The hue and cry from online and others readers, citizen journalists and media and other practitioners in the region over the BBC’s announcement of the forthcoming closure of its Caribbean radio news service is puzzling, and admittedly too, a wee bit amusing.
The uproar over BBC’s announcement has uncanny echoes of some 60 years ago when Britain announced that she would grant independence to her colonies in the west - which came to be known as the West Indies through an error in judgement by explorer Columbus.
Incidentally, it was just about 60 years, too, since the BBC Empire News Service was born in the region. From the reactions, it seems, ‘twas not Sparrow and local media culture that took over from imperialism and domination and took up position side by side with new home grown governments; ‘twas the BBC.(1)
There is déjà-vu reverberating in the cries of ‘woe is me’ on the one hand from those lamenting loss of the service and envisioning an abysmal void in their daily lives, as in the chest-thumping of the celebrants at the possibilities of ultimate liberation from the shadow of the BBC ‘massa’, and an opportunity for the region to carve out its own media destiny.
The reawakened voices championing a regional media resonates with the 1950s/60s rhetoric surrounding establishment of a Federation of the West Indies. One daresay the inheritors of the spoils of BBC hegemony are likely to – after they have re-acted – act no differently from their political ancestors. Beneath the cool, calm, sunny exterior of the Caribbean shown in our tourist brochures, festers deep, dark cut-throat competitiveness not unlike the legendary pirates that marauded its seas and enterprising media entrepreneurs will at best hope to scoop up as much of the media turf abandoned by the BBC as possible.
The cool reality is that the BBC was established to first and foremost serve the needs of Britain; if it has accomplished more than that, then all qudos due. It has occupied the space it has in the region – and a substantial space indeed if one is to judge from the online reactions – because as with other arenas in which collective regional action has been required, the region, including its media institutions, its fiercely nationalistic political entities and profit mongering private ones, have been unable to rise to the occasion to grow a comparable indigenous entity.
Several express yearning for a BBC-style entity, or PBS-type television but none have produced the will or pocketbooks to move the step further to so invest in ensuring sustainability of a media entity that will be for the region what the BBC is to the UK.
It is telling that there is no developed facility in the CARICOM mechanism that speaks specifically to regional media issues – public broadcasting radio and television.
In fact, beyond immediate propaganda purposes, governments have not yet come to grips with the broader functions that media can serve in national and regional development.
Where private sector joins the rhetoric, it stops there, largely at rhetoric as bottom line issues quickly bring out erasers and ink lines through policies and actions that may promote local and regional developmental type productions – the ‘explanation’ proffered is that it costs much less to import the offerings of Hollywood, PBS and indeed the BBC than it would to grow the indigenous sector.
What it has whittled down to as far as local programming go are cheap in-studio talk shows that gives little store to indepth analysis, and the kind of planning and background research that go into the making of even live TV; informed radio and indeed sound newspaper journalism.
Those who are in the system try against tremendous odds to swim the tide balancing the public ideal of the imported so become mere imitators rather than create their own.
The funny thing is, and seemingly oblivious to the respondents, that the BBC’s move to cut its world service which has affected the Caribbean comes at the time when the BBC has been readjusting its delivery of information and news to take advantage of the current new media environment and the global nature of communications. Its talk and outreach and news services have been searching out ways of tapping into communities in ways that take advantage of what new media allows, including, ironically through the provision for online comments through which listeners aired their views on closure of the Caribbean radio service.
The BBC no longer has to have a costly battery of correspondents and reporters in countries, districts and societies to serve its reputation as globally connected, citizen journalists and its online soliciting of views through comment forms, Facebook and Twitter, World Have Your Say productions and others are already filling what some of the commentators view as a void. And have we forgotten all the arrows that have been hurled the BBC’s way over the decades in terms of its perceived alien/foreign agenda?
The variety and openness of that environment in fact makes it a much more stimulating form of exchange than the one-sided feed of conventional radio, with the built in bias in selection of ‘sources’, opinion makers and all the other limitations and criticisms that have been levied at conventional media. New media is responding to the need for a society to reflect and reflect on itself as a mirror of society, with perspectives that comes from within rather than outside, in a way that institutions based abroad have never been able to with the ever-present data of reinterpreting regional realities according to terms and benchmarks set outside.
Caribbean media entities, government and private operations alike, and indeed individuals as well would do well to explore ways of leveraging the international community through such opportunities that new media provide, especially as it gives unprecedented access to the globe. It is their challenge to be creative enough and enterprising enough to pull themselves out of the tabanca (2) over the BBC’s withdrawal – certainly it has had some 60 years preparing for it, since the end of colonial rule.
1. Refers to the line “The Yankees gone and Sparrow take over town” from a calypso Jean and Dinah by calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow sung in reaction to the withdrawal of American troops from Trinidad in the 1960s with his tongue-in-cheek innuendo that with the Americans gone, he has unbridled access to the town’s prostitutes.
2. A Trinidad term for the pathological affliction and symptoms of what is called ‘love sickness’.