RTHK a victim of political bickering

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 3:10am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 3:10am

Although RTHK is not exactly Britain's BBC, it has long been regarded as Hong Kong's public service broadcaster. But being a government department with editorial independence means it is often torn between conflicting priorities, so much so that it sometimes becomes a victim of political bickering. The row over the funding request to build a new headquarters in Tseung Kwan O is another example of politics getting in the way of legitimate development.

Whether the project is extravagant and wasteful is open to debate. But it is regrettable that the government has decided not to submit the HK$6 billion proposal for lawmakers' approval at this stage, citing a lack of support as the reason. The project is to be re-tendered, resulting in delays for two years. That means RTHK's plan to expand its services in the digital age will be hindered for the time being.

Lawmakers have a duty to scrutinise funding proposals. They are expected to put public interest above politics and ensure that taxpayers' money is well spent. Likewise, officials are required to hammer out the best funding arrangements, and make a convincing case when lobbying for support. But sadly, this is not the case with the RTHK development project.

Although the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions denied political considerations, their opposition was seen by some as an attempt to curb RTHK's role. The way the government handled the funding also left a lot to be desired. Its last-minute offer to slash funding by HK$752 million raised doubts about whether the budget had been well thought out. The decision to withdraw the funding request has cast further doubt on whether the government is sincere in developing RTHK into a fully fledged public service broadcaster.

It remains unclear when the funding request will be re-introduced. What is certain though is that the need for a new headquarters will prevail, and the cost will spiral further. The broadcasting chief may have been only half joking when he described the present Kowloon Tong site as a prehistoric showpiece. But RTHK can never become a genuine public service broadcaster for the 21st century if its operations are confined to studios filled with of out-of-date equipment and technology. It is in the city's long-term interests to develop a world-class public service broadcaster, and approve what it takes to achieve that goal.