by Larry Smith
"Any administration faced with the responsibility to deal with the future of broadcasting has two choices: one is to continue to use BCB as a state-run facility for government and party propaganda purposes, leaving (it) to languish in an ever-expanding market of competition; the other is to create, in the national interest, a new public service broadcasting culture." -- Senator Kay Forbes-Smith, writing in Commonwealth Broadcaster magazine.
Sorry, but I have to say the good senator is wrong. There are more than two choices for ZNS.
A third choice - in my view, the best option - would be to dismantle the corporation and sell its parts to the highest bidder, with current employees finding new homes in the real world with the help of a typically generous government severance package.
Two years ago this column had the following to say on the subject: "We should consider whether we need ZNS at all. Even if it could be detached from direct government control, it would likely turn into a broadcasting version of Bahamas Information Services, another pointless agency whose employees trot behind government ministers to produce 'official' news of dubious value."
To borrow from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only thing we have to fear about closing ZNS is fear itself. We have a run-down organisation in need of a massive injection of funds to bring it into the digital age. Yet common sense and every study ever conducted tells us that, despite its enormous cost, ZNS contributes very little value to the national enterprise.
Why are we so afraid of divesting ZNS, when it would save the country at least $10 million a year, and stimulate new business opportunities for a wide cross-section of Bahamians...and when its political tasks could easily be assumed by BIS (which eats another $2.3 million in public funds every year)?
We don't know why. But it seems clear that the political class has ruled this out - although they have accepted the inevitability (if not the urgency) of selling off Bahamasair and BTC. So for the moment we are left with Senator Smith's two choices - maintaining the status quo or converting ZNS into a public service broadcaster.
Many of you may be unable to distinguish between these alternatives. And truthfully, whether anything changes at all will depend on how well the prospective conversion is executed. And that will depend on what the real motivation behind it is. In her article, Senator Smith suggests two motives: financial and political.
"The reality is that we invest significantly more in the BCB annually than planned and allocated. We must work to change this current approach to funding...we must also take into account the restructuring of BCB as a public service broadcaster with a clearly defined mandate."
What this means - as the prime minister has already explained - is that ZNS requires a multi-million-dollar yearly subsidy from the Treasury just to stay open, but this government subvention is supposed to be used for capital investment, not to pay for operating costs.
Perhaps the rationale for changing ZNS can be found in these sentences: "We share the same funding concerns: insufficient revenue from traditional sources resulting in annual revenue shortfalls," Senator Smith told Commonwealth broadcasters. "We are faced with determining the best approach to fund BCB as a public service broadcaster, recognising that its current funding has not been ideal."
In other words, we ain't getting enough money from the private sector to do what we want.
And why not, you may ask? Well, as someone who has been a customer of ZNS for the past 20 years, I can tell you why - poor service, poor programming and POLITICS.
A little history may be in order here. Most Bahamians don't realise that we could have had cable television in the early 60s if politics had not intervened. It was blocked by nationalists who wanted a local TV station, ostensibly to promote Bahamian identity.
So we had to wait until 1977 for the government to create TV-13 in the image of the civil service, and privately operated cable television was denied until 1995. And to add insult to injury, ZNS TV did little or nothing to promote Bahamian culture, but a great deal to promote Bahamian politicians.
We could go on ad nauseam about ZNS abuses over the years. The refusal to play the songs of Bahamian musicians whose lyrics didn't suit the PLP. The arbitrary and capricious business practices. General Manager Charles Carter presenting as a PLP candidate while hosting the public affairs programme "Focus". The sudden 1982 demotion of news director Mike Smith by the same Ed Bethel who had been similarly treated earlier. The childish propaganda masquerading as nightly news. The endless replaying of "Roots" during election campaigns. And on and on.
It would be nice to bid farewell to all that tax-funded tripe. But if we can't do so yet, perhaps we should heed author Noam Chomsky's advice to "pry (state institutions) open to more meaningful public participation - and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free society, if the appropriate circumstances can be achieved."
Defining public service is not as easy as it seems. For example, during the 1926 general strike in Britain, it was argued that since the BBC was the people's service and the government was the people's choice, it followed that the BBC should support the government. And, as with any endeavour, the need to make money is often paramount in broadcasting.
In other words, to achieve public service broadcasting we must tread a fine line between the "hammer of the state and the anvil of the market".
In our case, although the first Ingraham government broke ZNS' stranglehold on broadcasting in 1992, the station remains largely in the service of the ruling party while programming is shaped more by the demands of advertisers and sponsors than by public interest factors.
Are there any generally agreed characteristics that make up public service broadcasting? Indeed there are. But principally, the goal is to detach broadcasting from vested interests - including the government - and address audiences as citizens rather than consumers.
Among the key elements are the setting of high quality standards, offering something for every interest and taste, expanding horizons with innovative programming; operating efficiently to provide value for taxpayers, and acting as the cultural voice for the nation.
This is a tough call for ZNS, especially when you consider what it entails - like creole and conchy joe programming, hard-hitting documentaries, extravagant cultural productions, a wholesale cutback in religious pantomime, strict editorial independence, production of regular financial statements and operating within a realistic budget.
But it is not impossible. The trick is to pry the station away from government control, because that is where the rot sets in. If the politicos can interfere at the policy level or in the day to day operations you can bet your life that they will - at every opportunity. And that means decisions taken without regard for rational thought, business sense or professional imperatives.
Unfortunately, politicians do not always see it that way. In fact, some of their agents (like former BCB chairman and general manager Calsey Johnson) consider the parroting of official views as a generous demonstration of impartiality.
But just because we have elected a government does not mean that - like the BBC in 1926 - ZNS must promote its views and support its positions. Instead of sticking a camera in the face of every politico who opens his mouth, what ZNS should be doing is producing reliable analyses on current affairs; offering a perspective on the events that are unfolding around us; communicating what it means to be a Bahamian; inspiring loyalty to democratic values; and promoting good governance.
That's why it is called public service broadcasting.
To play this role effectively requires independence from both the state and the market. And to recreate ZNS as an authentic public service broadcaster will require strict legislative guarantees of autonomy. The station would have to be operated by a genuinely independent authority, with a cross-section of community representation. The right managers would have to be found, and a massive firewall would be needed to deter interfering politicos.
The governing board would have to be appointed in an open process with guarantees against dismissal and rules on conflict of interest. Regulatory and licensing bodies must also be independent. And all this should be accompanied by a freedom of information act to underline the point that information is not the property of the state.
The question of finance is key to this whole issue, because true independence is only possible if funding is secure from arbitrary government control. In some countries public service broadcasting is funded by a tax or license fee. In others by a grant voted annually in parliament. And some broadcasters gain a percentage of their revenue from commercial sources.
In the Bahamas - with a total ad market of perhaps $40 million split between many outlets - corporate sponsors must be encouraged to contribute to a restructured ZNS, and not necessarily through advertising. The only way to do this is for ZNS to achieve credibility as a source of information.
That means true freedom of expression and managerial, journalistic, creative and programming independence.
•For purposes of public disclosure, the author is an independent director at the Broadcasting Corporation. He trained as a journalist and has worked in newspapers and in a government news bureau. He currently operates a communications agency and book distributor.