TV licence rebuff raises questions of political bias

Philip Yeung says decision favouring the status quo hurts the market

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 October, 2013, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 12:15am

Compared to the infamous barrage of slaps delivered by a Hong Kong girl to her kneeling and snivelling boyfriend, the slap administered by the government to Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) is louder and more hurtful. Even to idle bystanders, this is a dark day for Hong Kong, another nail in the coffin of our supposedly free economy.

It is ironic that Ricky Wong Wai-kay, founder of HKTV (formerly City Telecom), was the first to be invited by the government to submit an application for a TV licence and the first to take the offer seriously, practically throwing the kitchen sink into the new venture, selling his telecom assets to fund it, and burning through more than HK$300 million over nearly four years.

The feckless secretary for commerce and economic development, Greg So Kam-leung, said with a straight face that there were no political considerations in rejecting Wong's application. Everybody else smells a rat. Anybody can see this is a decision for maintaining the status quo - the other two licences having gone to the two existing pay-TV companies, i-Cable TV and PCCW. How can one call this decision good for competition?

Wong is probably Hong Kong's last "hero from zero", given how in recent years landlords and developers have picked our pockets clean and killed off any chance of the poor climbing out of intergenerational poverty.

He is a maverick. But that doesn't make him a dangerous political animal. He made his fortune in the market and knows the rules of the game. Wong's problem may be his loose tongue, but his bark is worse than his bite.

One thing beyond dispute is that Wong has been good for the Hong Kong economy. He helped to dismantle the monopoly of PCCW-HKT and opened up the telecommunications industry, bringing down prices for consumers. Wong looked set to do the same for the TV industry.

By killing Wong’s dream, the government is killing the spirit of entrepreneurial daring

The Hong Kong television networks have been a toe-curling disgrace for decades, living off recycled low-budget, low-talent, low-brow, cheesy programmes, with a captive audience. Wong promised to shake up the stuffy and slumbering industry and he has put his money where his mouth is. Now he stands to lose it all.

Has the government played fair with Wong? After all, the Broadcasting Authority itself recommended granting a licence to all three applicants. And what about the Hong Kong public? Some 63 per cent of people surveyed gave a thumbs-up to granting HKTV a licence. The long-suffering viewing public is the biggest loser of all in this misguided policy.

The government's political wariness is misplaced. If anybody is in the boat-rocking business, it is the print media, with Apple Daily as the archetypal pot-stirrer.

By killing Wong's dream, the government is killing the spirit of entrepreneurial daring and trampling the wishes of the people. Some 320 people have already lost their jobs, and more than 400,000 have signed an online petition against the ill-supported decision.

The government questioned whether HKTV's plan could be competitive. But why should the government trouble itself over who will survive the natural shake-out? Isn't that something for the market to decide?

I have applauded Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for championing the cause of local people with his housing policies. But with this one move, he has cancelled out much of the goodwill. This is a cowardly call whose fallout may haunt him for the rest of his tenure.

Already cynical and hopelessly divided, Hong Kong has just moved another step closer to irrationality.

Philip Yeung is a former senior communication manager with the Public Affairs Office of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a freelance speechwriter to local leaders and celebrities.