All noise, no talk at forum

Chan Wai-ling - Reporter, HKEJ

Candidates of Kowloon West constituency, People Power's Wong Yuk-man (left) and Lam Yi-lai. (Ming Pao Photo)
[中文][Oct 2012 - The Journalist] Under the new format of "one person, two votes" participation in the Legislative Council election in September was unprecedented: 67 lists of candidates vied for 35 seats in the geographical constituency, and a record high of 1.83 million voters turned out on polling day.

This posed a big challenge to the electronic medium which organised debates for all the candidates only to see many participants using the opportunity to abuse each other.
The media did have a role to play in the election - to provide more information for voters to make an informed choice, said William Fung Tak-hung, news controller of Cable TV's news department.

But because of a rule requiring the media to give equal amount of time to all candidates, it was hard to have in-depth discussions at the forums, he said, adding that it was up to the community to decide whether this requirement should be reviewed.

Cable TV, among the major electronic media organisations that organised election debates, held six open-air forums in different districts six days in a row from August 27, with a session featuring a special host to throw questions at candidates.

Fung said such a session was not new and the station had something similar in 1995. The forum host, called "Guest Questioner", was responsible for grilling candidates to create an exciting atmosphere for the programme. The special guest was then Wong Yuk-man (now a lawmaker).

With the electoral system changed to proportional representation in 1998, exchanges between candidates became blunt and terse, and this affected the way the debates were conducted.

Fung said he had to consider two issues: "First, it is nothing exciting for candidates to exchange hot words and give sound bites. If you want noise, Legco meetings are noisy enough.

"Second, the matter of equal time...we hoped to have in-depth discussions, not quarrels and slogans. Whether it's TV or newspapers, we all want to give the audience more information about the candidates," Fung said.

As he observed, most candidates at the forums were deft at making good use of the few minutes they had to highlight their strengths and draw attention. But he said the rules laid down by the Electoral Affairs Commission were too rigid, allowing no leeway for programme producers to come up with new ideas for the debates.

Asked if he saw a need to review the regulations, Fung said: "I can't say the rules must be relaxed just because the TV stations find them inconvenient. It is up to the community to reach a consensus. The present restrictions are, at least, a safeguard against media bias towards certain candidates."

Yau Ching-yuen, who was invited by Cable TV to be the special host to throw questions at candidates, has irked the pro-establishment camp, with chairperson of New People's Party Regina Ip and the Federation of Trade Unions lodging complaints against him.

Yau insisted he had a "clear conscience" and had not tried to make life hard for those candidates. He said he had also similarly grilled Democrats Wu Chi-wai and Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, and Andrew To Kwan-hang of the League of Social Democrats, who made no complaints. He believed they were accustomed to this kind of challenge.

Yau said his role was to inform the audience what the candidates had done and said in the past so they could judge who was capable and who was not.

He did not think the election this year was a lacklustre event. But because public attention had been diverted to the national education issue, and political parties had little idea how to deal with the newly-introduced "super seats", politicians were unable to focus discussions on meaningful topics, he said.

The “fair and equal” guideline

Paragraph 18, chapter 11: election broadcasting, media reporting and election forums, "Guidelines on Election-related Activities in respect of the Legislative Council Election"

11.18 During the election period, broadcasters may organise election forums in their programmes. Broadcasters should ensure that the "fair and equal treatment" principle is applied to all candidates/lists of candidates. If a candidate/a list of candidates is invited to take part in the election forum, then all candidates/lists of candidates of the same constituency should also be invited to be present at such forums so as to give the candidates/the lists of candidates an equal opportunity to attend the forum and present their election platforms. The "fair and equal treatment" principle applies to the entire election forum and, in particular, requires the broadcaster to give each candidate/list of candidates taking part in the election forum equal time to present his/its election platform.