Thursday 28th April 2005

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Towards a broadcast code

All the major broadcast jurisdictions in the free and democratic world are governed by regulations to guide the operations of radio and television.

Similarly, all of the major national and international broadcast institutions—the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CNN, ABC and all the others—have their own internal codes that govern basic principles of broadcasting and journalism, including ethical considerations.

One of the major arguments for regulation revolves around the reality of countries having limited spectrum space (that indefinable thing, for a non-engineering person like this columnist, through which facilitates the sending and receiving of signals) and therefore in seeking to allocate that space in the best interests of citizens, there should be regulatory guidelines for the utilisation of such a precious and limited national resource.

Allied to that contention is that radio and television beam into living rooms and the privacy of people’s homes almost without hindrance (unlike the newspaper you pick up on the corner, making a deliberate choice to do so) and so there must be standards acceptable to the nation as a whole.

One counter to having a broadcast code holds that listeners and viewers should be allowed to use the switch to turn on and off or turn to alternative stations. Yet another view says if there is to be a code, it should be internal and not imposed and monitored from outside, especially by government, any government, which can use the code to achieve partisan political objectives.

This columnist is on the side of the establishment and maintenance of international standards of broadcasting to be observed by the electronic media here with each broadcasting unit having, and this would be complimentary to the broader code, its own code and set of principles to guide not only the production of news and current affairs but programming and advertising standards.

Journalists are daily investigating and reporting on institutions and individuals that do not follow acceptable principles of behaviour in their activities: why should the profession of journalism not be held similarly responsible to observe internationally accepted principles practised in those countries from which we inherited our tradition of broadcast journalism and programming?

It however does not follow that recognition of the need for standards, responsibility and accountability through the application of internationally accepted broadcasting principles translates into automatic support for the draft being circulated by the Telecommunications Authority.

This is a position I first articulated back in the early 1980s in a column in the Trinidad Review and have repeated several times in the intervening 20 years plus.

The short history of attempts in T&T to establish some form of regulation to the industry goes back to the National Alliance for Reconstruction government (1986-1991). The NAR was the government which opened the door for the expansion of the radio and television industry.

As with the NAR itself, the broadcast code was kicked out of the window with the promulgators receiving a thorough pasting for being perceived as trying to control the media.

The effort of the UNC with its Green Paper on the reform of media laws, although different to what went before and that of the present in some fundamental ways, received a similar roasting with Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj and Prime Minister Basdeo Panday being the main targets.

In the present, the TATT draft, being piloted by a couple public servants, has got a warm enough baptism and its future seems as uncertain as how WI will play tomorrow.

Before we get to an analysis of the actual draft, the observation must be made about the peculiarity of this society to wail and moan about everything that is wrong with a particular industry or form of operation but when an attempt is made to counter the negatives, there is a sudden transformation of specialist public opinion and the institution and institutional practices become acceptable, even exemplary.

For instance, elements of Indo-Trinidad have slammed the Afro-centric broadcast media in Port-of-Spain for discrimination and for practising the worst forms of racism possible.

Indo-Trinidadian culture is said to have been denied a place on the national media and the cultural and religious groups representative of Indo-Trinidad are said to have been denied a radio licence on spurious, perhaps racist, grounds. Indeed, the courts have ruled on these latter allegations and found them to have substance.

At the same time, Afro-conscious citizens highlight what they see as the daily assaults of racism against their community emanating out of the Indian radio stations and also charge that Afro-Trinidadian culture is invisible on television and silent on radio.

Also, there are those who are of neither tribe but who fear that the free-for-all clash, contention (some of it deliberately and politically encouraged) and the diminished, even absence of, professional standards in the industry could have disastrous effects on race relations and the maintenance of civil society.

However, when faced with the challenge of doing something about it, an irrational hysteria emerges. Maybe there is work here for the social psychologist who may investigate if there is some psychosis hindering progress.

But handling race relations sensitively and productively to enhance the possibility of cohesion even in the plural society is not the only known problem of broadcasting and broadcast journalism. Bias, ignorance, incompetence, the absence of journalistic standards and fairness are all challenges to be conquered.

All of this does not suggest that politicians should escape scrutiny and the draft not be subjected to searching analysis. What the column is advocating is that a draft code should be approached in an adult fashion with recognition given to the international nature of such a code.

Indeed, the broadcast industry should insist as a first position that there be extensive discussions and that the industry should be central to the finalisation and monitoring of the code when it is established.

In this respect, the first comment on the TATT attempt to develop a code is to say that organisation should not be the one to work with the industry to develop the code and to manage its implementation. That should be the responsibility of a properly constituted independent broadcast authority. TATT should be left to work out the technical and economic environment for telecommunications development.

With the broadcast authority will come a structured environment that will implement and manage the code, including the establishment of sanctions and a process for applying the sanctions. Moreover, the authority will have responsibility for other matters, again long talked about, such as local programming, including the music and entertainment industry.

To be continued






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