More Beijing mouthpieces won't change public opinion

March 30, 2015 15:24
A media scrum typifies the pre-occupation of Hong Kong's mass media with the news. Beijing is trying co-opt media outlets to advance its agenda in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong's media industry used to be the envy of the region as a respected voice, not to mention the quality of its newspapers, radio and television stations.

That's as recently as 1997 when Hong Kong passed to Chinese sovereignty from British colonial rule.

Since then, Beijing has been co-opting the mass media to help it advance its political agenda in Hong Kong.

Many old-timers familiar with the pre-handover history of the Hong Kong mass media likely don't recognize it today as the bulwark of free speech it once was, especially when it mouths government propaganda.

Now Beijing loyalists want to take things even further.

On Sunday, Maria Tam, a member of the Basic Law Committee, said the central government should increase its public influence in Hong Kong by helping pro-Beijing publications and broadcasters boost their circulations and viewerships.

She said Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily, all state-owned newspapers, should expand their market share.

In addition, she said Hong Kong authorities could consider a lifeline for embattled Asia Television Ltd. (ATV) and offer more support for Digital Broadcasting Corp. (DBC), a fledgling radio broadcaster owned by pro-Beijing businessman Wong Chor-biu.

That could partly explain why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's government is reluctant to see ATV's demise.

Two of its majority shareholders -- Wong Ching and Wong Ben-koon -- are mainland tycoons. Last week, the former said ATV was only days away from collapse if no buyer is found. 

DBC has been building its reputation and influence thanks to well-known commentators who host an array of public affairs programs.

Also, senior government officials have appeared on its shows and lent their insights on government policy.

But it will take time before DBC reaches a critical mass of listeners due to the low penetration of digital radio in a market with well-entrenched incumbents such as Commercial Radio and public broadcaster RTHK.

The pro-Beijing camp evidently wants more mouthpieces to articulate the central government's message.

Given Tam's special position among pro-Beijing loyalists and her relationship with the central authorities, her comments give us a glimpse into official thinking regarding the Hong Kong mass media.

In Beijing's mind, it's not doing enough despite its "do no harm" attitude, so the central government wants a more active press to do its bidding.

Lau Siu-Kai, a long-time pro-Beijing scholar who once headed Hong Kong's central policy unit, blames the Hong Kong media for misrepresenting cross-border relations, especially on issues concerning the Basic Law.

He has been urging a debate on the mini constitution to resolve the issues for the public and the media once and for all.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has been spending an enormous amount of money to promote the Beijing-endorsed framework for the 2017 chief executive election.

The battle for Hongkongers' hearts and minds is playing out in the media along fiercely partisan lines, with Beijing loyalists eager to gain the upper hand.

They're convinced having more of the mass media in their corner will do the job.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer