An enormous outcry erupted almost immediately upon the Hong Kong government's announcement yesterday evening that Hong Kong Television Network Limited's application for a new free television programme service licence has been rejected. Everyone seemed shocked, surprised and refused to accept the result. Few people could resist the temptation to ask: Why?
Apparently Gregory So, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development's so-called explanation failed to convince the people, "Having carefully considered an array of relevant factors, including the free TV licence applications submitted by the three applicants, the recommendations of the [Broadcasting] Authority, statutory requirements under the Broadcasting Ordinance, the assessment criteria in the Authority's Guidance Note for Those Interested in Applying for Domestic Free Television Programme Service Licences in Hong Kong, the overall sustainability of the free TV market, the consultant's reports on the competition implications of new entrants to the local free TV market (which include an assessment of the relative competitiveness of each applicant), all relevant documents, all representations and responses submitted by the relevant parties, all the relevant latest developments, all public views received and the Government's prevailing broadcasting policy, the Chief Executive in Council has decided that it would be in the public interest to adopt a prudent approach to introduce new operators into the free TV market in a gradual and orderly manner (the "Gradual and Orderly Approach"). On this basis, the CE in Council has decided today to grant approval-in-principle to Fantastic TV's and HKTVE's free TV licence applications."
Without a trace of doubt, this long-winded statement is not meant to be conveying anything comprehensible or meaningful. The most important piece of information is put at the end of the paragraph instead of the beginning. It is yet another example of how detached, disconnected and dysfunctional government communication can possibly be.
I am not going to repeat all those criticisms, mockeries and speculations of the government decision here. Too many people out there argue much more eloquently than I do. My journalism school also issued a statement urging greater transparency in the selection process, citing uncertainties looming the television industry and potential threat to freedom of expression.
In addition to my astonishment at the incredible stupidity of the Hong Kong government decision-makers, however, I am equally amused to see how easy it is to manipulate public opinion in Hong Kong to one's benefit.
Forget the spinning. Forget the rhetoric. Forget the message house. There is just one almighty key word: Justice.
Mr Ricky Wong, chairman of Hong Kong Television Network Limited, is a seasoned businessman who seems to have a special acumen in marketing and winning hearts and minds. Over the past three years, he has been tirelessly making noises in the local news, business and entertainment pages every now and then to build awareness and harness support for his bid. Most recently, he has been actively engaging the public by providing professionally made preview trailers and organising focus groups to keep the creative teams abreast of the latest market needs, tastes and wants. The landslide public support and sympathy, if anything, only points to his remarkable success of his well-planned and seamlessly implemented engagement strategy. In any full-fledged modern society, it can qualify as a classic case study of successful marketing by public mobilisation and motivation.
Unfortunately, Mr Wong is facing an administration that has no mandate from the people and turns a deaf ear to what the people really think. In the decision-makers' eyes, Mr Wong's strategy of cultivating public support can be menacing and offensive, as if it were forcing the government to give in to public pressure at the expense of reason and professionalism. Therefore, it is hardly surprising to see speculations running that some members of the Executive Council reportedly believe Mr Wong's "aggressive" strategy contravenes with the government's "gradual and orderly approach".
Earlier today when Mr Wong held a press conference to announce his decision of shedding 320 jobs, he wasted no time to ask a question: "Is there still justice in Hong Kong?" Apparently he was exaggerating, because the government only owes him a sound and credible explanation. But he was incredibly clever in stirring up public emotions to his own benefit by asking the right question. Within seconds he managed to bundle an investment failure with the core values of the grumpy, frustrated Hong Kong people. The message is utmost clear: "My failure is yours. It means so much more than a business failure." Within hours tens of thousands are ready to march to the streets on Sunday to show him their support. The government is now pushed into the corner to come up with an open, strong and sensible explanation. But whether the people are still willing to listen is subject to question. The public verdict has been given. There is little leeway to manipulate.
Is there any better public relations campaign than this?