Due process flouted in TV licence saga

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 2:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 2:16am

In his letter ("No need for HKTV to hire 500 staff before licences were awarded", November 14), Tony Harding writes that, "when HKTV applied for a licence it knew the process, and so did Legco".

That's true. But the problem is that the process was not followed. There would have been few complaints if the process had been followed, if natural justice had been observed, and the government had not refused to explain the final allocation of licences in a clear, simple way.

The applicant was led to believe that policy would be stable, that the strengths of the different applicants would be fairly assessed, that markets would judge the survival of market participants and that regulatory inputs (the Communications Authority) would be respected. None of which turned out to be true. Of course HKTV chairman Ricky Wong Wai-kay complains, and of course people sympathise.

The public and business community share two legitimate concerns here. One is economic. Hong Kong is highly efficient and "can do", because the government, despite its foibles, has been attuned to action. To move the goalposts on this application, costing many jobs and much money, undermines the can-do spirit. On this point the government has, unusually, united business and the public.

The second legitimate concern is about due process. Every functioning system needs decisiveness, but also process. Due process - in law, politics, banking, business - protects the players against their own worst instincts. The decision to refuse HKTV's licence bid defied a number of sensible, well-established rules on political process.

Presidents, prime ministers, chief executives have certain powers, but it is always a mistake to exercise them in breach of convention, especially without due process. Decisions that reject formal advice for no visible reason other than to protect the establishment reinforce cynicism. A leader surrounded by "yes" men makes matters worse (consider Margaret Thatcher, or George W. Bush's Iraq disaster).

Here, some Executive Council members did fight the HKTV decision. The decision therefore broke another convention, that Exco should be broadly united.

Perhaps we misconceive what executive-led government means. It should mean the responsibility to pursue initiatives, not a willingness to trample all opposition.

It was famously said Britain had an "elective dictatorship". But stewards of public responsibility should use strong power with great caution. In the long run, we all regret not following that maxim.

Paul Serfaty, Mid-Levels