Watching the BBC for RTHK pointers

Editorial | Mary Ma 9 Sep 2020

RTHK will have a new director at the helm a year from now.

It's been a pretty hellish time at the top for incumbent Leung Ka-wing, thanks in large part to the satirical program Headliner that was often surrounded in controversy due to its anti-government content. And it won't be any easier for his successor, who has yet to be named.

Both RTHK and the BBC are government-funded media entities, and it is interesting to compare apples to apples as events at the Beeb could serve as a reference for its peer in Hong Kong.

First, the BBC's new director general Tim Davie started his era with a fiery speech full of warnings to staff - including some who are among the highest paid in the country.

The prestigious British broadcaster is engulfed by a number of controversies, including huge pay gaps between male and female program hosts as well as criticism of content catering to the urban elite but not to the rest of the country.

Impartiality has always been an item in the basket of complaints against the BBC, and many of RTHK's troubles boil down to the same perceptual issue.

If a BBC news report speaks favorably of the ruling Conservative Party, it is immediately perceived by Labour to be partisan. If it depicts the Labour opposition favorably, it is condemned for betraying the government.

When political editor Laura Kuenssberg defended Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings' controversial trip to Durham as not being in violation of lockdown rules, she was herself accused of breaching impartiality rules.

And when Breakfast host Naga Munchetty criticized US President Donald Trump for telling four women in Congress to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came," she was investigated internally for months until her name was cleared.

Even regulator Ofcom, which supervises the BBC, admitted in a review that it is difficult to remain impartial in a politically charged climate.

The issues facing Davie - who has never been a journalist but built his career as a marketing executive - could be similar to those awaiting RTHK's future head who undoubtedly will be given a mission to reform the public broadcaster in a way that suits the administration.

How does Davie plan to reform the BBC?

In his first major speech to staff, he said they must leave politics at the door. Further, anyone who wishes to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner may do so - but should stop working at the BBC.

In a bid to restore the BBC's tarnished reputation for impartiality, he will crack down on staff posting personal views on social media. He will also streamline the BBC's output by a fifth, which implies staff cuts.

The tasks that Davie has set for himself are easier said than done in a nation known for its diverse cultures.

Job cuts are quantitative, but impartiality is tricky to define.

In its report on the BBC published in October, Ofcom tried to define impartiality. It stated that, while broadcasting rules did not require the BBC to be absolutely neutral on every issue within news and current affairs, it must be "duly impartial."

Journalists should take context into account while being able to challenge controversial viewpoints that have little support or are not supported by facts.

Will Davie's reform of the BBC succeed?

There is no easy road ahead, but it appears to be a subject the Hong Kong audience will also be interested in.

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