LEFT OF CENTRE: Start by privatizing CBC
It’s not a good time to be a chief executive or chairman of a statutory corporation in Barbados.
With Government having been forced before to impose austerity measures and bring down the fiscal deficit, and the general economic climate at a time of high unemployment forcing commercial entities to watch every penny, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if leaders of some state enterprises were deeply worried about sustaining their operations or being cut off altogether.
A prime candidate would be the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, operators of three radio stations and CBC TV in the Pine. Not that CBC hasn’t served the public interest for almost 50 years since its inception in 1963 – it gave Barbados its first wireless indigenous radio station and a year later introduced television.
However, except for a few years when it turned a profit, CBC has been a drain on the public coffers through subsidies or periodic injections of large sums to improve operational efficiency or raise the quality of its services.
Interestingly, successive governments have ignored the wisdom of privatizing CBC.
What’s required now is for Government to take a bold step by privatizing the corporation, both radio and television, while giving licences to at least one or maybe two television operators to ensure aggressive and meaningful competition, especially when it comes to local programming. It would take the service out of Government’s hands.
Privatizing CBC without awarding television licences to other private operators wouldn’t cut it.
Time was when almost every large Caribbean nation had a government-owned radio and television operation – a monopoly. Not so anymore. Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, for instance, privatized its government-owned broadcast entities several years ago while Barbados opted to keep its television station as a monopoly.
The advent of cable television has only served to introduce more foreign programming but hasn’t paved the way for more local material to get on the air. Barbados liberalized radio broadcasting more than 30 years ago by awarding Barbados Rediffusion a radio licence to introduce what has become a privately owned national asset – Voice Of Barbados. The station at River Road and others that have come on stream since the 1980s helped to revolutionize radio broadcasting and they have flourished in the process.
Looking back, it’s difficult to remember a time when wireless radio broadcasting was a Government monopoly. The same could be done for television. Indeed, it should have been done at least 20 years ago. Barbados Rediffusion, the broadcasting pioneer in the country, should have been given a television licence long ago.
But in opening up the television airwaves to competition, Government should keep an agency that monitors the operations of broadcast entities, if only in the public interest. The airwaves are public property.
Clearly, there is nothing inherently wrong with statutory corporations. The model that Barbados embraced more than 60 years ago – the Central Bank of Barbados and Barbados Tourism Authority, for example – is basically a good one, but far too many of them have been mismanaged and have wasted hundreds of millions in the past 50 to 60 years.
Governments have used them to find employment and other forms of patronage for their supporters while allowing ministers to control their activities in ways that wouldn’t be allowed in the Civil Service – and that’s not good.