Legislators must reject funding for RTHK's HK$6.1b new headquarters

Albert Cheng says added services and inflation cannot possibly account for the nearly quadrupling of the estimated construction costs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 3:42am

Christopher Chung Shu-kun, the foul-mouthed legislator and member of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, exposed his crassness on Tuesday at a Legislative Council session to discuss the construction costs of the new RTHK headquarters.

When Chung realised the project would cost up to HK$6.1 billion, he immediately used the occasion to mock Ricky Wong Wai-kay, founder of Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), for seeking to launch a television station with a personal net worth of "mere tens of billions". Chung used extremely rude words to ridicule Wong for overestimating his financial capacity.

Chung's outburst was not really surprising and did not divert attention from the important issue at hand - the overspending of the government-run broadcaster.

The planned cost of the infrastructure alone has shot up from the estimated HK$1.6 billion four years ago to the present HK$6.1 billion. And this is just the hardware and does not include the software such as human resources and operational expenses.

Public entities are often not as well run as private enterprises, but no matter how you look at the possible cost of building a new RTHK headquarters, which is supposed to provide radio and television services, the HK$6.1 billion price tag is totally unreasonable.

One of the excuses provided by RTHK was that when it projected the cost at HK$1.6 billion in 2009, it didn't include provisions for digital broadcasting, three new television channels and a media asset management service.

But if you look at the set-up of digital broadcaster DBC, which has seven digital channels, its basic infrastructural investment only amounted to HK$100 million, while the planned costs of HKTV's television city was only HK$600 million.

The planned RTHK headquarters will yield approximately 300,000 sq ft of space. Even if we assume construction spending will be extravagant, at HK$3,000 per sq ft, it shouldn't exceed HK$1 billion.

Even though the proposal will include a data centre, the adjusted cost is still excessive.

The planned data centre of Google in Tseung Kwan O is expected to cost about HK$2.4 billion. So if you add up the costs of a data centre, and offices for television and digital services, the total cost should come to somewhere about HK$4 billion.

Let's look at the costs of other television stations. In the early 2000s when TVB set up a new headquarters in Tseung Kwan O, with five free channels, the cost came to HK$1.6 billion. Adding the digital facilities, the bill came to HK$2.2 billion. Phoenix TV's Beijing headquarters, which handles all national production work on the mainland, cost less than HK$1 billion. It all goes to show that no matter how we calculate the cost, it shouldn't come to HK$6.1 billion.

On top of this, there is still the annual operating costs of around HK$600 million, the cost of a news centre, and digital broadcasting, as well as the additional manpower to cope with all these needs.

Both the pan-democrats and the pro-government camps questioned the astronomical construction costs, but so far no one has objected to the project outright. The reason is obvious - no one wants to make enemies of the government media, plus the money will come from the public coffers. It's nothing but a show.

HKTV sought to invest billions to run 30 channels. All production work would have been done locally. Yet, the promising television project still failed to get government approval. Government-run RTHK, with only seven radio channels, digital broadcasting that still has no independent production, and television programmes that are not run round the clock, has the temerity to ask for HK$6.1 billion merely for the building of its headquarters and has seemingly already got the green light from the administration. All this points to one fact - the station will almost certainly turn into a media tool used by the government.

As public representatives, lawmakers should act as gatekeepers and reject the funding request. It's simple: the project isn't good value and it's a waste of public funds.

The scandal-plagued station has to figure out its role and position in the market as it struggles on with low staff morale, an unfair pay structure, disorganised management and a low standard of programming. With all these problems, the station has no right to demand public support for its operation in such an extravagant manner.

As I have always advocated, the only way forward for RTHK is for it to become a genuine public broadcaster to lend a voice to the public, especially the underprivileged.

And, first and foremost, Legco members must not support the RTHK expansion.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator and a co-founder of DBC. taipan@albertcheng.hk