Like all public broadcasters,
and indeed all media organisations, RTHK occasionally finds itself making
the news rather than merely relaying it. It is not something I greatly
welcome, in particular when it happens frequently but simply it is something
that comes with the job. When it happens, it reinforces our responsibility
to account for our output, and, if necessary, to take action to improve
the way we operate. And at times like these, Eleanor Roosevelt's advice
is always welcome : "Do what you feel in your heart to be right -
for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned
if you don't."
RTHK is far from being the new kid on the block. We have been around for
more than seventy years and, like the community we serve, we have changed
enormously along the way. In a very real sense, RTHK is what it is today
- a public broadcasting organisation with editorial freedom - only because
the sophisticated and outward-looking city which Hong Kong has become
wants it to operate this way.
How good is Public Broadcaster ?
In recent years - and not just in Hong Kong - there has been spirited
debate about whether public broadcasters still have a place in the multi-media
world of today. Obviously, we at RTHK believe they do and we hope our
daily output reinforces our argument. International management consultants
McKinsey's, who conducted a global survey of public broadcasting, put
the case for public broadcasters rather well : "Public service broadcasters
are just as relevant today - and probably in fact they are more relevant
than ever before. .......and the better the quality of the public broadcaster,
the better will be the quality of the country's broadcasting system in
So, just how good, or bad a broadcaster is RTHK? A recent survey of the
Hong Kong media conducted by the Chinese University's School of Journalism
and Communication placed us in first place amongst the electronic media
in terms of credibility. RTHK also achieved second place overall when
all the local newspapers and magazines were included. One of the organisers,
Associate Professor Dr. Clement So, commented that RTHK "offers the
diversity and balance that commercial stations may not. It has enriched
the choice of the audience". Encouragingly, the survey also concluded
that public confidence in Hong Kong's media and freedom of the press has
risen significantly in the past three years.
RTHK is a public broadcasting organisation
with editorial freedom.
The Director of Broadcasting is the Editor-in-Chief of RTHK.
The sheer mass of our output of over 950 hours of radio programming each
week, and ten hours of television, however, means that it is simply not
possible for any director to scrutinize every programme personally. So
how does our system work? Well, we operate a well-tried and tested process
in which programme-makers are encouraged to seek advice at an early stage
from their supervisors. What we firmly believe is that a sound consultation
and referral system helps programme-makers to arrive at decisions about
difficult editorial issues. The more important and contentious the issue
is, the higher up it should be referred, all the way, when necessary,
to the director himself. Some years ago, we realised that our system of
editorial checks and balances, our working practices, needed to be codified
and this led, in 1998, to the publication of our first set of Producers'
Guidelines. These contain what we believe are the best, most relevant
working principles adhered to by leading public broadcasters around the
world, together with a number of guidelines which are unique to Hong Kong's
Subject of Controversy
Two recent events have again focussed the media spotlight on RTHK. The
first was a by now famous - some critics say infamous - episode of our
Chinese television programme Headliner. It's undoubtedly true to say that
Headliner has, on occasion, been the subject of controversy over the years.
This, I believe, has arisen because any worthwhile programme, part of
whose intent is to highlight current political and economic issues by
infusing them with humour and satire, has a tendency to push the boundaries
of taste, sometimes even to the limits of what some people might find
acceptable. Think back to those celebrated, and highly controversial,
British productions "Not the Nine O'Clock News" in the seventies
and "Spitting Image" in the eighties. And more recently, "Have
I Got News For You" and "Brass Eye". Beside these, Headliner
might seem positively benign.
We do not broadcast Headliner because we hope it might offend someone,
but because we, and the community at large according to many surveys,
conclude that humour really is a very good medicine, particularly in times
of economic gloom and hardship.
In the Television Audience Appreciation Index Survey for the last quarter,
Headliner was ranked number six amongst 99 programmes produced by local
stations. It is one of the many RTHK programmes which has helped us achieve
a leading position with an average appreciation score of 74.99 (out of
100), ahead of all the other local stations. However, I would readily
acknowledge that matters of taste are highly subjective, and virtually
impossible to measure quantitatively. We are commissioning a survey to
gauge the public's response to satirical productions and these findings
will be evaluated carefully. We shall employ a "focus group"
approach, which is commonly used for marketing research, and I believe
this will produce useful results.
Debate over Corporatisation
The comments surrounding the Headliner debate also highlight,
yet again, the conflicting views that are prevalent in our community about
the role of a public broadcaster. Those of us who have been around long
enough will remember the debate a decade and a half ago about whether
RTHK should be corporatised. Proponents of the idea argued for RTHK to
become an independent corporation, hived off from government, so that
it could achieve more flexibility, and more cost-efficiency, in its operation.
But above all, there was the idea that it simply was not enough for a
public broadcaster to have editorial independence; it needed to be seen
to be so, and this would be achieved by corporatisation. Judging from
the recent round of debate, the division now appears to have more to do
with what RTHK is expected to do, rather than the public perception about
its editorial autonomy.
The Hong Kong model for providing a public broadcasting service is unique,
which might help to explain why there are diametrically opposite expectations
about what RTHK should produce and provide. Unlike some of the very well-established
and respected public broadcasters like the BBC and NHK, which are primarily
funded via a license fee system, RTHK is funded directly by an annual
government allocation, and operates as a department of the SAR government.
Spirit of Producers' Guidelines
Governments exist to serve their people. To that extent, I would argue
that there are no inherent contradictions about an arm of government providing
a broadcasting service to and for the people of the SAR. In the last couple
of decades, RTHK has, with the help of many academics and social critics,
spent quite some effort in promoting the concept of public broadcasting.
Again, if surveys in recent years are to be believed, and I do think they
provide a pretty good indication of where public moods lie, our role as
a public broadcaster is extremely well supported by a great majority of
The second, and we maintain much more trivial matter which hit the news,
related to the resignation of a recently recruited Radio 3 producer on
what was allegedly an issue of interference with editorial independence.
As we stated at the time, we strongly disagree. All that happened was
that one episode of Letter to Hong Kong was rescheduled - albeit at fairly
short notice, which is not exactly uncommon in the news business - for
another more timely and newsworthy one. The contributor who was rescheduled
to a spot two weeks down the line did not mind and said he had no idea
what all the fuss was about. Senior RTHK news editors were pleased that
the switch had been made possible by a prompt editorial decision. Sadly,
one Radio 3 producer was not happy.
The editorial chain of a media organisation comprises people with different
characters and viewpoints. RTHK's editorial process is highly transparent.
As much as we respect the right of any colleague to state his or her views,
and in the current case, choosing to do this as an open challenge, our
senior editors also hope that their side of the story will be heard. I
believe the right decision has been made, in accordance with the spirit
of the RTHK Producers' Guidelines.
In a media organisation, reporters and producers have to accept that their
editors have the final say on what items are covered and how they are
covered. Editors do not take the impact of their decisions lightly. The
process has nothing to do with interference. It is proper editorial control.
Without it there would not be freedom, but anarchy.
Another angle to look at is whether editors make their decisions, deliberately
or inadvertently, under the undue influence of outside pressure. A central
focus of concern in recent years has in fact to do with perceived self-censorship
within the media. Although I recognise this as a well-intentioned concern,
I think there is no need for over-sensitivity. Editorial decisions are
a judgment call. A veteran media critic once told me that he would not
worry about any lack, or erosion, of press freedom in Hong Kong, because
simply that was not the case. It was rather how we in the media made good
use of the freedom we had. I agree and that is why I have been as concerned
about the calibre of people whom we are able to attract and retain as
I have been the standard and quality of output.
Like all other organizations which do not have an inclination to commit
suicide, RTHK is not sitting on its hands and ignoring the inexorable
pressures for change. The McKinsey's survey I mentioned earlier also produced
a finding that "the most successful public service broadcasters looked
to modernising their operations, reducing overheads, and looking for new
areas of activity." Despite a reduction in our budget (the government's
"Enhanced Productivity Programme" asked for a cut of five percent
over three years), we have been able to increase output hours and expand
the range of our services.
Since becoming the first local broadcaster to go online in 1994, we have
regularly added new features to our web page, which has a substantial
following among overseas Chinese communities who are keen to keep in touch
with what is happening in Hong Kong. Our daily hit rate has just topped
five million, and fifty per cent are from overseas. In our latest web
initiative, our news output, in Chinese and English, can now be downloaded
to PDAs, and we offer free news subscription on e-mail. We aspire to be
a leading player in the new media environment and have doubled our financial
commitment to it over the past two years.
Apart from our principal function of delivering radio and TV programmes,
RTHK is also an active participant in the less visible nexus of international
broadcasting organizations. Recently, the war on terrorism forced a last
minute switch in the venue of the General Assembly meeting of the Asia-Pacific
Broadcasting Union. Hong Kong stepped into the breach and RTHK hosted
an abbreviated but highly successful conference attended by more than
one hundred and twenty delegates from over fifty countries and territories
in the region. Next year, we will be hosting the annual conference of
Public Broadcasters International, a group of ten years' stature, and
probably the most representative of its kind.
Key Performance Indicators
In recent years, there has been a surging demand from the community at
large for more public sector accountability. An advantage arising from
our activities in the international broadcasting arena is the opportunity
to join an effort to produce a benchmark for measuring the effectiveness
of public broadcasting. Major broadcasters have embarked on an exercise
to define what are termed "key performance indicators". These
will include measurements like cost per listener, viewership, etc. RTHK
has already devised its own performance indicators but the latest exercise
will mean we are able to improve the existing system, moving closer to
an internationally agreed standard. The effort will further enhance the
transparency and accountability of our operation.
Like most organizations these days, RTHK has formulated a Vision and Mission
Statement to help us focus on what we are meant to be doing and to help
us get there. Our bottom line though is to provide a credible and appealing
mix of programming to the people of Hong Kong. We know we are sure to
face bumps in the road ahead. But now, as in the past, our belief and
sentiment could best be summed up in a statement taken from our Guidelines
: "There can never be editorial autonomy without responsibility,
freedom without restraint."
■CHU Pui Hing
Director of Broadcasting
(An abridged version of this article,
entitled "Broadcasting with a clear Vision",
was published in the South China Morning Post
on 26 November, 2001)