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LC: Speech by SCIT on Motion Debate on Public Service Broadcasting Policy

Following is a speech by the Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology, Mr Joseph W P Wong, on the motion debate on Public Service Broadcasting Policy in the Legislative Council today (February 8):

Madam President, I am very grateful for Members’ invaluable opinions regarding the motion and amendments. The policy of public service broadcasting (PSB) is a very important subject. I am pleased to respond to Members’ views and explain the Government’s position and views at this stage on some important principles and recommendations.

My predecessor has already explained in detail the background and rationale for the Government’s decision to appoint an independent committee to review PSB in Hong Kong in a comprehensive manner. In addition, I supplemented such whenever appropriate when responding to Members’ questions at the last meeting of the Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting of this Council. I do not intend to repeat myself on this occasion. I think the majority of, or maybe all Members of this Council, the media including Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), and the public agree that there is a need to review the policy of PSB so as to recommend the most suitable arrangement for the provision of such service. I hope all Members of this Council and members of the public who are interested in this subject would take a careful look at the terms of reference of the committee, which include :

  • to examine the role of, and justifications and public purposes for, PSB in the development of Hong Kong’s broadcasting market, against the public financial and other resources required for such broadcasting;
  • to identify issues concerning public accountability for PSB in matters of editorial impartiality, programming policy and good governance;
  • to identify measures for evaluating the effectiveness of PSB and arrangements through which the public can participate in such a process; and
  • to recommend an appropriate arrangement for the provision of PSB in Hong Kong.

The reason I took the time to reiterate the terms of reference of the Committee is to make it clear that it is a comprehensive review covering all areas of PSB, including policy, resources, management and governance, accountability and implementation details, etc. My immediate responsibility is to support the work of the Committee and to facilitate the Committee to collect the views of various sectors, including local and overseas experts with experience in PSB, and people of different strata of the Hong Kong community. I am confident that the Committee will conduct the review in a professional and pragmatic manner and make recommendations that are in the best interest of Hong Kong to the Government. To avoid unnecessary conjectures and misunderstanding, it is inappropriate for me to make specific suggestions on the roadmap of PSB at this stage.

Nevertheless, I will respond to Members’ views in respect of the following issues:

(a) defending the freedom of the press and freedom of speech;

(b) editorial independence;

(c) the role, functions and responsibilities of PSB;

(d) the recommendation to establish public access channels; and

(e) the recommendation to expedite the development of digital terrestrial broadcasting.

Defending freedom of the press and freedom of speech

Hong Kong is the freest city in the world. There are specific provisions in the Basic Law to guarantee the freedom of Hong Kong citizens in various respects. For example, BL 27 clearly states that Hong Kong citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom is the root of the well being of Hong Kong citizens and the cornerstone of the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong SAR Government has an unshirkable responsibility to protect the freedom of Hong Kong citizens according to the law. I am confident that the independent committee will not come up with any conclusion that will undermine freedom of speech and of the press. There is absolutely no question of the Government making any decision that will affect citizens' freedom as a result of this review. The citizens of Hong Kong will never allow the freedoms that they so cherish, including press freedom and the freedom of speech, to be infringed upon in any way. Freedom of speech of course include people's right to criticise any organisation, including the Government and RTHK.

Editorial independence

Before I make my response in respect of editorial independence, I wish to highlight that according to the existing Framework Agreement between the Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology and Director of Broadcasting, RTHK is editorially independent. Of course, the Agreement goes beyond that. It includes many provisions such as the functions and responsibilities of RTHK, its mission and work plan, etc. What I am going to say is not therefore meant to direct at RTHK. I hope Members of this Council will not misconstrue my words. For the same reason, I will not respond to any views or speculations concerning RTHK. I would, however, like to make a general remark in response to the Hon Wong Kwok-hing's comments: I am mindful of the welfare and reasonable rights of RTHK staff, there is no need for them to be worried about the current PSB review.

I am convinced that during the review of PSB, we should tackle rather than dodge sensitive issues. We should probe into them and listen to different views. For example, some people hold the view that for the sake of safeguarding editorial independence, editorial decisions should only be accepted and cannot be challenged. Other people think that the editor cannot do whatever he likes within the framework of PSB.

Generally, editorial independence means that editors shall be independent of any commercial, political and vested interests in news reporting, commentaries and programme production. They shall selflessly serve the community including catering to the needs of the minority. This principle fits neatly into the editorial policy of PSB and should be affirmed.

However, apart from adhering to the general principles of impartiality, accuracy and fairness, should editorial independence be exercised within the remit of PSB’s role and objectives? Should there be a mechanism as part of the system of PSB to ensure that persons-in-charge or editors are accountable to the public?

Some people have mixed up the ideas of editorial independence and programming policy. For example, some suggest that based on the principle of editorial independence, providers of PSB should also have absolute freedom in determining the genres of programmes to be produced and the public has no right to discuss this subject. I wish to point out the relationship between programming policy and editorial independence. When formulating the programming policy of PSB, there is a need to ensure that the programming policy is consistent with the established role and positioning of PSB. After a programming policy is formulated, providers of PSB can then, based on the principle of editorial independence, produce different programmes in accordance with the programming policy. Programming policy is a very important element of the PSB system. Since PSB involves public expenditure, many people consider that programming policy and priority should reflect and fulfil the public functions and objectives of PSB. Many public service broadcasters overseas have re-defined their programming policy in recent years. When setting clear targets on the proportion of different programme genres, some public service broadcasters have emphasized on the production of distinctive public service programmes such as news, current affairs, arts and culture, education, technology, history, etc. while reducing the output of entertainment programmes. Some public service broadcasters have also established a mechanism to involve members of the public in determining programming policy and priority and assessing whether the broadcaster has adequately fulfilled its prescribed programming policy. I hope the Committee will consult people from different sectors on the contentious issues of editorial independence, accountability, and programming policy with a view to reach conclusions and recommendations that are in the best interest of Hong Kong.

Role, functions and responsibilities of PSB

In the light of the emergence of various broadcasting and new media services, there have been numerous international studies on the role and objectives of PSB. Issues discussed include:

  • how should the policy of PSB as well as its framework and financing model be updated in digital age?
  • Should PSB be financed by other sources in addition to public funding? What should be the relative proportion?
  • Should commercial organizations be allowed to participate in the provision of public service programming in addition to publicly-funded organization? What should be the relationship between them?
  • Should publicly-funded broadcasting organizations use public funds to produce programmes readily available in the market?
  • How to determine the programming policy and priority of PSB?

There are different models for the provision of PSB in different places. The functions of PSB also vary in the light of local situation. For example, providers of PSB in Australia and New Zealand have to cater to the needs of indigenous communities, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has to cater to the needs of the French-speaking community and preserve national culture. We therefore need to examine in detail the future role and objective of PSB and consult the public on this subject. Many people have already expressed their opinions on the functions of PSB in Hong Kong, including its role to support “One Country, Two Systems”, promote the Basic Law, cater for the needs of the minority and the socially disadvantaged, explain and promote government policies, safeguard Hong Kong’s core values, enhance social cohesion, strengthen Hong Kong citizens’ national awareness, etc. While the outcome of the review is still outstanding, the Government will not take position on these issues now. However, I believe that these diverse views are not necessarily antagonistic. They could be embracing and complementary.

Different places have different arrangements for the provision of PSB. In the Untied States, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) are public, non-profit-making broadcasting systems formed by a number of broadcasting stations. In the UK, there is Channel 4 in addition to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Channel 4 does not produce programmes but commissions programmes from over 300 independent producers.

The questions and facts I have just raised are meant to illustrate to Members of this Council and the public that there is a need to review comprehensively the existing role, functions and responsibilities of PSB in Hong Kong. And overseas experience can serve as our reference. I believe that the Committee will diligently consider Members’ invaluable views tendered in this debate. I urge Members to continue to forward your views to the Committee during the review.

Public access channel

Regarding the establishment of public access channels, the Government pointed out at the meeting of the Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting of this Council in last November that the situation in Hong Kong differs from that of other countries where the purpose of establishing public access or community channels is to complement national and regional broadcasting services. Unlike countries where there are public access or community channels, Hong Kong is a small place. In addition, existing broadcasting services provide many programmes to facilitate citizens to express and exchange opinions. However, I am pleased to consider the Committee’s views on the merits of providing public access or community channels in the context of the review of PSB.

Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting

The Government announced the framework for implementing digital terrestrial television broadcasting in July 2004. Based on the market-led principle, the two free-to-air television stations can select the technical standard for digital broadcasting. But they have to decide by 2006 so as to start digital broadcasting in 2007.

On the introduction of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) or digital multimedia broadcasting, we also follow the market-led principle. We will consider introducing such services when the prospect of DAB is clearer. We will continue to take stock of international development and, if necessary, commission further studies on the actual market situation and the prospect of different competing technologies to enable us to make the best assessment based on up-to-date information. In the meantime, we welcome trials of new applications on the frequencies reserved for DAB.

Conclusion

The Committee has commenced the review. It will widely consult different sectors in the community, including the Members of this Council and members of the public. I wish to reiterate that the Government does not have preconceived views. We will fully consider the Committee’s recommendations before deciding on the policy of PSB in Hong Kong as well as its role and the arrangement for its provision. We will also make sure that the decision is in the best interest of Hong Kong.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006