Government's "politically flavoured" messages

Lisa Leung   Assistant Professor, Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University

Commercial Radio’s collaboration in an 18-part programme with the Democratic Alliance for Better Hong Kong (DAB) – purportedly for over $500,000 - sparked a public outcry over the radio station’s alleged breach of impartiality. But this was quickly swamped by outrage over another issue closer to the taxpayer’s pocket – government using public funds for its one-sided “Act Now” campaign on radio and television. The two issues are seemingly unconnected. But they are really two sides of the same coin. Both expose loopholes in the laws covering political campaigning. 

The present Radio Code of Practice on Advertising Standards promulgated by the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority provides that ‘unless with the prior approval of from the Broadcasting Authority, [radio stations] may not broadcast advertisements that carry political flavour’. Commercial Radio has obviously capitalized on the loopholes caused by the rigid narrow definitions of ‘advertisement’ as a distinct media genre, as well as the ambiguity of what constitutes ‘political flavour’. The DAB sponsored programme, according to them, does not constitute ‘advertisements’ under the Ordinance. Yet, judging from the contents of the first few episodes, with young DAB councilors appearing as host or hostesses, the way only DAB Legco members are interviewed, and how the slogan ‘DAB cares about you’ was often repeated in the programme, raised serious doubts that the programme did not perform the function of political advertising. An internal code of practice stipulated by Commercial Radio obliged producers to adopt ‘impartiality as appropriate’ in all programmes, and where sponsorship is present in certain programmes, the programme hosts should inform listeners about this, and that the name of the sponsor/product should not be mentioned too frequently. While the internal code of practice is not law abiding, an investigation by internal members of CR into possible violation of these codes would risk partiality. 

Emily Lau’s case, on the other hand, more closely edges on the conservative definition of ‘advertisements’. (Editor’s note: As at June 10th , the Broadcasting Authority received nine hundred and seven complaints about the sponsor programme and three hundred twenty two for Emily Lau’s time beat.) 

Ethics of fairness and impartiality

At issue is the media’s impartiality to preserve editorial independence. In this instance Commercial Radio seems to have violated public expectations of a radio station, as it appears not only to be giving in to “money politics” but by selling its airtime to a dominant political party, aggravates the existing bias against weaker political groups, and to be selling airwave which is regarded as public property, Commercial Radio is setting a dangerous precedent in sacrificing the public interest for private gains.

The remedy to this problem calls for a revamp of fundamental democratic principles of fairness and equity. According to US legislation, political parties can campaign for themselves for free on mainstream media during election times. However, most Western European countries, such as UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, impose strict regulations banning all forms of political advertisements from political parties. The idea is to prevent abuse by wealthier political parties, causing the public to suffer from imbalanced information. Some European countries, on the other hand, allow paid political advertising, but have clear guidelines regulating the duration and frequency of these advertisements.1 However, political parties are usually allowed to broadcast election ads for free on public service broadcasters during election times.2 Both cases show a different approach to the principles of equity, freedom of expression, and the public’s right to information. 

The swift advance in internet technology has enabled even the weaker, poorer political parties to set up websites to promote their causes to a wider audience. Yet the mainstream media remains the most popular media enjoyed by the majority of citizens, hence information that affects public interest and the country’s polity should be circulated to all and not slanted towards political and commercial powers. Some countries, like Macedonia, even go so far as adopting a price discrimination policy for political parties, based on the principles of equal opportunities and access. Political parties have to pay a charge proportional to its stated income and revenue. 

Need for political parties ordinance

The implementation of this principle is made difficult in Hong Kong because of a lack of legislation on political parties. Political parties are currently registered under the Companies Ordinance or Societies Ordinance which, technically, renders them political organizations or even pressure/lobby groups. One of the rationales for legislation on political parties is to enhance public accountability of these political parties, as they are required to detail sources of their sponsorship, thereby exposing the political affiliations of these parties. The legislation also would enable the mainstream media to establish a fairer pricing policy for political parties based on their financial status. 

The absence of such legislation, hence, has been much criticized as the government’s cooptation of wealthier political parties to hide dubious donations and sponsorship from business corporations or pro-government/ pro-Chinese Communist societies.3 It also leaves the public in the dark as to how rich some political parties are. The rumours that pro-Beijing parties and trade unions have been giving members freebies, such as treating them to banquets, and giving the elderly voters free rides to polling stations to win their votes reflect one of the problems with the lack of legislation monitoring the operation, financial backing, as well as activities of political parties. At this point of writing, there have been news that some “societies” are offering to pay $200 per person for those taking part in a demonstration in support of the government’s political reform package. 

The difficulties in stipulating laws governing political parties may be more political than technical, as seen from above. While the calls for such stipulation would inevitably face opposition from the parties concerned, this is only an added expediency to such legislation. There have been calls in the past to speed up the revision of legislation concerning political parties at a time when Hong Kong is heading towards direct election.  Although the recent scuffle over the political reform package raises doubt about when and how a genuine directly elected democracy could be realized , the timely designing and stipulation of a political parties ordinance could reflect our political maturity.

More importantly, it could enhance political parties’ transparency, at a time when the government has, at least on paper, pledged accountability within the governing mechanism. Such ordinance could also speed up the revision of present policies of political advertising which should reflect the public’s increasing political awareness, right to information, and adherence to democratic values such as freedom of expression and political consensus that is based on well informed discussion. 

Government should be governed

In a polity like Hong Kong where the government is not returned through direct election, I would even argue that the regulation of political advertising be extended to government advertisements ‘that carry political flavour’. (Editor’s note: As at June 10th, the BA received eighteen complaints about government’s Act Now campaign which is demonstrating.) This is to ensure fairness that could exert checks and balances to the present acute slant towards government and corporate interests in society. On the other hand, fairness could be realized in terms of diversity, that is, rather than falling back on an all-out ban, the government could allow all forms of political advertising to be broadcast on mainstream media. That would incur a decision on a paid political advertising policy, which favour over wealthier political parties should be avoided (unless the government is progressive enough to consider free advertising for all, which might invite problems of abuse of airtime by anyone who defines him/herself as ‘a political party’). Otherwise, the RTHK, which should continue to serve as a public service broadcaster, could fit the bill by allowing political particles to broadcast their ads for free. But some measures should be exerted to prevent abuse of these ‘free advertising’ slots by individuals who claim to be ‘political party’ for personal promotion. 

In any case, the stipulation of a ‘political parties ordinance’ is expedient, among the many hurdles, for a fairer pricing policy on political advertising. It is time the Broadcasting Authority moved to deliver its promise of a long-awaited, comprehensive media policy (like Telecommunications Ordinance, public service broadcasting, and Radio Licensing) that reflects a timely assessment of the media ecology, as well as sound political principles that would foster a healthy democratic polity. 

In the meantime, the public may have to resort to protest, either via internet or social action, against the commercial media’s breach of its social responsibilities, and inadequacies in government legislation.