Funding rejection shows futility for RTHK of toeing the government line

Albert Cheng says the only real losers in the row over the escalating cost of a new headquarters are the broadcaster's senior management

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 10:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 2:51am

The HK$6.1 billion funding proposal to build a new headquarters for RTHK was voted down by lawmakers last week after members from both sides of the political spectrum said it was too costly. The amount was nearly four times the sum originally set four years ago.

It had long been expected that this project, which always appeared to be a white elephant, would come to nothing.

Only RTHK's senior management seemed stupid enough not to sense the problems and therefore expressed disappointment after the plan was rejected.

It's an open secret that the government has been dissatisfied with RTHK's operation for many years. Pro-Beijing forces have been exerting political pressure, hoping to rein in the public broadcaster so that it could act as a government mouthpiece.

Behind the scenes, they had surrendered to the government and were doing its bidding

If the station management genuinely wants editorial independence, it's certainly achievable.

As far back as when Chris Patten was governor, during colonial times, the government wanted the station to be corporatised and be self-financing, to achieve full independence. But, the station's management chose instead to seek the best of both worlds - editorial independence and government funding - so officers could keep their cushy jobs and perks. They wanted to appear independent, but were not prepared to go out and fight for the public's support and endorsement.

As the years went by, the station became wasteful and regressive. It has lost its direction, becoming more like a commercial entity than a public broadcaster. It has also been plagued by scandals and corruption.

It's said that one reason Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gained the trust of the central government, which helped him win the city's top job, was that he was willing to rein in RTHK. Since Roy Tang Yun-kwong was appointed as director of broadcasting, the station has removed hosts and presenters seen as unacceptable to Beijing. The hosts of its current affairs programmes that reflected public opinion have been muffled.

At this politically sensitive time, the government came out to show its willingness to build a grand broadcasting headquarters for RTHK, despite the hefty increase from the original budget. No wonder it has drawn public suspicion and sparked suggestions that it's a kind of political kickback.

We have to take our hats off to Leung, who is clearly good at playing political games.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung and Tang were thick-skinned enough to ignore public opinion that suggested the funding request would be rejected by the Legislative Council; they went ahead anyway with the application.

They were so confident the application would be approved that they didn't modify the plan to cut costs or lobby legislators, including pro-government members, for support. In the end, they had only themselves to blame when the application was thrown out.

The pan-democrats are no better. They knew full well that the proposal would be rejected by the pro-government camp, but they still put on a show to support the plan, merely to please the station's senior management.

As responsible representatives of the public, they should have demanded that the government trim the construction plan to a more reasonable and realistic level.

Honestly speaking, Tang, who was an administrative officer for years, should have known better how to handle the twists and turns within the government system. By not modifying the proposal, he appeared to be intending to delay the project indefinitely and thus put a major stranglehold on the station.

Ultimately, the only losers in this are the station's senior management; they got what they deserved and are due no sympathy. For years, they have been paying lip service to being a public broadcaster, while behind the scenes they had already surrendered to the government and were doing its bidding.

From the moment they dismissed outspoken radio hosts such as Ng Chi-sum, the station revealed its true colours - it will no longer speak for the people, but act as a government mouthpiece.

The most laughable part is that senior management thought their political "sacrifice" would help them gain huge benefits, such as an extravagant new headquarters.

They clearly miscalculated. One of their fundamental mistakes was that it has always been a one-sided "love affair".

They did what they thought would please all sides, but in the end they pleased no one and got jilted.

Call it stupidity or naivety, but the fact is that no one is better at dirty political games than the Leung administration.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.