RTHK──Mission Possible?


  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 general."

  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.

  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 media environment.

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 population.

  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.

Enhanced Productivity

  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."

(An abridged version of this article, entitled "Broadcasting with a clear Vision", was published in the South China Morning Post on 26 November, 2001)

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