White noise surrounds Legco election debates

Alice Wu blames an ill-prepared and uncaring media for the shouting matches that have thus far passed for Legco election debates

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 5:30am

Never has the need for a quality news media been so apparent. A total of 271 people - 74 lists of candidates - are vying for 54 contested seats for the next Legislative Council term.

It goes without saying that the next legislature is important for the city's democratic future. The government, of course, will bear responsibility for initiating the constitutional reform process and getting legislators as well as Beijing to approve its plans. The news media is just as important.

Unfortunately, what we have seen so far, at least in the non-print media, should worry us.

This city's traditional broadsheets have done all they could. Some have kept their standards high with balanced, fair and informative reporting. But other media outlets - which have the advantage of letting their audience see or hear these candidates in person - have failed us miserably.

The media must be free and rigorous. But when this year's candidate debates turn into shouting matches, we don't end up with a more informed citizenry. With candidates shouting over one another, its hard to even know what is being said, let alone what their views really are.

Election debates are considered a useful part of the electoral process. They allow undecided voters to hear for themselves what candidates have to offer so they can make an informed decision.

But when debates are held and conducted in ways that are just "routine", they become utterly pointless. I understand that all media outlets are bound by electoral laws and rules on giving candidates equal time, but a debate with 19 teams? Previous debates with too many candidates simply turned into slugfests.

Why continue holding these debates in the same format? It's wishful thinking to believe anything constructive can come out of them.

It must have been laziness that has made these outlets forget their purpose - producing accurate, informative, socially important and newsworthy content. As champions of democracy, they have nevertheless failed to recognise their need to go beyond providing a "platform". For those who have been granted the right to our airwaves, just going through the motions of holding substandard election debates shows a blatant disregard for their social responsibilities and public duty.

They should have put these candidates - however many lists and teams there are - under journalistic scrutiny. They should have taken the time to research issues, candidates and positions. They should have examined whether candidates' proposals are in fact workable. They should have held candidates accountable to their word. They should have weeded out the spin, the empty slogans and the election rhetoric, and pinned these candidates down on the real issues. In short, they should have done their job.

Perhaps it is time to wake them up. Injecting competition, for both television and radio, will make it harder for them to cheat the public. And that reason alone is enough for all to fight for Albert Cheng King-hon's radio and Ricky Wong Wai-kay's television station.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA