Fining the failed broadcaster ATV will only leave less money to pay overdue staff wages

Now’s the time Hong Kong’s broadcasting regulators to intervene on behalf of station’s employees before creditors claim last of the available funds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 February, 2016, 12:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 2:59pm

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung once warned that, in the public interest, a free-to-air station must be competitive and financially sound to avoid any sudden ceasing of operations.

Those were the reasons he cited for rejecting a bid by Hong Kong Television Network’s chairman, Ricky Wong Wai-kay, for a free-to-air television licence in 2013. As it turned out, So has proved to be prescient about the danger; it’s just that he picked on the wrong firm.

The TV station he ought to have worried about was ATV, not HKTV.

Well ahead of the expiry of its licence in April, ATV is already on its death bed. It can’t pay staff who have understandably left en masse.

The station’s major creditor, Wong Ching, has applied to liquidate ATV. This is the same Wong who through his relative Wong Ben-koon, the station’s major stakeholder, ran it into the ground through sheer mismanagement and incompetence.

If Wong does succeed in his bid to liquidate the station, he would presumably use any asset sales to pay himself. Before this happens, I would argue So and the Communications Authority should step in to make sure ATV’s staff are paid before any creditors.

But we all know they would do no such thing, preferring to argue that these are private commercial dealings.

As the main regulators, So’s bureau and the authority intervene in the broadcasting market only when it suits them, such as when So rejected HKTV’s bid for a licence.

But if they have been such rigorous monitors and regulators, how did they not know about ATV’s troubles and decline when these have been common knowledge among industry insiders for years?

Now that ATV has failed, they themselves cannot evade responsibility.

But throughout this sorry saga, they have proved to be not only unhelpful, but positively destructive.

When ATV has been already cash-strapped and can’t even pay its staff, the regulators keep issuing warnings and imposing heavy fines. Since December 2011, ATV has been fined at least 16 times – totalling more than HK$4 million – over frequent delays in paying salaries and other licensing violations.

Mr So, there is no point in flogging a horse when it’s already dead.