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11 November 2011

Hong Kong “Public Media” – Here to Stay, and Growing Larger

Public broadcasting in Hong Kong, the focus of much current debate, is set to grow in the near future, JMSC students were told by a trio of visiting broadcasters.

Left to right: Chris Dobson and Cliff Bale

Fears have been expressed in recent years about possible government interference in Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), Hong Kong’s public broadcaster.

Chris Dobson of RTHK noted that the station operates as “an independent government department under the Broadcasting Authority”.

Addressing a crowded lecture room on October 31, Dobson pointed out that despite being government funded, RTHK to date “has a reputation of maintaining editorial independence”.

Cliff Bale, head of RTHK’s English-language newsroom, told the students that the Broadcasting Authority charter guarantees the station’s independence from government interference.  He also pointed out that staff at RTHK decide on the programming and which stories to cover. It has always been RTHK’s practice to have a plurality of views, Bale said.

The session was the second of four presentations in the Monday Morning Lecture Series – Key Industry Insiders Talk at JMSC.

In addition to Dobson, who moderated the discussion, and Bale, participants included Jim Gould, producer at RTHK Radio and also executive producer of the station’s English-language TV section, and Miklos Sukosd, associate professor at the JMSC.

Dobson began the discussion by tracing the history of the BBC, the world’s first public broadcaster. RTHK follows the BBC’s template and standards for public service, he said.

Bale, the second speaker, gave a historical account of RTHK’s evolution from, prior to 1973, a department charged with disseminating government information, to its current status as a public broadcaster with an independent editorial board.

Bale talked about the future, saying that RTHK will be starting its digital radio broadcasts next month. One CCTV station plus the existing four RTHK AM stations will be going out digitally, he said.

Other plans for RTHK are the roll-out of its own fully fledged TV channel (on digital TV) by 2014 and a move to its new headquarters in Tseung Kwan O around 2018.  This will require a huge increase in budget and many more staff, Bale concluded.

Gould used his many years at the BBC to compare it and RTHK.  What stood out in the comparison was the difference in workload of the two staffs. Where four people at the BBC might make a five-minute lunchtime news segment, Gould said, he alone does a 15-minute news segment at RTHK.

Gould said RTHK’s high standing in the community gives the station access to important people in the news. He illustrated his point by showing an interview with Regina Ip, the then-secretary of security, that the station was able to obtain at a very difficult time for her in 2003.

RTHK introduced English subtitling in its TV programmes under Gould’s watch. He attributed the idea to Michael Tien, then a member of the standing committee on English-language usage. The purpose was to encourage the use of English in Hong Kong.

Gould also talked about the challenge for RTHK to produce programmes for its own fully fledged station and for the broadcaster’s increasing web presence.

Miklos Sukosd

The final speaker, Sukosd, questioned continued use of the term “public service broadcasting”.

Instead, he suggested, a better term would be “public service media”, emphasising the prevalence of digital and online platforms in today’s journalism.

Sukosd, from Hungary, has recently co-authored a chapter in a book about public service television in the European Union.

He said that, on average, Western European television stations enjoy a 40% audience share. However, public service television stations in the post-communist countries of East Central Europe have a declining share, currently only about 20%, as audiences lose trust because of governments’ political interference with programming policy.

Sukosd said that public service media are being challenged by commercial media. He explained the democratic and ecological arguments for the existence of public service media: public service media should service the public interest and educate people about a more sustainable lifestyle in the interest of society as a whole.

Financing, according to Sukosd, will affect the form of public service media in the future. He explained the pros and cons of  the four options of financing: ad-based; public subscription; direct government funding and public funding based on a fixed percentage of GDP.

A point made by Bale about working at RTHK was particularly relevant to the students in the audience.  He  said that “jobs will become available over the next few years”, and “because of civil service contracts”, RTHK is a good place to work.