JBC TV -- A birthday without celebration


Sunday, August 17, 2003

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APART from a personal recollection by journalist Keeble McFarlane (Observer, August 4) the 40th anniversary of the birth of JBC TV came and went with as much celebration that some families reserve for an unlamented relative whose deeds in life were best interred with his bones.

But, as someone who was there for the birth and death, and some good times in between, I believe that JBC TV's contribution to our cultural heritage was too important for a 40-year milestone to pass unnoticed. Further, there are lessons from the JBC experience that are instructive for any future endeavours in public broadcasting, which still has a role in the age of privatisation.

I was a trainee editor on the radio news desk for that first TV newscast of August 4, 1963 that my good friend Keeble recalled with such clarity and nostalgia. And I was the director- general for the tearful ending at 5:00 pm on June 12, 1997, when the broadcasting operations of JBC TV and JBC Radio Two were handed over to Radio Jamaica and JBC Radio One signed off, for the last time.

JBC TV was launched four years after the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation was established by N W Manley, the last premier of pre-independent Jamaica, to respond to the "special needs" of the Jamaican people, needs which he felt could not be met by a private broadcasting company "operating purely as a profitable enterprise".

But from very early, governments and professional broadcasters disagreed about funding and journalistic independence for public broadcasting. The first general manager, Peter Aylen resigned within a year in a political dispute over his plans for the station, which were said to be too costly and ambitious.

This set a trend of instability. From 1959 to 1989, there were 13 chairmen -- eight appointed by the PNP and five by the JLP. There was also a two-year period, May 1983 to September 1985 when there was no board. Over the same period, there were 18 general managers, one of whom -- Wycliffe Bennett -- served two separate terms, one under each party. Six of the general managers were appointed by the PNP and 12
by the JLP.
The pattern really took shape after the 1962 election brought the JLP to power which set about to change personnel and priorities. Over the years, successive governments came to see JBC as a prize of electoral victory.

At the PNP conference (September 2, 1986), Michael Manley signalled an intention to break with the tradition of political boards when he announced a commitment to a bi-partisan approach. The prime minister and the leader of the Opposition would jointly appoint boards "so that we can have a station that will be what Norman Manley wanted it to be".

This promise led to the change that was reflected in the JBC Act of October 31, 1991. The first board constituted under the new act were Colin Campbell, appointed by Manley; George Ramocan, appointed by the leader of the Opposition; professor Errol Miller; chairman Canon Ewart Gordon; Winnie Risden-Hunter and Linda Mair as joint nominees of both Manley and Seaga. This group then appointed two independent members, Deanne Bell-Wright and Colin Steele. I, as director-general, completed the board.

The 1993 general election was the first big test of whether the new form of governance would demonstrate a new level of impartiality in an area of traditional controversy. Happily, we met that test because, for the first time in JBC history, the newsroom was not accused by the opposition party of being a campaign tool for the government.

We drew up and followed a protocol for even-handed coverage of news events, paid advertising and free broadcasts.

There was some positives on the business side. In the financial year, 1992-93 we made a profit of $10,807,163 in television operations and although a substantial loss in radio resulted in audited net profit of only $2,673,405 for the corporation as a whole, this was a significant, unprecedented achievement.

Regrettably, this was not sustained and so by the mid-'90s, we were going through another of the restructuring exercises known only too well to JBC workers.

Following a detailed analysis by outside consultants, the JBC board accepted the recommendations of the consultants to make the corporation into a viable business by divesting Radio One; repositioning Radio Two and JBC TV as commercial entities and establishing a wireless (cable) subscriber television service.

"In our view, there should be room and place for a public media house whose mission includes the promotion of the common good, the public interest and the national culture and whose mandate includes giving voice and visibility to the majority of Jamaicans. JBC, as the single public media house, provides the needed counterweight in an environment so heavily weighted in favour of private interests," the board said at the time.

But, the government was not minded to support a restructuring plan with the capital outlays necessary. Instead, they took the route of selling JBC TV and Radio Two to RJR.

I believe the climate of market liberalisation and budget considerations played a role in that privatisation decision but I also believe that the long mindset of opposing the very idea of independent journalism in a state-owned broadcast facility remained and tipped the scales towards the decision to sell.

Ironically, the uncelebrated anniversary came the same week when JBC has been blasted for not preserving videotape recordings of Ring Ding done by cultural icon, Louise Bennett Coverely. I do not know when and why this very regrettable loss of some of our cultural heritage occurred.

But I know that a lot has been retained and must be carefully preserved not merely as archival material, but as sources for new generations of producers and creative people to retell old stories to future generations of Jamaicans.

And I also know that unless there is a commitment to a public media free from partisan control or undue influence any future reiterations of public broadcasting will end the same way. To all those who were part of the JBC effort, cheers!

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