Is Legco's challenge to Exco on TV licences probe really worth it?
The TV licensing controversy is still raging after an application with wide public support was rejected. Pressure is building as some lawmakers seek to open documents behind the contentious decision by the Executive Council. Worried about a probe by the Legislative Council if the vote seeking to invoke special investigative powers is passed tomorrow, officials have stepped up lobbying against what may become a precedent for the legislature to investigate Exco.
The government has no doubt done a bad job in explaining its decision. So far it has yet to make a convincing case for rejecting the bid by Hong Kong Television Network led by Ricky Wong Wai-kay but approving two other pay-TV operators to enter the free-to-air market. The latest reason given is that the advertising revenue, according to a consultancy study, can barely support two newcomers in addition to existing players TVB and ATV and that Wong's overall scores were the lowest among the three. However, the public is unable to judge for themselves whether this is the case since the details are withheld under the cabinet's confidentiality rules.
Questions have been raised whether a Legco probe is the right way to pursue the matter further. The Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance has been described as an "imperial sword". That it has the power to open up files and summon officials to give evidence means the law is reserved for extreme circumstances.
Over the years, the powers have only been invoked in connection with major incidents, such as the chaos that ensued when the new airport opened in 1998 and the outbreak of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. None of the inquiries was targeting specific decisions made by Exco. The vote tomorrow is to compel the commerce minister to appear before Legco together with all papers relevant to the cabinet's decision. Officials are making a last-ditch effort to avert the probe by explaining more.
The issue goes beyond television licensing. The executive, legislative and judicial arms have clear roles and functions under the Basic Law. The Legco attempt is a direct challenge to the executive arm, in that it will seriously undermine the long-standing operations of Exco. The fundamentals of governance will also be put to question if the decisions of the executive arm are open to review by Legco. Given that the decision is likely to be contested by the failed applicant in court, lawmakers should weigh the implications carefully before voting.