Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Public Broadcasting: Agenda for the Future

Kingston, Jamaica
October 19, 2016

During consultations almost a year ago on the future of state owned and operated media in Trinidad & Tobago, we had to engage the difficult question of determining the pace and direction of reform in a sector that had, since our independence in 1962, been relied upon to provide a service we often referred to as public service broadcasting but were never quite able to put our fingers on what exactly we meant by the term.

All we knew back then was that the BBC in the UK and CBC in Canada offered some kind of operational and fiscal model to be emulated and that a social compact of sorts was required to ensure both financial viability and an inalienable public stake in the enterprise established to meet what was thought to be a public service mandate.

Instead, what we have had has basically been a co-opting of state-financed broadcasting systems, albeit to varying degrees, by partisan political elements over the years and a perennially contentious drain on state financing, even as there has been a recurring and parallel insistence on financial sustainability. 

There are sufficient tales of bans on content, politically-inspired staff recruitment and costly administrative adventures in order to secure political favour to paint a quite grim picture of the condition we were left to address last year when the country was forced to confront an economic reality check.

Let me remind you that the reality check I am talking about is an economy whose primary income generator declined in price by 70% in just about two years.

In my view, the debate we engaged last year in Trinidad & Tobago compelled us to pay as much attention to institutional models as to the content to drive the aspirations of a public service broadcaster. This might not have been such a bad thing after all.

In the process, we confronted the main requirements of public service broadcasting from the vantage point of a longstanding state broadcaster purporting to embark on a process of reform and transformation inspired not only by acknowledging its programmatic shortcomings but also by assessing the prospects for financial viability.

The pillars that kept emerging time and again included a capacity to satisfactorily engage the hopes, fears and aspirations of the entire society, to display a high level of editorial independence, to promote and facilitate social dialogue and democratic participation and to meet the financial requirements of engaging these tasks on a sustainable financial basis in the midst even of economic turmoil.

As we have been mandated to do here on this occasion, we need to pay attention to the challenges of 2016 and beyond and to seek out the possibilities. For one, the advent of new mass media has presented us with a media environment that is on the one hand becoming increasingly fragmented and siloed while on the other presenting to media eyes and ears much greater potential for moving beyond longstanding boundaries.

James Deane of BBC Media Action argues in a recent essay on the subject that we also need to insert into the discussion a notion of social fragility – the fact, as he puts it, that “in many fragile and divided societies, media landscapes (are) becoming increasingly co-opted and polarised, often along factional lines.”

This point is expressed another way by media development expert, Susan Abbot, who suggests that current resistance to promoting public service broadcasting as part of media development globally owes much to two phenomena. I would suggest these phenomena are intimately familiar to us in the Caribbean.

As Abbot puts it: “First is a traditional distrust - and plenty of examples to feed that distrust - of governments that refuse to allow the independence of PSB operations and content. Second is the history in developing countries of weak institutions that are incapable of protecting the independence of publicly funded media, even when the government is ostensibly committed to do so.”

Of course, we would need to make the distinction between publicly funded media and state-owned media and everything in-between that relies on direct state or public financing, subscriptions and license fees and revenue generated through the sale of advertising – and any combination of all of the above.

The Caribbean does not present us with the best examples of where reformed and transformed state media have been able to meet the standard of public service broadcasting best practice, bearing in mind the multi-pronged menu of aspirations I outlined earlier.

Let’s take them one by one: It has not been the case in the media systems I have had the opportunity to look at in the Caribbean that sufficient efforts have been made, as I put it earlier to “satisfactorily engage the hopes, fears and aspirations of the entire society” – everyone.

This is reflected in programming cycles that pointedly ignore many minority voices and interests and what I consider to be a complex relationship between governmental objectives and the absolute requirements of the development process. Development, as I have said many times before, is not a politically neutral concept. This conundrum is highlighted in many instances whenever there is a change in administration.

Then, what about editorial independence? The proof of the pudding is very often in the eating. In almost every instance, we find that the ratings for news and current affairs programming by state media lag behind the popularity of private and independent media if only because of the substantially supported perception that the news and current affairs programming of the state media does not routinely represent the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Now, because of the many new avenues through which people now get their information there is a growing marginalising of official information, news and views. Enlightened state media also now need to understand that governments no longer need their own media to get their messages out and that the loss of control over the means of dissemination means that these messages are now even more in competition in a growing marketplace.

In essence, the democratising role expected to be played by public media is also being supplanted by far more open conditions that permit all ideas to contend albeit in wildly uncoordinated, unmediated ways. Attempts by regional governments to wrest control of the means of and platforms for communicating from the grasp of citizens have consequently become the norm.

There is also something to be said about the mandate to portray more images and to tell more stories about our national and regional realities. In some instances, this is reflected through commitments, either through regulation or moral suasion, to increase the share of local programming.

I know in Jamaica there is a lobby to have as much as 80% programming time devoted to local content – a goal expressed by CBC in Barbados about 12 years ago for television, with 60% local content for radio. In my own country, Trinidad and Tobago, there are repeated calls for at least a 50% share and one administration went as far as threatening to legislate a 65% requirement for radio and television.

Of course, the passage of time has proven that such a strategy, particularly with respect to private media will not only not succeed but makes absolutely no sense. You cannot legislate taste or expect intrusions into private business space not to go unchallenged. 

Additionally, choice has so broadened the contest for eyes and ears that regulated intrusions will only serve to push people further and further away from media they would typically trust the most. Let’s see where the surveys put state media enterprises in most Caribbean countries.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Board of state-owned Caribbean New Media Group is actively pursuing a 75% local content quota on television broadcasts and is developing an innovative path to achieving such an objective in the face of declining transfers from the state, low and falling advertising revenues and recovery from a period of neglect during which the popularity of the television operations of the company fell to a distant last place in the ratings. It’s much more uneven throughout its three radio frequencies.

I had argued some time ago that we indeed, as media professionals, have an obligation to reflect a Caribbean aesthetic in much more effective ways. Except that the difficulties we have had in bringing indigenous media outputs to the broadcasting mainstream owes as much to questions of production values as to an underdeveloped sense of self.

To cite one challenge, there appears to have been a willingness to dismiss notions of a Caribbean paradigm. For example, during recent discussions with government officials in Trinidad and Tobago recently I raised the question that the attempt to regulate taste in favour of local production had the effect of placing the music of Bob Marley in the category of foreign content. 

There was even an interpretation of this mandate that positioned outside the cultural wall the work of externally-located musicians that would include people such as Sean Paul and Heather Headley and filmmakers such as Horace Ove, Menelik Shabazz and Isaac Julien.

There are other mandates we can also spend some time look at including the challenge of promoting higher levels of media literacy and the impact of media self-regulation as a function of the public service broadcasting mandate.