Hongkongers need an independent public broadcaster to vent their frustrations

Albert Cheng says the sorry state of our digital radio service offers a chance for an operator to step in and create a truly public service that can help ease social tensions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2016, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2016, 7:18pm

All three commercial digital audio broadcasters have, one after another, surrendered their licences. Some pundits suggest that this spells the end of digital radio in Hong Kong. They miss the point. This is actually a blessing in disguise.

Digital Broadcasting Corporation, Metro Broadcast and Phoenix URadio have returned to the authorities a total of 13 wavelength bands designated for digital radio. Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung is supposed to spend the next six months mulling over what to do with these resources.

As another Hong Kong broadcaster gives up on digital radio, when will the trigger finally be pulled on this idea?

This is a golden opportunity for Hong Kong to develop a genuine public broadcasting system that can allow civil society to flourish. Apart from the trio, the government broadcaster, RTHK, has also been given five digital audio bands. Taken together, these 18 digital channels can be used for alternative and innovative programming to make a difference.

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Before Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, the colonial authorities came up with a bold plan to transform RTHK from a government department into an independent public broadcaster. The proposal, which aimed to enhance editorial independence and improve the management structure, was recommended by the then Broadcasting Review Board in the 1980s. In 1990, the government commissioned a study to look into the legislative changes needed.

Sadly, the plan was flatly rejected by a core group of RTHK people eager to cling to their generous civil service terms. This was selfish. Opponents of the plan should be held responsible for RTHK’s current sorry state of affairs.

The failure of the three commercial digital broadcasters has presented Hong Kong with a second chance

Now, ironically, the failure of the three commercial digital broadcasters has presented Hong Kong with a second chance. The 18 channels should be assigned to a new independent operator. Only limited public funds would be needed to maintain the public broadcast service. All it would take is capital investment for a new public broadcasting centre. Unlike in the case of RTHK, taxpayers would not have to spend a fortune on wages and staff benefits to come up with programmes to fill the airtime.

Such a public broadcaster should only air content designed and produced by non-governmental entities, including student bodies, voluntary agencies, local communities, political parties, or anybody out there with a message to get across.

Ethnic minorities could come up with shows in their native tongues on topics of concern. The disabled and chronically ill could share their stories of adversity, while conservationists could promote how to keep nature healthy. Feminists, environmentalists, animal lovers, religious bodies, politicians of all stripes, you name it, would be entitled to be heard through a public digital broadcasting service.

An independent panel of respected community leaders could act under the law as guardians. Their intervention should be kept to a minimum, advising on how to prioritise the content generated by the airwave users. They would also need to maintain public morals and reject illegal content. There should not be any political censorship.

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RTHK could have played this role, made possible by digital technology. The station’s management and its masters at Tamar have chosen not to do so. It is a shame that Hong Kong, as a metropolis of over seven million people, is served by only three conventional radio stations, most of whose output is, to put it politely, run-of-the-mill.

We should start planning for a Hong Kong public broadcasting service without further delay. The bad news is that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is not known for his tolerance of diverse views. He cannot be expected to find the idea of free public access to the airwaves palatable. The good news is that Leung’s days as chief executive are numbered. Any aspirants to the job must realise that suppression of voices is no longer an option for a society on the brink of exploding. A public broadcasting service is not just a nice-to-have option for Hong Kong; it would be a political lifesaver to help people vent growing grievances before they reach a point of no return.

Albert Cheng King-hon is the founder, ex-shareholder and ex-chairman of DBC. [email protected]