A Storm over "The Headliners" – or the Last Straw that Broke the Trust in the Director of Broadcast

By a staff member of RTHK  (Translated by Clara Lai)

As a member of Radio Television Hong Kong, I am lost and confused by a series of events that happened to the broadcaster recently. Lost, because I no longer have confidence in our editor-in-chief; and confused because room for freedom is being narrowed.

On a recent Saturday morning I read some newspaper reports that RTHK’s editor-in-chief, who is also the Director of Broadcasting, plans to replace the two major hosts of “The Headliners," Ng Chi-sum and Tsang Chi-ho, because they often criticize the government. I was taken aback by the reports and the idea that the program, which has always been seen as a “thorn,” may be debilitated by the authorities.

However, while threats of censure have always come from outside RTHK in the past, it now may be coming from inside the company. It is also particularly worrisome this time as there have already been reports saying that "some people" wanted to kick host Ng Chi-sum out of the long-running phone-in show, "Open Line, Open View”. These reports have made me anxious and I fear that some self-appointed censors have emerged in RTHK.

There were more newspapers reports on the controversy of “The Headliners” the following week. Nevertheless, our director has yet to come forward to clear the air and remove public concerns, making the RTHK staff very worried. It was only a week later that the director finally convened a staff meeting to "clarify" the matter. However, not only did the meeting fail to clear our doubts, but it also caused more questions to be raised and disappointment amongst us. Worse still, it has ignited queries about the director’s integrity.

Muddying the Waters

I have always regarded such staff meetings as optional in the past, but this time, I know it is a “must-go.” The director kick-started the meeting with a lengthy 20-odd minute narrative dismissing criticism that he wasn’t trying to avoid either members of the "SaveRTHK Campaign" or the public. He then repeatedly emphasized that he is somebody who dares to face criticism, loves open and honest dialogue with his staff, and that “his door is always open”.

As regards the newspaper reports, he dismissed them as mere “groundless works of sensationalism”. He particularly pointed out that reports about “the Headliners” had distorted the facts, arguing that any discussions that he’d had with his staff over the programme were constructive mutual exchanges of views that have been clearly recorded in the minutes of those meetings. By having those discussions, he argued that he was “painstakingly” trying to improve the programme. The director then tried to ease our concerns by talking about the RTHK Charter that he had signed with the government on behalf of RTHK, saying that it was worked out in the most serious manner and has taken into account 80 to 90 percent of the opinions expressed by RTHK staff. The charter, he said, has clearly delineated the relationship between RTHK and its Advisory Board.

The director’s long rebuttal and lecture on principles was followed by the highlight of the meeting – question time. Obviously his defense of the charter has not made it less controversial amongst our colleagues, many of whom questioned why he had signed it with the government in a "secretive" manner without first explaining its content to us. The charter has turned out to lack provisions regulating the government’s role on RTHK matters. Yet, even more colleagues tried to pin down the director on “whether he has criticized Ng Chi-sum at any meeting or any other occasions, and whether he has asked to replace him.

There seems to be nothing wrong with the head of RTHK (or a newspaper’s editor in chief) giving advice or criticism on a program host. However, when employee after employee asked the director whether he had criticized Ng or requested his replacement, his answer was to “beat around the bush” and “go around in circles.” This gave the impression that he was trying to dodge or avoid the subject, or that he had a hidden agenda. It was under this condition that one colleague finally lost his patience and accused the director of contradicting himself, that while he accused the media of distorting the facts, he wouldn’t spell out the facts himself.

One wonders why the director would take an avoidance approach in an in-house meeting with his staff if his door is truly “open”. The accusation that he was contradicting himself was not only met with loud applause but with some cheers, as I remembered. Apparently, everybody lost patience after waiting so long for the director to tell the truth. Right at that moment, the director opened up and indicated that there was no such meeting as reported in the media in which he demanded the removal of Ng Chi-sum. He also spoke eloquently that his words were backed by minutes of meetings.

Personal Integrity Called into Question

However, perhaps the Director had not listened carefully to colleagues’ questions, or he might have "forgotten" the content of the questions. Some colleagues therefore “reminded” him that they had heard him give similar criticisms about Ng over the past two years. This is to say that his denial of having asked for Ng’s removal in a formal meeting couldn’t cover up his “calculations” (to possibly remove Ng). Yet, the crux of the matter is never whether the Director has made the alleged criticism against Ng. Rather, it is whether colleagues trust the director, and trust is not built on subjective feelings but established through observation of facts.

We must ask whether the director has done anything specific to maintain RTHK’s editorial independence over the past two years. The director has rebuked such charges impatiently, asking, "So is the editor-in-chief not supposed to criticize any programs?” He also urged colleagues to, “Please trust me, principles are very important (to me)….” As he spoke, the atmosphere of the meeting became unusually heavy. My heart sank, and the sad thing is, I do share my colleagues’ thoughts.

Again, I must emphasize that trust is not built on subjective feelings but one’s observation of what has happened. We must ask ourselves: who is the one who quietly signed the Charter that threatens RTHK’s editorial independence; who argued that the document has embodied 90 percent of “our” (RTHK staff’s) views; who is the one who was “strictly concerned” whether we have given too much coverage to the 20th anniversary of the June Fourth crack down; who is the one who tried to “clarify” his alleged criticism against Ng Chi-sum without telling the truth himself? The core of the matter is no longer whether the director has made the reported criticism against Ng. Rather, it is an issue of trust.

Three days after the meeting, I read in the newspapers that the director openly said that editorial independence is as important as his life. Isn’t that ironic?