The principle that candidates in elections be treated fairly by the media is one that helps ensure the integrity of our city's polls. But the strict and inflexible rules applying particularly to broadcasters' coverage of campaigns do not always serve the interests of keeping the public informed. And in the case of the ongoing campaign for next month's Legislative Council polls, they threaten to turn some election forums into a farce.
A combination of these regulations and the record number of candidates contesting some geographical constituencies is causing broadcasters big problems. The regulations require that equal time on air is given to each candidate in an election. Even if one candidate appears on a programme that is only partly devoted to the election, his or her opponents must be offered an equal opportunity to appear.
Televised election debates are no exception. All candidates must be given the same treatment. As a result, broadcasters say they will have to extend air time from an hour to 90 minutes to accommodate more than a dozen candidates in some constituencies. This compounds a clash with Olympics programming, with some debates having been moved from prime time to late evening while the Games continue.
Such debates provide an important forum for all candidates to explain their policy platforms and familiarise the public with their personalities and backgrounds. Established political figures have to share the forum with lesser-known candidates. While this is scrupulously fair, it makes for long, unwieldy debates. There are limits to the flexibility of TV programming - and viewers' attention spans. In any case, voter interest tends to be focused on the better known and more experienced candidates who have a more realistic chance of being elected.
The circumstances are peculiar to Hong Kong. That is not to say that other countries have perfect recipes for fair elections. Democracies elsewhere, for example, regularly fine-tune their systems. But without a stronger political party system, it is difficult for Hong Kong to adopt the solutions tried elsewhere. Political parties lie at the heart of the arrangements in Britain, Australia and Canada. The latter two fund the parties directly in proportion to votes won and the money helps fund campaign costs including party political broadcasts. This is on top of private and corporation donations that must comply with electoral laws. Britain does not fund them but allocates parties free time on TV according to their representation in Parliament.
If elections are dominated by a small number of strong political parties, it is easier to allocate air time between them in a way that is both fair and presents voters with clear choices. Hong Kong's more fragmented political environment, with many different parties, groups, and independent candidates competing, does not lend itself to such an approach. Hopefully, as our city's political system matures and our parties develop, this will become easier in the future. A political party law which enhances their status would help this process.
In the meantime, however, the sensible step would be to change the rules in order to give broadcasters more editorial flexibility, allowing them to make sensible decisions about the content of their programmes. The result would be more-focused and lively election coverage that better informs the public. There is no reason why this cannot be done objectively and fairly.