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Lawmakers chide RTHK managers

Leslie Kwoh

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hong Kong's sole public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, has received another slap on the wrist with the release of a Legislative Council report that chided the station for poor internal management.

The Public Account Committee's report seconded the findings of a scathing audit report in April that criticized the broadcaster for fostering a "culture of noncompliance" among staff through the lax financial management of salaries, overtime pay and entertainment expenses.

"The committee is seriously dismayed and finds it unacceptable that the latest audit review has shown that a number of irregularities identified in previous audit reviews and other reviews still exist," the new report, released Wednesday, stated.

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"The committee recognizes the special nature of RTHK as a public service broadcaster operating in a competitive media environment. However, this should not be an excuse for noncompliance with applicable government rules and regulations."

In the 180-page report, a compilation of two months of interviews with government officials and RTHK's top management, the committee questioned the competitiveness of the station's fee- scale table against comparable civil service posts.

It also criticized senior management for not providing ample justification for a number of entertainment activities, including six spring receptions during 2004-05 that cost a total of HK$53,000.

The committee expressed particularly "serious concern" about RTHK's acceptance of sponsorship in 2004 for two visits to Taiwan without first obtaining approval from the secretary for the civil service.

The report quoted station officials as saying they had overlooked the requirement as visits had been conducted in "personal capacities."

The committee's report follows months of speculation that the administration is aiming to tighten control over RTHK and turn it into a government "mouthpiece."

The battle over the fate of the broadcaster escalated in January, when the government launched a review of the territory's public broadcasting policy, followed by the decision in April to establish an internal audit at the station.

Defending the committee's report Wednesday, chairman Philip Wong Yu-hong said members conducted the review "independently, objectively and impartially, with absolutely no regard for political considerations."

As for the report's relatively milder criticism - in contrast to the earlier audit report - Wong insisted members had focused on value-for-money.

He said: "All members agreed it was reasonable and objective to word our conclusion in this way."

Despite the committee's apparent endorsement of the Audit Commission's findings, analysts said the report's "moderate" criticism of RTHK's financial operations will mean "all sides can accept the conclusion."

City University political analyst James Sung Lap-kung said: "I don't see this really strengthening the government's case to crack down on the station. If it condemned other aspects like RTHK's editorial decisions and choice of programming, then the impact would be a lot more serious, but it focused very narrowly on financial operations."

As for the public's impression of the broadcaster, Sung said he felt "the damage has already been done" by previous reports that discredited the station's administrative capability.

"The committee's report does not really present anything new," he said.

Instead, the debate will most likely escalate when the government-appointed review committee, headed by former TVB head Raymond Wong Ying-see, releases its results sometime this year, according to Sung. He said he understands the committee will propose options for reorganizing RTHK, including privatization and the contracting out of some programs.

One proposed set-up would involve transferring some staff to the government Information Services Department while relegating others to a new public corporation called Hong Kong Radio.

In a statement Wednesday, RTHK said the station had already taken steps to improve its internal control measures in response to the audit recommendations. The station's senior management is expected to submit an official response to the audit report's findings.

In a separate response, RTHK Staff Union chairwoman Janet Mak Lai- ching said staff have been "trying to make more of an effort" since April to comply with regulations, especially with regard to entertainment expenses.


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