The approach of the Mottley administration to the future of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s state broadcaster in its 60th year, must not be on par with the myopic decision-making that led the previous regime to deprive Barbadians albeit briefly of free university education.
Instead of asking how we fund public education given its role in fighting inequality for half a century and building up the human capital of a nation whose own natural resource is its people, the result was a binary “sell or keep and defund” policy. How can a nation’s riches grow with such impoverished thinking? Public policy should be more than market-driven, neoliberal economics.
The same mistake has been made with LIAT (regional air transport), Transport Board (public transport), Barbados National Bank (indigenous banking), and ICBL ( insurance), to name but a few. And each time, in a bid to save a nation’s riches we are all left poorer, trapped in a misery-go-round at the mercy of the Almighty Market.
Rather than focus on the public service values and mission of state agencies and enterprises, ministers continue to call an organisation’s name, glance at its balance sheet and weigh it against the priorities not of a developing nation and democracy but against a ledger in the Ministry of Finance, its lines and margins created for it by the International Monetary Fund.
The CBC’s future is an issue that should be treated as a matter of public interest by the Government of Barbados. The CBC is not a mere entertainment source at the whim of shifting public taste. An honest appraisal would reveal a corporation that has sought, however imperfectly, to play a vital role in serving the information needs of the people of Barbados and the Lesser Antilles in spite of persistent meddling by ministers and their sycophantic political appointees.
As the guardian of the public interest, the State has a responsibility to ensure that the CBC remains a publicly-funded broadcaster that is accountable to the public and committed to its public service mission. It should take concrete steps to restore the CBC’s independence and editorial integrity, and legislate protections from political and commercial interests.
The Government must ensure that the CBC is adequately funded and equipped to carry out its public service mission. No other broadcaster in the land can guarantee not only universal reach of its analogue signal but reach beyond its shores in times of natural disaster. The CBC’s role in the political and natural hurricanes of Grenada, and the value of its AM signal to this nation’s fisherfolk, to mention but a few examples, fulfils Errol Barrow’s vision for a truly Caribbean broadcasting corporation, even as commercial interests shut off transmitters and look narrowly inward.
Rather than the standard reactive approach, the government would do well to be proactive and promote the value of public broadcasting at a time when technological change threatens to create a divide between digital haves and have-nots. It would do well to engage with the public and interest groups other than the business community to build support for the broadcaster.
It is successive government interference with the CBC’s public service mission that has caused the corporation to rack up more than $100 million in debt.Its journalists have been barred at every turn from practising public interest journalism, which reduces the nightly news show to a ministerial parade.
And yet, now that the politicians have discovered social media, the corporation that they used to gain and retain political power is suddenly no longer fit for a purpose that was never intended.
There is another way. Give CBC to the people
Divestment of a state-owned public broadcaster to the non-profit sector rather than to commercial corporate interests is a compelling alternative that should be seriously considered. This option would ensure that the CBC becomes a publicly accountable, publicly-funded broadcaster that is committed to its public service mission of information, education and entertainment.
In a non-profit model, the CBC would be governed by a board of directors who are accountable to the people, rather than shareholders who are primarily focused on maximizing profits amid dwindling advertising revenue.
The CBC’s resources and assets would also be protected, ensuring that the broadcaster can produce high-quality indigenous content and services to the people of Barbados and the wider Caribbean region. A not-for-profit CBC would not be subject to the same pressure to cut costs and generate revenue, allowing it to focus on its public service remit. This nation’s vast experience in cooperative culture makes this no mere pipe dream but a realistic possibility.
And at last, the CBC would have editorial independence in a non-profit model, allowing for a wider range of perspectives and voices. Who knows – it might eventually serve as a watchdog over government actions and hold public officials accountable as never before.
Some corporations have long coveted ownership of the CBC. They would revel in the concentration of media ownership that would imperil other commercial players in a small media marketplace. Already the Market is responsible for mayhem and dysfunction in public education and public transport; so it would be with media. It cannot be the panacea for every public need – no matter what the IMF says that keeps poor countries poor for generations.
For once, it is time for the Government to think first of the People before disposing of the family silver, however much it has been tarnished.