City Beat

New head of Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK can succeed with an open mind from the government

Leung Ka-wing has the credentials to handle the hot potato if administration keeps an open mind

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 12:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 12:58pm

More than a week has passed since Leung Ka-wing took over as head of government-funded broadcaster RTHK, an appointment that was well-received across the political spectrum. But before discussing the challenges this respected industry veteran faces, it would be useful to recap some history.

As a television journalist in the mid-90s, I was sent, one day, to cover an event at City Hall, at which a senior Beijing official was to appear. I’ve completely forgotten what the event was, but what happened is still vivid in my mind.

“We don’t agree with the privatisation of Radio Television Hong Kong,”  the central government official said. “If RTHK was a government branch before 1997, why would it not be so after the handover?”

Reporters were shocked. We did not expect the issue to come up, but immediately realised that – wow! – here was another thorny issue for the city’s transition: the future of a broadcaster that expected editorial independence yet belonged to the government.

The last colonial governor, Chris Patten,  planned to turn RTHK into a public broadcaster on the lines of the BBC. This triggered suspicion in Beijing, which concluded it was yet another “conspiracy” of the British to weaken the future administration.

All of a sudden, RTHK was at the eye of a political superstorm. Was it, after all, an official media outlet bound to defend and promote government policies. But – perhaps because London and Beijing had so many more pressing issues to tackle – the idea of privatisation went nowhere for the remainder of the governor’s term of office.

RTHK’s awkward status remains unresolved and to make matters worse, it has become a political hot potato, with many professionals from outside reluctant to take the helm in recent years, while the government refused to promote a new boss from within.

When Leung’s appointment was announced after almost a year of headhunting work, many were surprised. Rarely has any government appointment in recent years come without an outcry – yet this time, pan-democrats welcomed the move, seeing Leung as a professional who they hope can defend RTHK’s editorial independence while having the expertise to lead it into a new era of digital broadcasting.

Leung’s established journalistic credentials as a capable and very strict news executive at major commercial television stations, plus his experience in digitalisation, online operations and even the publishing business won him a warm welcome. There were concerns from some about his ability to resist political pressure, pointing to the fiasco over false reports of the death of former president Jiang Zemin  when he headed ATV news. Though an investigation by the communications watchdog would clear his name and conclude Leung was not to blame for the fiasco, Leung tendered his resignation the very next day.

Leung knows better than anyone that the apparent “honeymoon” may not last too long, since he has stepped into a scorching hot “kitchen”.

It is said some people have an “original sin” theory, which holds that no matter how worthy of respect someone used to be, anyone willing to join the government at this time can be considered “doubtful”.

Time will tell whether such a theory is fair. But as one who once worked under Leung, I have no doubt about his integrity and political wisdom in handling complicated situations without compromising his firm journalistic principles.

But Leung can only succeed with a supportive team and an open-minded government

One little story of his time at ATV could serve as a reference. When Leung insisted that television news should not be mixed up with paparazzi-style entertainment, top management from Taiwan listened and accepted his point: problem solved. But when Leung later insisted no commercial element whatsoever should be inserted into any news broadcast, the top management refused to listen and conflicts arose; Leung never gave up.

RTHK is a “Hong Kong brand”, as Leung describes it. To keep it as a quality public broadcaster, the government also needs to accept professional advice and allow it be run professionally, instead of taking it as its natural “mouthpiece”.

Tammy Tam was China Editor of TVB, then Vice-President of ATV when Leung was news chief