Public Service Broadcasting : The Case For Independence

2006-10-16
Director of Broadcasting, Mr Chu Pui Hing, speaking at UNESCO during the first Asia-Europe Media Dialogue.
  The 1st Media Dialogue between Asia-Pacific and European broadcasters was held at the UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France from 11th September till 13th September 2006. More than 300 media professionals met and discussed a variety of issues relating to today’s ever changing media environment, including how to promote and respect cultural diversity; how to ensure editorial independence amidst this time of digital revolution and worldwide tension bought about by globalization; how independent Pubic Service Broadcasting can secure pluralism and freedom of expression; how to empower the citizens through community media and how to ensure journalists' safety in times of war as well as peace.
  Mr. Chu Pui Hing, Director of Broadcasting, Radio Television Hong Kong, used the only PSB in Hong Kong - RTHK, as a case study to depict the struggle for independence in a civilized world. The following is an abstract of Mr. Chu's presentation.

* * * * * * *

  Thank you for this opportunity to relate a story about independence in public service broadcasting.
  RTHK is a government department. Despite that, we have enjoyed complete freedom of expression, and frequently rank as the most trusted media in Hong Kong.
The story I'm about to tell you concerns RTHK's long journey towards independence, and the reasons for it. But consider this: The Hong Kong Journalists Association just released a report entitled, “RTHK Under Siege”. Too strong...? Or spot on? You be the judge.

Dual Role
  For many years we have enjoyed de facto independence, but that independence has been threatened from time to time. It's been threatened by people, who, either through naivete or ideology, think a public broadcaster should serve the government rather than the public.
  I say naivete because some people assume that as a government department, RTHK should naturally serve the interests of the government. And ideology, because some people see PSBs through the prism of One Country - Two Systems, and they assign more emphasis to One Country than Two Systems.
  As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong is still a community trying to define itself, not by geography, but by something larger: The demands of One Country - Two Systems. That is the model adopted by China to ensure that Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the handover in 1997. And that's part of the case for independent public service broadcasting in Hong Kong.
  I'm sure many of you will be surprised that, given the evolution of PSB around the world, we are still having this debate about public vs. government accountability in Hong Kong. But we are, and much of it is being done behind closed doors.

Controversies
  Let me draw your attention to a few incidents that are instructive of this tussle.
In 1998, not long after the Handover, a Hong Kong delegate to China’s top advisory body - the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference - openly accused RTHK of being a “remnant of British rule”. Then, in 1999, an official with China’s representative office in Hong Kong criticized us for a radio commentary on the “two states” theory, alleging that RTHK had allowed its airtime to be used to promote Taiwanese independence.
  In the middle of these controversies, the former head of RTHK, my predecessor, was posted out of the station to a government position in Tokyo towards the end of 1999. But the debate on how RTHK exercises its editorial control continued....
In 2001, the then Chief Executive of Hong Kong made a comment about a RTHK TV programme, describing the satirical piece as being in “bad taste”. Just last year, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, while campaigning for the position, expressed dissatisfaction over certain strands of RTHK programming, which he said should be left to commercial broadcasters. Then a couple of months ago, controversy erupted again with Mrs. Anson Chan appearing on RTHK for a four-day radio blog. Mrs. Chan is Hong Kong’s ex-Chief Secretary, who joined a mass demonstration on 1 July this year. And for some months, she had everyone guessing about whether she would run in next year’s Chief Executive election.

PSB Review
  The Hong Kong government - this year in fact - launched a review on public service broadcasting. The review was described as not pinpointing RTHK but it asked, inter alia, whether PSBs were even justified in this day and age. RTHK was not consulted about the launch of the review, and in fact, only learned of it from sources a few days before the announcement was to be made.
  In parallel to this development, the government ordered an audit of RTHK, with the final report to be released during the very time the Review Committee would be conducting its work. Critics said like the proverbial train going into the tunnel, you didn’t have to be Fellini to figure that one out. In April of this year, the Audit Commission delivered a scathing report about RTHK’s operation, criticizing RTHK’s “Culture of non-compliance” with government regulations.
  Now in each of the aforementioned cases, the station’s opponents would argue there was a common theme: the apple was rotten at the core. RTHK, operating as an independent public broadcaster, should NOT be so independent. But that does not accord with what the PSB review committee has been hearing.
  In its summary released in March, the committee said there was consensus among those consulted on the value of, and justification for, public service broadcasting in Hong Kong. Respondents said a PSB should contribute to pluralism in opinion and creative expression.
  Indeed, these findings were buttressed by a Chinese University survey carried out in May. The survey indicated that 76 percent of respondents support the need for a public service broadcaster in Hong Kong. More than 80 percent believe RTHK should serve as a watchdog over government.
  So to our relief, consensus appears to be emerging in the community. The majority view supports the case for independent public service broadcasting.
  In a way, the review committee’s recommendation should be simple - make RTHK independent. It should be simple because we have been down this path before. In 1985, a broadcasting review board recommended just such a course of action. It was shelved in 1992 as a result of disagreement in discussions in the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group. Back then there were all sorts of worries about a smooth transition after the Handover. But as we approach the 10th anniversary of the Handover, I think most people would agree Hong Kong has managed the transition pretty well.
  But even as we look at the simple concept of turning RTHK into an independent public broadcaster, it’s paramount to get the detailed arrangement right.

Our Wish List
  Permit me a short wish list, drawn up with reference to international best practices.
  On governance, the public service broadcaster should have a charter, which could take the form of legislation.
  On selecting the board of governors, we are proposing a board with wide representation, comprising members from sectors like education, the arts and academia. Board members should be appointed through a process of nomination or election held amongst community groups.
  On financing, we strongly believe that funding should be stable, predictable and sustainable. The existing format - an annual budget allocation - is NOT sustainable. We should be looking at a longer funding cycle, perhaps three to five years. It would also be worth considering alternative sources to a government grant such as sponsorship, donations or revenue from sales of programs and products.
  On accountability, we would expect to make periodic reports to the public or the legislature. RTHK should ensure that it continues to produce high-quality programmes while using public funds in an efficient & effective manner.
  No matter how the future public broadcaster is configured, the goal would be to maintain the public trust that RTHK has earned throughout 78 years of broadcasting. After all, independent public service broadcasting is simply the means to the end: that being public trust.
  People have trust in RTHK because the facts have been checked and the data verified. With more content available than ever before, people expect RTHK journalism and program making to be a source of trust.
  It is content and editorial values that distinguish us. As Pat Mitchell, the former head of PBS in the United States put it, "Public trust is the rating that matters most". And that's the case for independent public service broadcasting.
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