by Larry Smith
A select group of experts met on Centreville Hill last week to launch a process that could change the face of Bahamian broadcasting and drag our antiquated communications and information sector kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
They included the head of the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission, the former chiefs of the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Television Hong Kong, a retired senior executive from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Britain's top expert on media law.
They were here because a "strategic opportunity" exists to transform ZNS from a hacked-out state agency to an independent and professional public broadcaster that actually returns some value for the millions that taxpayers throw at it every year - millions that could otherwise be spent on urgent infrastructure needs.
As Senior Deputy General Manager Carlton Smith - a 22-year ZNS veteran - acknowledged at the broadcasting workshop last Friday, "We are drifting somewhere in space. We are a sinking ship. We are in trouble."
According to this candid assessment, ZNS suffers from mediocrity and has no respect for either its advertisers or its audiences. It indulges in a culture of complacency and entitlement that protects a top-heavy management structure and allows employees to wear their politics on their sleeve. And it is governed by laws that let politicians cherry-pick the public interest.
"We have no performance standards and we take a cavalier approach to our jobs," Smith went on. "We are not providing a service and there is nothing anyone can do because then we will complain to the politicians. That's why we must change expeditlously to a public service broadcaster.
"Whether that change will happen is the million-dollar question. I am an optimist. If we, the people, want ZNS to change, then nothing can stop it from happening. But it takes courage to turn right thinking into action."
The Courage to Change
The workshop was an attempt to stimulate that courage, and look at the reforms that are needed to bring our communications sector into the modern world. Although few other industry representatives or policymakers showed up, by the end of the first day the excitement was palpable among ZNS managers who were being asked to think for themselves for the first time in a long while.
Senator Kay Forbes-Smith, the West Ender who has political responsibility for the Broadcasting Corporation, described the workshop as the first step in a programme to educate Bahamians on the transformation of ZNS. The discussion will continue with employees, as well as with parliamentarians, cabinet ministers and the public.
Two key reforms are required. First and foremost is the legal restructuring of the Broadcasting Corporation to provide for non-political governance and genuine editorial freedom. Second is the creation of an independent regulatory system that takes account of new technologies. Both reforms are linked and must be achieved within a limited timeframe.
That timeframe is complicated by two momentous events that will take place next year. In addition to salvaging ZNS, we must also consider what will happen when BTC is privatised and CBL's monopoly ends. Clearly, we will be dealing with a much more complex and open communication and information sector.
Pricking the Elephant
Internationally, there is widespread recognition of the challenges involved in persuading governments to relinquish their hold over state broadcasting. According to a UNESCO official who consults on these matters, “Sometimes our work is like pricking an elephant. At first it doesn’t feel it, but some years later it will realize that it has been pricked...It takes about 20 years for results to show."
In our case the process began 16 years ago under the previous Ingraham administration, when a political decision was taken but never acted upon. One of last week's workshop consultants, former CBC vice president Harold Redekopp, spent a year in Nassau recently advising the Christie government on how to convert ZNS into a public broadcaster. And the current administration now says it plans to finish the job - putting us right on track with that 20-year timeline.
The remaking of ZNS will occur in an environment where the technological distinctions between text, audio and video are eroding. Newspapers, radio and TV stations can all distribute information over the web or a mobile phone. Cable operators can provide phone service, and phone companies can provide cable service.
Technology convergence presents regulatory issues in terms of spectrum allocation, competition policy, conflict of interest, the protection of plurality and the application of media standards. At the moment, the Public Utilities Commission allocates spectrum after the prime minister approves a broadcasting license in what is essentially a politically driven process.
But once licensed, our 14 FM radio stations plus ZNS (which also holds the only AM and over-the-air TV licenses) are unregulated, except for frequencies and transmitters. And while the PUC can manage these technical aspects, it has neither the remit nor the expertise to deal with media matters. A radio and television authority was legislated for that purpose in the 1990s, but never appointed.
An Independent Regulator
So the question now is, should we finally bring the dormant broadcasting authority to life, or should the PUC be equipped with the expertise to handle broadcasting as well as telecoms regulation? In either case we must ensure that the regulator is free from political control and dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and access for a diversity of ideas and opinions.
"The trend today is for a converged regulator to monitor converged technology," noted Eve Salomon, a British media lawyer who consults on these issues for governments around the world. She helped set up the UK's current media and telecoms regulator, Ofcom, in 2003. Ofcom replaced five separate regulatory bodies.
"But there are downsides because broadcasting needs special attention and requisite in-house expertise," she added. "It's not something that telecoms regulators find easy to switch to, because it involves different skill sets. Broadcast regulation is very much an exercise of judgement rather than an engineering matter."
A consultation paper on converged media and telecoms regulation was drafted by British experts during the Christie administration, but quickly shelved. The current government's plan to convert ZNS into a public broadcaster has revived interest in these regulatory issues.
To Transform or not to Transform
Although a modern, independent regulator is required for ZNS' transformation, it is even more important to set out a legal framework that guarantees the station's autonomy and good governance.
"You should not be looking at incrementalism," warned Cordel Green, a lawyer and former broadcaster who is now executive director of Jamaica's Broadcasting Commission. "There must be a complete transformation of ZNS. You should have a frank discussion with your audience as to what their expectations are. Make the case for improving your station and demonstrate that it is a viable operation."
Jamaica is, of course, light years ahead of the Bahamas, with a completely open media and telecoms sector encompassing some two dozen radio stations, 50 cable operators, one of the highest cell phone penetration rates in the world, a liberal ownership policy and no state broadcaster. In fact, Jamaica's equivalent of ZNS was sold off almost a dozen years ago, and there are now moves to set up a public broadcaster.
"Public service broadcasting is distinct from government broadcasting," Green said. "The public interest is not synonymous with the government's interest, and politics should be a miniscule part of psb concerns."
His colleague, Chu Pui-Hing, agreed. Chu is the recently retired head of Radio Television Hong Kong and now consults for the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. He told the workshop that "Public broadcasters live a dangerous life and will always be disliked by the politicians, but that goes with the territory. Governments are simply not equipped to deal with creative people and newsrooms," he said. "And an arms length relationship projects the image of an open and liberal administration."
No Pain, No Gain
All of the consultants agreed that the public debate on governance and funding of ZNS will drive home the point that change is necessary, but it likely won't be painless, according to George Valerino. He ran the world's smallest public service broadcaster in Gibraltar for 20 years, and was president of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association for six of those years.
"Public service broadcasting is as integral part of a democratic, plural society and the Bahamas should be no exception," he said. "A transformed ZNS must present a cross-section of views, meet set standards, and promote a better informed electorate. It should not be a mouthpiece for the politicians, despite all their lobbying."
To illustrate his point, Valerino recalled being instructed by the Gibralter government to make certain official broadcasts during a period of critical industrial unrest. "We had to act responsibly, but we could not allow ourselves to be manipulated, so we decided to broadcast the fact that we had been instructed. The order was quickly withdrawn.
"The moral is that if you put your faith in the politicians you are dead," he advised. "Put your faith in the people. You want to be in a position where there are no votes to be gained by attacking ZNS. You as a broadcaster have to be out there connecting with your constituents."
Ironically, the workshop was closed by the newly re-hired general manager of ZNS, Edwin Lightbourn, whose personal experience reinforces the need to break the endless political cycle at the Broadcasting Corporation. A former print journalist, Lightbourn was named to head ZNS under the previous Ingraham government, but was shunted aside to the Ministry of Tourism news bureau by the Christie administration in 2003.
Meanwhile, James Catalyn, a former Ministry of Tourism manager who was controversially dismissed from his post by the first Ingraham government, was on ZNS' competition, JCN-TV, this past Sunday deploring our lack of national pride and the unfortunate tendency of Bahamian politicians to rip up the foundations laid by their predecessors.
He has a good point. Even after 35 years of independence, and several changes of government, the chief criterion for contributing to national development remains political allegiance. Some even declare it to be a cultural standard!
Well, it's time to change all that, and ZNS, as the most politicised institution in the country, is the best place to start. If done right, this could have a knock-on effect throughout our entire society.