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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Who would have thought that an announcement on the fate of a state broadcaster in T&T would, at this time, have occupied so much space and time in the social sphere and on new and traditional media?

The political partisans on one side have declared a state of distraction. Others have pronounced on its meaninglessness in an era of changing communication vehicles and models. While many of us see a role for formal institutions of public communication in the face of otherwise declining national social, economic and cultural fortunes.

There is, of course, much validity in the latter two presumptions, the first to be dismissed as mindless political sloganeering. After all, what is not a “distraction” among the pathologically distracted? It is like attempting to sift priorities when every single thing is important and indispensable.

The fact is, after 55 years of independence we have in essence expressed a general cluelessness about the steps to be taken to execute a required, holistic rescue of our society. There is some evidence that this incapacity is reflected in our collective approach to one of the iconic institutions of our political independence—state broadcasting.

Having now examined what has been proposed for CNMG by the Helen Drayton board in its entirety, such an approach remains a most revealing omission, more likely than not a failure of its original mandate and not the doing of a well-intentioned group of professionals. It is, after all, a “framework report” that should, incidentally, have entered the public domain as enthusiastically as the process of consultation two years ago that gave it life.

The absence of philosophical moorings is not unique to this exercise, but is particularly important as part of a formulation of what, in the end, would amount to a variety of finite financial, managerial and technical options. This is much easier to achieve in the private, commercial space. And, as has been awkwardly thrown on the table by Minister Cuffie, is already the case in instances in which new catchments of talent have now become available.

For the moment, we are left to attend to what is before us. Two things. The Drayton Report and the Cuffie Formula. As suggested last week in this space, they are two different things. The first, ostensibly the product of extensive consultations and internal technical deliberation, the second the outcome of broader considerations including the power relationships intrinsic to the practice of capital “P” politics.

This is not solely PNM and UNC stuff. It is endemic to the body politic. Witness the forces already massing for influence and reach. It is all about enlightened self-interest, lower-case politics, in the face of an imperative to survive.

But where, in all of this, is the requirement of confidence and the pre-condition of responsibility?

Combining these broader objectives with tangible technical actions calls for a “framework” rooted in aspirations way beyond broadcast frequencies, programming formats and technological innovation. There is more than a hint of this in the Drayton Report.

For example, there is the proposal to establish Broadcasting Trust Corporation (BTC) Trinidad and Tobago Ltd as a governance mechanism bearing a mandate, as the document says, to “carry the Trinidad and Tobago identity so that the products reflect its community, and be recognised for their value beyond our borders.”

Notably, as well, the Report does indeed embrace a notion of what is described as “media integration” by defining “original content” as Caribbean in nature and including the outputs of the Diaspora. I mentioned this in last week’s column oblivious to the fact that it was in fact covered by the proposals submitted for consideration by Cabinet.

The Report is also quite open on the question of preserving the editorial independence of the operation. Minister Cuffie would do well to provide a detailed explanation of how his plans for TTT differ from the Report’s insistence on safeguards against “interference” in editorial and news content.” This is particularly interesting in the context of the merger/disappearance/reassignment of GISL.

The Report proposes a buffer zone role for the BTC Board, but I would suggest that the additional safeguard of a parliamentary mechanism be adopted so that the Board is accountable to parliament, as is the case with some statutory institutions, and not to a government minister or Cabinet.

Public service broadcasting is a hazy concept even for some people involved in the industry. In small countries such as ours, publicly-funded but independently-operated media operations are very difficult to conceive of, especially since to a great degree there is a vital link to state capacity and largesse.

One of the most effective ways to address this would be to find a way of building an institution capable of identifying and presenting a variety of creative products employing funding mechanisms insulated from the designs of both commercial and political interests.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. It was an issue addressed rather early in the day when it came to the Caribbean Court of Justice and resulted in the establishment of the CCJ Trust Fund—so far, one of the greatest innovations coming out of the regional integration movement.

There are also well-known international models including the UK’s BBC, ARD of Germany and NHK Corporation of Japan, among others.

Last week, I also questioned why sensible suggestions for use of portions of TATT fees and NLCB surpluses could not have been more diligently pursued. This will help resolve a pile of issues.

In the meantime, much of the focus is on what becomes of the current cadre of CNMG staff, included among which are some of the industry’s leading and committed engineering, technical, broadcasting and journalism professionals.

Like the rest of us, they too need to be apprised of a wholesome vision for the sector—one not easily recognisable at this moment as part of the Cuffie Formula.


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