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Jamaica @ 50: Reflections on Journalism and Independence

Privatisation, liberalisation and the retreat from public broadcasting

Claude Robinson

Sunday, August 05, 2012    

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(Final in a three-part series)

THE Daily Gleaner of June 2, 1990 reported that former Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Senator Dr Ronald Irvine had quit the JBC board over my pending appointment as general manager of the corporation. He presumed political bias.

In the same story, then Senator Audley Shaw, Opposition information spokesman, also objected to my appointment, claiming that under my direction JBC had been "shamelessly manipulated for the advantage of the ruling party". He argued that even if I was "a true professional, his past closeness to the PNP may create an impression of politicising the station".

As stated in the previous article in this series, the 'guilt by association' was related to my service as Prime Minister Michael Manley's press secretary 1973-1979 and as deputy general manager and director of news and current affairs 1979-81. That was the period of intense political polarisation when Opposition Leader Edward Seaga declared JBC a "political sewer pit".

Thus, it was not surprising that after the 1980 elections, the new Seaga Government set about remaking the JBC once again by, among other things, creating a new newsroom. This was not unexpected as this had been made clear to me on several occasions by the new board.

Under the chairmanship of Patrick Rousseau, the board, at its meeting of 28 November 1980, "expressed the view that in a number of instances news reports have been inaccurate, distorted, unbalanced, irresponsible and without credibility". I was instructed by General Manager Wycliffe Bennett to respond to the charges.

Coverage of political violence in the election year was alleged to be biased against the JLP and the security forces. This was the year that saw a death toll of more than 800 — a situation from which the country is yet to recover.

The main concern stemmed from television coverage of vociferous demonstrations in front of JBC gates by persons claiming affiliation to the Government (PNP). Typically, they would allege they were victims of misconduct on the part of the security forces or politically motivated violence by JLP supporters.

By contrast, the JLP used to issue press releases alleging attacks from PNP sources. Of course, press releases did not have the same visual or vocal appeal; in that sense, 'balance' was not always possible in every story.

But, as I stated in a written response to the board, "the fact of the violence and the fact of the demonstrations were unquestionably true and unquestionably news", Hence, they were covered. JBC did not invent the events.

Another board complaint was that JBC-TV gave too much coverage to the leader of the communist Workers' Party of Jamaica (WPJ), Professor Trevor Munroe, and WPJ affiliates which, at the time, were often in the news commenting on a wide range of issues. The allegation was that the favourable coverage was facilitated by WPJ supporters and sympathisers in the newsroom.

My response to the board was that the prominence and frequency of the WPJ in the news may be explained by their vigorous public relations machinery but seemed "undeserved" given their strength and profile in the political landscape. Some of this might have been facilitated by a few sympathisers in the newsroom.

Ironically, the PNP was also having concerns about JBC during the 1970s. The view from Jamaica was that the WPJ was having undue influence over newsroom content.

This seemed part of a broader strategy to push the PNP further to the left of its democratic socialist moorings. Michael Manley, an unswerving democrat as well as a socialist, was firmly committed to retaining the party within its centre-left tradition while struggling for fundamental change both in Jamaican society and in global economic relations.

Bottom line was that the new board authorised the dismissal of the entire newsroom staff on grounds of redundancy, replacing them with personnel presumed to be more politically reliable. A result was that for the second time in less than two decades, a JLP Government and JBC workers and their unions would be in a protracted legal and industrial relations dispute that was not settled until February 1982.

The workers and the National Workers' Union took the Government to Court claiming that the redundancy was a pretext for a political decision to remove newsroom staff deemed to be ideologically opposed to the new Administration. Lawyers PJ Patterson and Carl Rattray represented the dismissed workers.

Just before the matter was to go to trial, the Government indicated a preference for a negotiated settlement. The settlement package included full salary for the year the workers were off the job; an additional one year's salary in general damages; and financial compensation for outstanding leave, pension benefits and the like.

Some of the ex-employees used their redundancy lump sum to start new businesses in public relations and connected communication fields.

Even before the dismissal of the newsroom staff, I had received marching orders from Mr Rousseau for "flouting" a board directive to demand prior approval of the 1980 Year-in-Review programme before it was aired. I had refused on grounds that it would be an unwarranted crossing of the line separating policy direction and newsroom operation.

Returning to the JBC in the 1990s, therefore, I resolved not to allow partisan political direction or private commercial and business interests to have undue influence on news and current affairs discussion programmes.

Accordingly, I pushed for major changes in the governance of the corporation. After returning to office in 1989, Manley introduced the changes. Among other things, the board and the director general were given greater autonomy while less authority was given to the minister (responsible for broadcasting) to direct the day-to-day affairs of the corporation.

This encouraged a new era of editorial independence, but I was to learn that this view was universally shared. Indeed, from as early as 1991, I started to feel political pressure for a more 'government-friendly' newsroom. In one memorable encounter with a high-ranking official I was told that JBC was "still treating Seaga like he was the prime minister".

Hence, when privatisation of the JBC became an option in about 1995, there was little political support for retaining the corporation as a public broadcaster. "The feeling [in Government and party circles] is that "we cannot be worse off with a privately owned JBC," I was told.

Admittedly, the JBC was losing money at the time, but the corporation, with the help of external consultants, had developed what the board and management regarded as a viable business plan. However, the Patterson Administration rejected the plan and decided to close the business and sell most of the corporation's assets to the RJR Group in June 1997.

The JBC had come full circle — born out of the inspiration of Norman Manley's PNP Government for a national broadcaster to serve the public interest; politicised by a succession of administrations; weakened by too many management changes; and finally laid to rest by another PNP Administration.

At the end of the day, I believe it was a mistake to miss the opportunity to recreate a viable and credible public broadcasting space in a liberalised, global media landscape. While our private media do quite a good job, especially as a watchdog on Government, there are some citizen needs for information, education and enlightenment that are not commercially viable.

It is indeed ironic that Al Edwards, CEO of CVM, responding to public complaints about the reach and quality of CVM's Olympics coverage, in a TV interview suggested government 'subsidy' as part of the answer to the admittedly difficult and expensive task of reaching every nook and cranny of Jamaica with acceptable signal quality!

Happy 50th, and may we all resolve to improve our skills, do better at our jobs, and help each other more in the next 50.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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