Politicians v/s Media—Battle between Elephants

Marcia Forbes PhD

“If ‘the people’ are ill-informed, then the question has been asked, who is to
blame? The politicians for not disseminating their policies well enough or the media for not reporting them often enough?” (Ross & Nightingale 2003).

Nothing New!!
Ross and Nightingale whose words I’ve quoted are not Jamaicans. The above questions were posed in their 2003 book. So the dilemma the electronic media houses in Jamaica find themselves faced with is neither new nor peculiar. It seems the Government of the day is convinced that media here have not been reporting Government policies often enough. But herein lies the rub—the media are largely privately owned and commercially driven, not there to serve the behest of the Government.

Media Liberalization
Under its liberalization programme, in keeping with the dominant free market ideology, toward the late1980s and into 1990s the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) adopted more liberal media policies/positions and largely divested itself of media. This led to increasing privatization of media with less control by Government.

This process started with radio. The Government owned Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, owner and operator of national and regional radio stations, divested itself of these entities:
• Govt. owned Radio Central became KLAS in August, 1989 and was the first in the divestment process.
• Radio North East was privatized and launched as Irie FM in August, 1990.
• Radio West was sold and branded Hot 102.
• In 1997, Radio 2, owned and operated by JBC, was sold to Radio Jamaica (RJR), a publicly traded media entity.
• Privatization of Government-owned television took place in 1997 when GOJ sold JBC TV to RJR.

Government’s Big Stick
The role of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica, with its licence-granting and content monitoring mandate has, however, effectively maintained Government’s regulatory function over the electronic media (radio and TV—free to air & cable), but not the print media. Newspapers are not required to be licensed.

The argument for licensing the electronic media hinges on issues relating to the electro magnetic spectrum, and specifically the radio frequency (RF) as a scarce resource. Attendant on the privilege of a licence to operate a radio or TV station or a cable TV system is the concept of social responsibility. They are required to operate in the public interest. With cable TV, this is by way of community channels.

In the case of local radio and TV stations, the terms of their licence require them to assign time to Government broadcasts (created mainly by the Jamaica Information Service – JIS). For TV, the 45 minute programme is to be aired between 4pm to 10pm. Always ‘hanging over the heads’ of electronic media is the fear of having their licence revoked or not renewed if in any way they fail to comply with the conditions of their licence. This can be regarded as Government’s big stick and way of keeping media in check which is not all together a bad thing since self-regulation is often times woefully inadequate.

Many Media Entities
Today, Jamaica is not short of media outlets and variety of voices. But, it may be perceived as short of Government-owned outlets, with Public Broadcasting Corp. of Jamaica (PBCJ) being the beacon. There is also the Creative Production and Training Center (CPTC) and JIS. For cost-related reasons, these Govt. entities, except PBCJ, largely rely on commercially-driven, privately owned media to air their Government-created content.

Looking at the commercial electronic media, the current site of contestation between politicians and media, we see that there are 20 radio stations, 49 cable systems and 3 free-to-air TV stations. Nearly all of these (BBC and RFI excluded) are required to donate time allowed for Government broadcasts. But this does not seem to be enough for the Government which appears to want to be seen and heard across these media in ways that it will dictate and control, seemingly beyond the terms of the licence held by the private media houses.

Editorial & Programming Independence
The present quarrel between the Minister and the Media hinges on editorial and programming control and independence. I understand why each side would want to hold hard-line positions. There is a great deal at stake. Governments and journalists co-produce the news. However, although they feed off each other, it is well established that how media frame stories and set the agenda for what we think about can go a far way in driving public sentiments toward/away from a Government. Gordon Brown knows this well. Compare his portrayals via Murdoch-owned media versus the BBC.

This Government with its diminishing trust quotient and well-documented communication blunders in trying to get its side of the story told but, like so many other times, is going about it in a manner that does not serve its best interest. The Minister, who I know as a hard-working, shrewd politician, should dismount his high horse and work toward constructive and frank dialogue designed to derive consensus. Commercial media entities have a real case in seeking to protect their right to program and present their stations in ways which differentiate and distinguish, putting each at best advantage for capturing audiences and driving revenues.

In this battle between elephants, it is the grass, we the audience, who may suffer most. We may become so turned off the all too obvious Government programming that we may just tune out, switch off and migrate to media devoid of such influence, missing out on matters of importance to Jamaica and of the right and duty as citizens to participate in our democracy!! It is in the public’s interest in Jamaica, especially in these times, to have a vocal, vibrant media. This does not necessarily mean more Government broadcasts. It means greater attention to the issues which are of real importance to this country—truth, honesty, value consensus on critical matters and social order.