RTHK staff must let their new chief Leung Ka-wing get on with his job

Yonden Lhatoo says staff at the public broadcaster should not let outsized fears over editorial independence stop them working with the new director to improve it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 11:20pm

Let's get this straight: RTHK is no sacred cow. Hong Kong's public broadcaster is not a fully independent entity and a law unto itself, although it certainly functions like one. It's essentially a government department, so the administration has the right to oversee and appoint its managers.

It's also entirely funded by us, the taxpayers, so the public has a right to know how its money is being spent on running this ageing behemoth of a media organisation. Big changes and challenges are coming for RTHK against the backdrop of a media industry in which it's survival of the fittest now.

Look at the blunders by far bigger and better companies than ATV throughout the history of journalism worldwide. Let him without sin cast the first stone

Our public broadcaster's employees are well paid and pretty much guaranteed annual salary increases along with other civil servants. Contract workers are hired on generous terms and regularly absorbed into the civil service with all the job security and perks of joining the government work force. They're strongly unionised, as well, which empowers them to resist change.

But they might want to look at how harsh life has become in the private sector to appreciate their good fortune. In case the good people at RTHK don't know yet, outside their Kowloon Tong headquarters, newspapers and television stations are cutting costs, lowering pay grades, and laying off staff. It's a real struggle for survival out there.

So enough with all the commotion about editorial independence and political interference every time a new director of broadcasting is appointed.

I feel sorry for former director Roy Tang Yun-kwong, who had to walk on a black carpet through the gauntlet of hostile employees when he turned up for the first day of his job in September 2011. He was editor-in-chief of a media organisation who could not make any editorial decision without triggering a hue and cry about interference. He was never given a chance because he had no journalistic experience and was essentially a career bureaucrat on a government posting.

Well, now they've got someone with plenty of media experience. The new director, Leung Ka-wing, is a well-respected veteran of the industry with a career spanning 40 years in television, internet broadcasting, publishing and teaching.

But looking at their initial feedback and most of the media coverage, you'd think his only claim to fame was his short stint as the news chief when ATV aired an erroneous report in 2011 that former president Jiang Zemin had died.

Get over it, for God's sake. Which media organisation has never made a serious mistake? Look at the blunders by far bigger and better companies than ATV throughout the history of journalism worldwide. Let him without sin cast the first stone.

READ MORE: ATV Crew Deserve Our Respect

Leung has his work cut out for him, from making sure an ill-prepared RTHK is able to fill in the spectrum when ATV's licence expires next April to leading the public broadcaster into a new era of digital radio and television. Key to that is justifying the need for a new headquarters that will cost us, the taxpayers, an arm and a leg. Lawmakers have already rejected its attempt to secure HK$6.1 billion in funding because, let's face it, that's too much. Many would say RTHK doesn't deserve that kind of money.

Leung will also have to keep in mind that he's now in a completely different environment and work culture from what he's used to in the private sector. He needs to learn and adapt, just as RTHK staff will have to give him time and full cooperation, if they are to build a better public broadcaster and improve the quality of programming.

RTHK staff need not worry about editorial independence. For a government department, they already get away with murder when it comes to attacking and criticising their employer, the administration. Their press freedom and journalistic integrity are highly visible, and the public are behind them. I don't think anyone - especially not their new director - will mess with that.

Those who insist on politicising everything will have to shape up or ship out. If it's going to be the latter, good luck out there in the private sector.

Yonden Lhatoo, a senior editor at the Post, was head of English news at ATV while Leung Ka-wing was news chief