Can politics be separated from TV station ownership?

Some say Ricky Wong's mobile TV plan sends conflicting messages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 4:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 6:37am

Business and politics are inevitably intertwined. But is this the case with Ricky Wong Wai-kei and his dramatic bid for a licence to fulfil his TV dream?

It must have been a roller-coaster ride for Wong, chairman of Hong Kong Television Network, over the past few months. First, his bid for a free-to-air television licence was rejected by the government in October, triggering massive protests. The Legislative Council even tried, unsuccessfully, to invoke its Power and Privileges Ordinance to probe the government's decision.

Then, merely two months later, a triumphant Wong returned to public attention, announcing his ambitious new plan to launch a mobile television service. He had acquired China Mobile Hong Kong, a subsidiary of state-owned telecom giant China Mobile, which owned the city's only mobile TV licence. The more-than HK$150 million deal would allow Wong to launch mobile TV and video-on-demand services from July 2014. He added this would not stop him from bidding again for a free-to-air television licence.

While many were puzzled as to why a leading state-owned enterprise made a decision contrary to that of the Hong Kong government, some people were left in the dark - and were even said to be "shocked" by the deal. They were the Beijing officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs, who it is believed were not informed of the deal in advance.

Wong also admitted that he did not seek, nor did he get any assistance from, Beijing. "I had no contacts with Beijing or the liaison office here in Sai Wan [on this]," he claimed in his press conference. Wong has tried to rule out any Beijing factor from the outset, stressing Beijing was not the "black hand" behind blocking him; he only blamed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the government.

But it now seems that the paradox of this whole saga was that while both Wong and the government denied any political considerations, the issue was highly politicised.

It became even more so when China Mobile came onto the scene, leading to two very contradictory interpretations on Beijing's role and its attitude towards the government's free-to-air television licence decision.

Some believed it was a genuine business deal, which further proved that Beijing was not involved in deciding who could be a television player in the city. They thought China Mobile had realised mobile TV was neither profitable nor a part of its core business and getting rid of it at a reasonable price to someone keen on having a TV outlet was not a bad option.

But others regarded the deal as a great embarrassment or even a political blow to Leung as the public would tend to see it as Beijing's implicit opposition to the government's earlier ban on Wong. This inconsistency between his administration and a major state-owned enterprise could weaken his authority.

It is understood that major acquisitions or sales of state assets need to be approved by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, but since China Mobile is listed in Hong Kong, it is also supposed to report its major deals to the central government's liaison office.

If it were true, as reported, that Beijing's departments in charge of Hong Kong affairs were not aware of the deal, on the one hand this could be seen as a lack of communication among different authorities, but, on the other, it further shows Beijing was not involved in Wong's bid.

It is good for the public to have more choices, but unfortunate that the deal sent out conflicting messages on its political implications. Wong still faces a tough challenge, since mobile TV is far from offering a viable business model yet.

Meanwhile, other television operators are urging the government to impose the same strict regulation on mobile TV operation, which is not covered by the Broadcasting Ordinance. This could become a business-turned-political hot potato for the government.

But the question remains: is it possible to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's", and truly separate politics from the television business?