This government is trapped like a rabbit in headlights when it comes to formulating a cultural policy, if the so-called cultural industries bill is meant to be its calling card. I won’t be too hard on them, since the previous government spent 14 years in office and also failed to come up. But that is history.
In simple terms, national culture is the nation speaking to itself; whether it be fine or performing arts, music, food, literature or any of the other facets of culture. This, somehow, has been lost on the prime minister who recently made rather disparaging remarks about literature and his parliamentary colleagues’ (for that see nation) ability to absorb high art.
Devising a Policy:
We already have two powerful cultural vehicles which should be driving out cultural policy. CBC, which for some reason a number of business people want to get their hands on, and the National Cultural Foundation, should work in tandem to drive forward policy. The problem is that there is no policy for the two bodies to champion; on culture, as in most other things, government has run out of ideas.
However, if we were to look at the key aspects of cultural policy, all the building blocks are there: literature, fine arts, sports, food, performing arts, etc. As a small island, we have produced some outstanding writers and at least one world-class poet.
Why is it that Edward Kamau Brathwaite is not our Poet Laureate and a knight, when so many worn out politicians are knights?
Why is it that although George Lamming is an outstanding novelist we are still celebrating a novel that was written in the early 1950s?
Why is it that every attempt at developing a literary culture, from Frank Collymore to Wickham, has ended in failure?
The truth is that as a nation, unlike Trinidad and Guyana, of the English-speaking Caribbean, and of the French and Spanish Caribbean, we have failed because our popular culture does not encourage reading. One of the remarkable features about Barbados is the absence of reading in public, on buses, in restaurants, on the beaches, unless you are a tourist. This is one gap that the university can usefully fill. To give a quick example, instead of so-called post-graduate cricket studies, a course in literature with a completed novel or anthology of poems or short stories, will enrich our culture much more than arguments about who is the best batsman or looking for hidden meaning in Nello James’ tired Beyond the Boundary.
Another programme that could be piloted by CBC and the NCF is an oral history of Barbados – getting out in the villages and old communities and talking to old people about old Barbados. There could also be a regional school of journalism – not the one at Mona – film making, television, and so on, all of which could, in time become key parts of our cultural economy. But they must be encouraged, funded, and given opportunities to grow, backed by government and private industry.
If the nation is as keen as it seems to establish a cutting-edge broadcasting network then it should be pressing the government for fundamental change, rather than tolerating the tired, badly managed, state-backed broadcaster we have. But, in these austere times, funding will remain the Achilles heel of a cultural programme of any value. This programme can be funded in new and radical ways. One way is through a levy on televisions, of for example, the introduction of a hypothecated tax which would be used exclusively to fund cultural programmes. There are about 110000 homes in Barbados. Let us assume that each home has a television; a Bds$120 a year television tax, or about 35cents a day, that will bring in about Bds$13m a year in new revenue tailored for broadcasting and the cultural industries. The hotels will be expected to pay at least Bds$15 per television per customer a month. Over five years, or the life of a government, that will be about Bds$70m over the life time of a parliament of dedicated funding for cultural activities under the supervision of an empowered national Cultural Foundation.
One condition of such a policy, however, is that politicians will set the strategy, by day-to-day management of the NCF would be left to the professional managers. This new money would be spent on programming, staff-training, providing peppercorn funding for developing writers and production companies, digital archiving, and, in part, funding other cultural activities under the aegis of the National Cultural Foundation and the over-all improvement of the output of the station.
Such innovations are not wishful thinking. They are the expected developments of a nation that has been independent for over 45years. The belief that Barbadians would resist paying for any such service does not stack up. The average Barbadian will jump at the opportunity to live permanently in the US, even though the US is a far more heavily taxed nation than Barbados – with City, state and federal forms of taxation.
The above proposed improved programming and diversified services from a reformed CBC are cheap when compared with some US providers, for example Comcast can cost US$50 a month, or Bds$1200 a year for a basic service compared with Bds$182 a year per household at the present exchange rates in these proposals for an equally first-rate service. For digital service, US customers pay up to US$140 a month or Bds$280, the equivalent of Bds$3360 a year. And for an internet phone service along, Comcast customers US customers pay about US$35 a line a month – Bds$70 or Bds$840 a year – with free nationwide calls; added to this commercial mix an opportunity for growth and the under-realised possibilities of the state broadcaster become even more obvious.
Any government with the concerns of ordinary people at its heart would ignore the howls of the greedy and money-grabbing who are calling for the privatising of CBC. First, it would mean putting the leading media organisation in the island in the hands of an unrepresentative elite who do not have the long-term interest of the nation at heart; it would also introduce an unnecessary element of job insecurity, which would inevitably impact on the quality of the programmes and news reporting. And, in simple terms, would be unfair.
A far better proposal will be to create a new and alternative broadcasting license for which would-be broadcasters would have to enter a auction. In this way, the government will raise much-needed additional revenue while at the same time introducing an element of competition for CBC. An alternative form of funding is creating a cultural industries lottery, in which 40 per cent of surplus after expenses and running costs, will go as prizes and 40 per cent towards the cost of individuals and organisations in the cultural industries, the nation would be in a position to develop a self-sustaining cultural sector without resorting to the taxpayer. But, our fixation on taxpayer-funding is an addiction by politicians and policymakers for two key reasons.
First, by allowing politicians to pull the purse strings gives them power to hire and fire, to hand out jobs and trinkets to their supports, in the meanwhile further eroding the system and plunging us in to a cesspit of corruption.
The second point, which is equally important, is that they lack policy-making vision because it is outside the experience of our polity. That is why every time they come up with an idea the obvious source of funding is the taxpayer, either direct or through some form of underwriting or loan from an international or regional funding body.
The strategic mission for the government, the creative industry and ordinary people in Barbados should be to make CBC a cultural catalyst, a national broadcasting institution which may be financially poorer but cultural and technologically the equal of any similar public broadcasting body in the world.
This can be achieved by removing the stultifying and narrow party politics, and, working hand in glove with the National Cultural Foundation and the Community College to create new drama, journalistic, music, dance, sport, televisual and speech vehicles through which to reflect the nation’s cultural offerings and the creative talents of people in the island and region.
We must not allow the model of most emerging countries to cloud our democracy. To preserve the integrity of our public conversation we must separate the funding, governance and editorial choices within our public broadcasting bodies.
A reformed CBC must be driven by a fierce spirit of journalistic independence, a well-trained and adventurous independent management; strong institutional values; powerful public consensus and public trust; and transparent and effective administrative efficiency.
That is not too much to offer the people of Barbados.