Zooming into the real issue in TV licence row

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 3:18am

The current furore over granting new television licences serves as a good example of how we as a community are simply incapable of carrying out an informed debate on public policy.

One licence applicant, City Telecom's Ricky Wong Wai-kay, is good at grabbing headlines and making himself look like a wronged damsel. It's anyone's guess why he committed millions before getting a licence. The media duly repeat his sound bites yet fail to question his motive. ATV did an outrageous live show outside the government headquarters to protest against applicants like Wong, and warned incoherently of "Taiwanisation" if we had more stations.

Lawmakers typically exploit the matter as another stick to beat the government with. And commerce chief Greg So Kam-leung, with his typically supercilious air and in his slightly bored tone of voice, repeated ad nauseam to us, like talking to stupid pupils, that these things needed to go through proper procedure. The truth is: So is just buying time.

My fellow columnist Michael Chugani is the only one I know who has properly explained what is at stake - in a Post article this week. And TVB has gone a small way in offering a compromise solution.

So what's the real issue?

The licences that TVB and ATV currently hold until 2015 were granted by the government in the understanding that they would remain the sole free-to-air stations until the licences expire. Billion-dollar investments have been committed under these terms. The stations, with some justification, think new competitors who are allowed to join before 2015 and are not bound by the same conditions would enjoy an unfair advantage.

The government clearly feels some moral and contractual obligation towards TVB and ATV, yet it stupidly invited applications before their licences expired. That's why So is stalling, despite a recommendation last year by the former Broadcasting Authority to approve all three applications by subsidiaries of City, PCCW and iCable. The government would have to relax the terms of the existing licences, as TVB suggests, if it wants to let in new entrants - or hold off the applicants until 2015. But it doesn't want to do either!

Everyone supports more free channels. But the devil is in the detail of how to get there.