenses, overtime claims, outsourcing of services and acceptance of sponsorship
March 2007 The Committee on Review of Public Broadcasting recommends the creation of an independent public service broadcaster but says RTHK is not a suitable candidate
July 2007 Chu Pui-hing steps down as director of broadcasting after being photographed with a karaoke hostess
September 2009 The government decides to turn RTHK into Hong Kong's public service broadcaster
November 2010 Director of broadcasting Franklin Wong Wah-kay says he will not renew his contract, for health reasons
September 9, 2011 Roy Tang Yuk-kwong, deputy secretary for labour and welfare but with no previous media experience, is appointed as RTHK's new director of broadcasting