The fact and fiction of TVB's self-censorship

July 13, 2017 10:00
TVB faced complaints recently after it shifted a scheduled broadcast of RTHK's Headliner program to accommodate coverage of visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: TVB

Hong Kong's media is regularly accused of self-censorship, with opposition politicians, journalists, and media groups such as the Hong Kong Journalists Association often voicing concern. Broadly defined, media censorship means not publishing or broadcasting news, or downplaying anything that a media organization considers sensitive or which conflicts with that organization’s political agenda.

In the Hong Kong context, self-censorship is more tightly defined as a media organization ignoring or downplaying news that it feels embarrasses or offends mainland China. This definition is clearly one-sided because it assumes that only media considered as Beijing-friendly self-censor. But it is this definition that the Hong Kong public believes. The fact, of course, is all media organizations, both here and abroad, self-censor in varying degrees.

Fox News in the US, for example, plays up everything that is positive for President Donald Trump and downplays anything that is negative news for him. Huffington Post does the exact opposite. Here in Hong Kong, leftist newspapers such as Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Pao avoid anything that is deemed embarrassing for mainland China but play up everything that puts China in a good light. Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's Next Media does the opposite. Self-censorship is, therefore, a two-way street.

TVB, whose shareholder make-up includes people with mainland connections, is regularly accused of self-censorship to please Beijing. Before I continue, I must declare an interest. I am a freelancer for TVB where I host an English-language show and co-host a Chinese-language show. But the motive of this column is not to support TVB or to mock the critics of TVB. It is to use facts to put the record straight on an issue involving TVB that dominated the headlines last week.

Government licensing rules require TVB – but not other free-to-air TV stations such as ViuTV – to broadcast certain programs produced by the government-owned RTHK. One of these programs is the Chinese-language Headliner, which brands itself as satire. It is broadcast on TVB’s Jade channel.

On June 30, during President Xi Jinping’s visit, TVB decided to preempt Headliner with footage of one of Xi’s speeches. The footage was broadcast on TVB’s 24-hour digital news channel iNews about an hour or so earlier once it became available. But TVB considered footage of Xi’s speech important enough to also broadcast it on the more-widely watched Jade channel, particularly because tens of thousands of homes with only analog TV have no access to iNews.

TVB had to find a natural break on Jade, which is not a 24-hour news channel and therefore cannot suddenly break into a news item, to air the Xi footage. That natural break came just before 6 pm. By the time the Xi footage ended, it was after 6pm, not enough time to air Headliner before Jade’s highly popular 6.30 evening news. TVB informed RTHK about eight minutes beforehand that it could not air Headliner and said it would do so later in the evening on another channel.

TVB was immediately accused of self-censorship because that episode of Headliner poked fun at Xi and made repeated references of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Here is a fact that needs to be made clear. TVB did not even know beforehand the contents of the Headliner in question. The head of RTHK, Leung Ka-wing, confirmed this to me in black and white, adding TVB is never told in advance the contents of Headliner.

Is it fair to accuse TVB of self-censorship when it did not even know the content of what it is accused of censoring? I think fair-minded people know the answer to that. Democratic Party legislator Ted Hui Chi-fung and the Hong Kong Journalists Association, among others, accused TVB of political censorship. I can understand Hui making unsubstantiated accusations because it serves his political interests to attack TVB, which the opposition camp maligns as under Beijing’s influence.

But the Journalists Association is supposed to represent journalists and accuracy is the profession’s cardinal rule. Was it that difficult to make a simple phone call to Leung to confirm if TVB knew the contents of Headliner before rushing to issue a damning statement suggesting TVB did not want to embarrass Xi? If the Journalists Association cannot even get its facts straight on such a simple matter, how can we trust it when it accuses the Hong Kong media of self-censorship?

RTHK spokesperson Amen Ng Man-yee questioned TVB’s news judgment in preempting Headliner with news footage of Xi’s speech. With all due respect, what right has she got to decide for a commercial TV station that a government-produced satire is more important than news about the president of China visiting Hong Kong? Surely, such editorial judgments should be made totally by TVB, which is accountable to its shareholders and viewers, and not by RTHK’s Ng, who is a civil servant.

I have never watched Headliner but watched that June 30 episode so I could write this column fairly. I couldn’t watch past ten minutes because it was so childishly juvenile. If RTHK’s producers think Headliner is satire, it needs to learn the real meaning of the word or perhaps watch Saturday Night Live to understand how comedic satire is done.

The fact is this nonsense, which borders on propaganda for the opposition camp, is produced with taxpayers’ money. Charles Mok, who represents the IT sector in the Legislative Council, slammed TVB for saying it is time RTHK airs Headliner on its own channels. RTHK now has five free-to-air channels that reach most of Hong Kong homes – three digital and two analog.

As a legislator, Mok has a duty to care about how public money is spent. Shouldn’t he be demanding to know why RTHK is still sticking to an outdated rule that TVB must air its shows when RTHK now has five channels, all paid for by the public? Mok, an opposition legislator, insists RTHK relying on TVB to air its shows and TVB preempting Headliner are two separate issues.

No, they are not. The facts already show TVB did not know beforehand the contents of Headliner, so self-censorship was not involved. If RTHK does not want its shows to be preempted by important news events, then it should rely on its own channels. So the two issues are not separate, as Mok claims.

If Amen Ng believes the Headliner shows are such riveting TV satire that they should never be preempted, why piggyback on TVB’s highly-popular Jade channel. Surely, the best way to test if Headliner is great TV or trash is to show it on RTHK’s own channel and see what ratings it attracts instead of relying on Jade’s popularity to win audience share.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.