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Towards fair and balanced state media

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The opportunity exists to create an electronic media institution (state-owned media—and that means owned by all of the people and institutions) that will achieve the highest standards of broadcast journalism. Suitably envisioned and constructed, the state-owned media will plumb the depths of our society; they will reflect, analyse, and give opportunity for expression to all and encourage meaningful human development in every hamlet and town, even those “behind God back.” Most importantly, established on the best principles of journalism, the state-owned media will demonstrate the virtues of balance, fairness, cultural plurality, give voice to all shades of political opinion without favour, and be a living example of the civilisation that can be developed here for all those who made the crossing. The late Maurice Bishop used to say that “media is not saltfish” and he understood and took that very seriously and attempted to subjugate all media to the designs of the PRG as he and those who would later be his assassins sought to hang on to the tenuous power he snatched from Eric Gairy.

logoThe far more savage and dictatorial Forbes Burnham controlled the media and if violence was needed to do so, he never flinched from using it. Translated in a manner that can bring benefit, Bishop’s comment should lead us to understand that media are not commodities to be bought and sold over the counter to pass from hand to hand, but as the Fourth Estate, the watchdog for the people, with the responsibility to blow the whistle on any abuse of power by the Executive, judiciary and legislature. We should understand media to be a vehicle to inform human development, to give the society perspective, not attempt to tell it what to think and what conclusions to come to, but rather to cultivate thought and opinion. Often, and especially in times of cheap vulgar living and politicking, media are seen as tools to be used in the manner that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels did to propagandise the German population into becoming “believers” of their dastardly deeds and vision. This column follows last week’s attempt to give a short history of the state-owned media, how they have been compromised by succeeding governments and converted into mouthpieces for the government in office.

Moreover, the previous column noted how the likes of TTT, NBS, ICN and NBN have disintegrated, lost the confidence of viewers and listeners, and, importantly, have not proven to be useful in preventing a government from losing office when the electorate has decided against a ruling party. That record illustrates well the uselessness of a government seeking to usurp what does not belong to it but rather to the people. It is even more absurd and nonsensical in today’s media environment for any government to think that it can successfully usurp state-owned media when the 30-odd radio stations are on the air, six to seven national and community television stations are beaming on air and online, three daily newspapers are available on mornings and in perpetuity on the Internet, and the plethora of new technological media are crossing boundaries every second of the day and cannot be restricted, all of them privately owned. In the circumstances, therefore, for any government to hold on to a state-owned media and to bend them to its will is pointless, ignorant of the process of mass media and its possibilities for credible communications, but most of all such usurpation will deny the creation of an institution with the real possibility of releasing human potential.

The above is an attempt to explain what media are about, how they can contribute to social, economic and political growth and development. It is also saying that conceived of in those terms a government, in this instance the People’s Partnership Government, being ideally positioned because of its wide social base comprising and representative of significant segments of the society, can fashion an independent broadcast institution. The Government should not be persuaded by narrow political agendas, but should give itself an opportunity to think and reflect on this phenomenon of state-owned media and how best they should function. It would be simplistic for any government to believe that making command performances on state-owned media television and radio will automatically translate into credible communication with audiences and result in political support for a policy and set of programmes.
As recounted last week, the history is clear: succeeding governments in power which have attempted to suborn state media have been driven out of office notwithstanding. The configuration of the existing media, the vast majority being privately owned and driven by the profit motive, which is the accepted ownership and management model to achieve “freedom,” should also inform the thinking of Government in deciding on what to do with state-owned media.

However, should such media, driven almost exclusively by the profit motive, be the only show in town? What of the possibility of establishing and evolving an independent and professional broadcast institution in the interest of the real owners of it, the people of Trinidad and Tobago? Inevitably, such a professional institution must influence other media houses, set standards for broadcast journalism that will redound to the entire industry; that will have an impact on all media and generally raise the standards of professionalism in the economy and society. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation, the latter being arguably the premier international broadcaster over the last 80 years, are fine examples of media institutions which have professional and independent structures that allow them to resist any attempt by a government in office to manipulate them for narrow political purposes. The decision on the establishment of such a state-owned media institution is for the Government and people to come to a conclusion on in the reality that what has existed for 50 years has not worked in the best interest of the consumers of information. People involvement is vital. State-owned media, like Petrotrin and the National Gas Company, do not belong to a government in office; they comprise vital state resources for communication by the people. The Government has control of its communications apparatus in the Government Information Services Limited; state-owned media should be differently constructed.


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