The government should have the courage to reverse a wrong decision, said former Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang on Thursday morning.
Chan, speaking on a Commercial Radio programme, was referring to the government’s controversial decision to deny Hong Kong Television Network’s bid for a free-to-air TV licence, which have seen tens of thousands of protesters marching to government headquarters demanding an explanation.
“Members of the Executive Council can call for a fresh round of discussions to revisit the issue,” said Chan, who was the chief secretary during 1997-2001. “The government should have the courage to...reverse a wrong decision.”
Since the decision was announced on October 15, while the government has been yet to offer an explanation on why a licence cap was imposed, various Executive Councillors have made comments either shirking from responsibility or criticising the government’s handling.
Exco convenor Lam Woon-kwong said that the power to make the final decision lay with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, while Exco member Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun said the government should have offered a better explanation.
Chan said the contrasting comments suggested that the decision to decline Ricky Wong Wai-kay’s application may have faced opposition within the Exco.
“It is possible that some of the non-official members may be in favour of issuing three licences, according to what they had said after the announcement,” said Chan.
Trying to explain the decision, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung previously said a “gradual and orderly” approach had to be taken to prevent over-competition in the free TV market.
But Chan, who joined the civil service in 1962 and served as the government's No 2 from 1997 to 2001, said: “In a free market economy, the government is not in a position to determine what over-competition is.”
According to consultancy reports exposed by the media, ATV is likely to be expelled from the market upon the introduction of new players.
But Chan said ATV’s survival will be put to the test in two years’ time anyway.
“There will be a strong social backlash if ATV’s licence is renewed. You have to persuade people why a renewal is justified,” Chan said of the due date in 2015. “Why should it survive? It loops a lot of programmes every day.”
Until the television licensing row broke out, the city had never taken the approach of "gradual and steady development" in policymaking, she said
Chan said she had never come across the concept in her decades in public service. "It has never been in the public domain until recently," she said yesterday.
She was referring to the government's use of the term "gradual approach" in explaining its rejection of HKTV's free-television licence application.
Officials have refused to explain why they granted only two licence applications, citing the Executive Council's confidentiality rule.
Criticism has mounted as leaked documents revealed officials had no reason not to issue all three licences. And when the government indicated in 1998 it would open up the television market, it said there would be no cap on the number of licences it would grant.
She said there were no discussions about limiting the number of players, and that if the government was to change the policy, it had to consult the public. "You need to explain … and give [people] an opportunity to comment, and then make a decision in light of public opinion," she said.
By changing the rules of the game, the administration had set a bad precedent for business, she said. "It ties in with what businesspeople have treasured about Hong Kong - there's continuity in government policies. You don't chop and change every day."
Recent media exposés of Exco deliberations suggest the council overturned the Broadcasting Authority's recommendation to issue three licences.
If their views really clashed, the chief executive and Exco should have returned the issue to the government body instead of pressing ahead with a decision, Chan, convenor of pro-democracy group Hong Kong 2020, said. Referring to pre-handover practice, she said: "[A] bureau would look at an issue, make recommendations and appear before Exco to explain … If there was a divergence of views … the governor would ask for the paper to be withdrawn for the policy bureau to … look at the issue again in light of [members'] comments.
"Then [it would] resubmit the paper … Then … there would be further discussion [before] coming to a consensus."
Chan urged Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung to explain the case instead of "hiding behind the cloak of the confidentiality rule".
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, former secretary for commerce, industry and technology, recently wrote in a newspaper article that any decision related to public interest had to be "made by an organisation independent of the government" and any policy change had to "go through a fresh round of public consultation".
Video: HKTV supporters gather at Hong Kong government to protest against failed licence bid for second night