• Sat
  • Dec 27, 2014
  • Updated: 4:35am
PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 2:37am

No such thing as 'balanced' media freedom

Michael Chugani says the proposed requirement of elusive editorial 'balance' in TV and radio programmes is unneeded interference


Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London. Aside from being a South China Morning Post columnist he also hosts ATV’s Newsline show, a radio show and writes for two Chinese-language publications. He has published a number of books on politics which contain English and Chinese versions.

What exactly is a balanced view? In my view, there is no such thing. By saying that, am I being unbalanced? What is a biased editorial? Again, no such thing. Editorials are, by nature, biased. They reflect the views of the writer or newspaper. A view can never be balanced because not everyone will share it and those who don't will say it is unbalanced.

Yet, this week, Hong Kong entered the slippery slope of letting the government define balanced views on TV and radio. What's so bizarre is that it raised no outcry even though, a week earlier, Hongkongers had united to declare media freedom sacrosanct following the savage attack on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to.

A Communications Authority committee proposed that TV and radio licensees and their decision-making executives who express views through editorials or programmes must give airtime to opponents for the sake of balance. How will the authority decide if balance has been breached?

Supposing ATV airs an editorial saying Occupy Central would destroy Hong Kong. Must the station then give equal time to the organisers to say they're not hurting Hong Kong? How to decide which opinions warrant equal time? If every opinion does, wouldn't that turn TV stations into debating platforms?

It is widely known that Fox News reflects heavily the conservative views of owner Rupert Murdoch while CNN takes a liberal view. American conservative talk radio stations have no opposing views for balance. Does the US government meddle? No. Viewers decide which station to choose.

Already, our election rules dictate that when broadcasters interview one candidate, they must interview all others in the same constituency, including fringe candidates with no hope of winning. Editors should decide what is news, not the government.

Some years ago, we had the ludicrous situation where broadcasters carrying reports of a candidate caught with mainland prostitutes had to publicise the names of all his election rivals for balance, even though they were not caught with prostitutes. This rule letting our government dictate how election news reports are handled was the first slide down the slippery slope. The new move to define balanced editorials represents the next slide. What I worry most about is a third slide that would muzzle TV and radio opinion writers and hosts who are not licensees or executives. I write a freelance weekly editorial for ATV Focus on the Chinese channel. The station makes clear it is my view, yet receives complaints of bias. Every time that happens, I have to justify my views to the Communications Authority.

I also host an English-language show for ATV. During the 2012 Legislative Council election, I had as guests a Democratic Party member who was not a candidate and a university pollster but received complaints the show was not balanced. The election rule required me to provide phone and e-mail logs to prove I had tried to invite "balanced" guests.

I wonder what kind of media freedom we united to defend last week. Surely, it wasn't "balanced" media freedom.

Legislator Claudia Mo Man-ching slammed the balanced opinion proposal for not being tough enough to counter biased editorials. She says she may oppose it in the Legislative Council. That's a bit rich coming from someone who is known for rabid attacks against those with different views, including ATV, whose licence she had demanded be cancelled.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com


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This article is now closed to comments

This is the latest example of the HK government being stupid. And the complaints about bias are tiresome but never-ending. Those who typically complain of bias possess a level of stupidity that would make them ideally suited for HK government work.
Editorials by definition are opinion pieces. Those authors are expressing (presumably) their opinions. Individuals are allowed to have opinions, and those opinions need not be perfectly neutral. In fact, a person whose opinion is neutral on everything would essentially have no opinion at all about anything. If I choose to read someone's opinion, I should and do realize it represents that person's opinion. And I'd be shocked if it wasn't biased.
So the decree that editorials need to be balanced is beyond stupid. If I don't like an editorial, I can choose to disregard it, or simply not read it. Market forces will eventually decide if that editorialist will continue to have a job. Besides, how do you mandate balance? Balance is in the eye of the beholder. Equal airtime or column inches does not make balance. This is a rule ostensibly about "balance" for which any enforcement thereof will inherently lack it. Sometimes the HK government is so incredibly stupid that you wonder if they're closet geniuses. Maybe by demanding balance, any forthcoming critique of government stupidity will share its space with government praise, and end up saying nothing at all. Perhaps that is the government's objective.
There might not be such thing as a perfectly balanced news reporting, however news reporters have the moral duty to report as unbiased as possible. Otherwise we are just going down the other slippery slop of propaganda for certain political interests.
News reporters are at best only news reporters pretending to be less biased, they mustn't be another person's primary source of knowledge. Trust you own judgement.
Mr. Chugani, maybe you can let me know if this is a balanced view:
"I do not read/watch the news or the opinions page of a newspaper to expect the finest of intellects. I do so as a way to measure the amount of ineptitude of a specific place and make future plans for my life accordingly."


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