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Privately-owned media have responsibility too

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If the closure of the BBC’s Caribbean service leaves a vacuum for a daily pan-Caribbean radio news service, it is the fault of the Caribbean news media, not the British government nor the BBC.

Others have lamented the decision by the British Government to close the Caribbean Service of the BBC as part of its cost cutting exercise.{{more}} My lament is different. First, I regret the loss of employment by the hardy group of Caribbean broadcasters who diligently kept the service alive; and second, I deplore the fact that, in all the years since the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad in 1962 and Barbados and Guyana in 1966, Caribbean radio stations have not built on early efforts to make such a service permanent and sustainable in the Caribbean, by the Caribbean.

I admit now to a vested interest in this matter. As far back as 1969, I was among a handful of people from around the Caribbean that helped to establish the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) and a few years later, the Caribbean News Agency (CANA), on whose inaugural Board of Directors I sat. We did so against the background of the collapse of the West Indies Federation in 1962, and the formation of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) in 1968. It was clear to us that, in part, the West Indies Federation had collapsed because dissenting politicians had been able to capitalise on the paucity of knowledge about each other that existed among the Caribbean people of the time. We knew that, if a new integration process were to have any chance of success, there was an urgent need for daily information and communication.

The second reason that motivated us to establish the CBU and CANA was that up to then, there was no direct flow of information between the countries that made up CARIFTA, which later became the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). For instance, news from Guyana to neighbouring Trinidad was despatched via Reuters to London, edited there, and then sent back to Guyana and Trinidad. The same principle applied across all the countries of the Caribbean. Again, we felt that with several of our countries, then freshly independent, and others on their way, it was time that Caribbean countries exchanged news directly amongst themselves, and not through an intermediary in London, Paris or New York.

In its first few years, the CBU produced more programmes about the region, and broadcast more live and direct programmes between radio stations than they do today. As an example, GBS in Guyana, 610 Radio in Trinidad and CBC in Barbados linked every Sunday at noon to carry a one-hour live news and current affairs programme, originating in all three countries. No such thing exists today.

CANA, in its early stages in the late 1970’s, delivered not only a daily news service to the print media, it initiated a daily news broadcast as well for radio stations throughout the region. Today, while its print service continues, its radio news broadcasts have disappeared and its Monday to Friday TV News broadcast is a shadow of its original self, and is treated like a rival step-child by national TV stations.

In the event, the lack of financial support by the members of the CBU to the institution has brought it to its knees. It no longer produces any radio programmes for broadcast. CANA has suffered from the same neglect. Its shareholders have not invested the capital required for a vibrant news agency.

As a member of the Board of the International Programme for the Development of Communications at UNESCO, and later as a member of the Executive Board of UNESCO, I fought, alongside the late Hector Wynter of Jamaica, to get international support for a struggling CANA in the 1990s. By now, if CANA had received equally strong support from the Caribbean media, some of whom owned it – and others who were its clients – no one would be lamenting the closure of the BBC’s Caribbean service. Indeed, a vibrant CANA would long ago have absorbed the BBC Caribbean’s staff if they were ready to leave Britain.

The reality is that when the CBU was started, three radio stations, located in Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad, carried the initial cost before others came along. Many slipped away with the passage of time, for reasons that had nothing to do with either less regional integration or less need for pan-Caribbean information. In the case of CANA, it has to be said that the initiative to start it came from the CARIFTA Heads of Government at the time who subscribed to the vision of a network of direct information as the web on which regional integration would be overlaid.

There was then, as there continued to be, a resistance by the regional privately-owned media either to be involved with governments in media ownership or to allow governments or government-owned media to own majority shares in the entity. Their fear was government control of information flow. The fear was – and is – a legitimate concern, but the matter should not end there, for, over the years, the two regional information institutions have been paralyzed by the lack of financial support. It was what made the BBC’s Caribbean service so attractive to Caribbean radio stations – it was free, paid for by the British taxpayers.

The shareholders of the CBU and CANA, and indeed all the media in the region – newspapers, radio and TV – now need to decide to pay for the production of pan-Caribbean news and current affairs coverage on a daily basis. And, really, to pay not just for a service, but for one that is highly professional and well-delivered. The cost is not prohibitive; it would be less than the cost of one lunch per day. Some leading official in CANA or the CBU should convene such a meeting now, and show that they are ready and willing to meet their responsibilities to the Caribbean people.

There is a need now for more, not less, regional information. And, for one that does not depend on the interests of others and which can end when their interests change.

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