Notes From a Native Son – Creating Cultural Industries that are Relevant to the People

Hal Austin

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.

0 thoughts on “Notes From a Native Son – Creating Cultural Industries that are Relevant to the People

  1. @Hal. You put your case well. However, I have a prejudice against TV licensing as it pertains in the UK, which is what you are suggesting. In the UK, the monies raised from TV licensing is supposedly used to fund the BBC. However, there is an enormous shortfall and it still requires government grants to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to make the BBC competitive in the TV marketplace with other companies like BskyB, which rely on advertising revenues and turn a large yearly profit, rather than having to dip into the public purse for subsidy. I fear that all a TV license fee would do is to place another financial burden on an already overburdened taxpayer and the funds from this, rather than going to CBC, would be ending up in the pockets of yet another branch of civil servant charged with collecting and policing the system. There are vans and personnel that would have to patrol areas to identify who had and had not paid their license fees. A very expensive operation that would easily swallow the $12 million raised, without a single cent going to the CBC. So effectively the CBC would still be forced to operate solely on what it gets from the public purse, with what is in effect, another branch of the civil service to pay for that produces nothing at all.

    Then too, Hal, the BBC has no advertisements. Are you trying to tell me that you think that the CBC would do the same if a licensing fee was charged per TV set? I don’t think so.

    No! I think the answer is to sell off and privatise the CBC. Then it is dependant on advertisers and getting advertisers is dependant on audience demographics. This, in its turn, leads to better programming in order to attract audiences away from the many alternatives that already exist through the medium of the Internet, alternatives that can easily be fed through on to TV sets without the need then to pay any license fees.

    With the greatest respect, I think your reasoning as to a solution for the dissemination of Bajan culture is fatally flawed. BUT, having said that, I too bemoan the absence of quality programmes with Bajan content and the celebration of our outstanding artists. These are areas that can be addressed only by the introduction of a credible CIB, which the draft one is not – neither credible or even properly drafted. HOWEVER, a CIB must also look to generate international business coming into Barbados. I see recently that the Minister, Lashley, pulled the figure of $800 million in revenue out of his hat in a statement at BCC, that he proposes that the cultural industries will bring into Barbados. Well, it doesn’t take an expert to know that this figure is made up probably on the spur of the moment and because of the massive and cogent negative comment and that, with the way the CIB currently stands, it will not bring in a single cent. I read with interest the brief to the Minister from a group of interested culture parties, here on BU – a brief that even to myself as a layman, made perfect and unquestionable sense. I will be interested to see if the Minister has the good sense to take this on board, throw away his draft CIB and start afresh with a CIB that is actually literate and does not confuse itself with the Companies Act. Or whether political expediency will make him force this CIB through thus creating another white elephant for our overburdened taxpayers to cope with.

    All that said, though, I commend you on raising a most worthy subject for debate here on BU.

    • We had the TV license tax in the past and it was regarded as a nuisance and went mostly unpaid. How would we collect/enforce the tax? Agree that the idea is noble but maybe impractical.

      Not sure about privatizing CBC either. There is an important role for public broadcasting.

  2. Hal, you’ve made some salient points, however, the Barbadian consumer cannot afford any additional taxes. This small, mismanaged economy is max out as regards taxes. I would suggest that the entities,The CBC, UWI and NCF are at the stage of develpment, where they should be seeking their own funding and becoming competitive.
    It boggles the mind , why those entities, with all their trained expertise, believes that it’s their god given right to be supported by the tax payers of this country. Time has long gone for them to get up of their asses and earn their keep in this competitive world, like everybody else.

    • @Ken R smith

      Yes you are correct that many posit that Barbados is an overtaxed jurisdiction but as a Nation we have to weigh the cost benefit of being able to finance the cultural industries.

      Also bear in mind the last government imposed a levy, dubbed secret, part of the problem is that there was never a structure how the fund should have been or was used.

      We continue to have zero transparency how we do things in the public sector.

  3. @David. Might I suggest that it would be a good idea if some of the experts and stakeholders in the cultural industries contribute their views here.

    As for the effects of privatisation, surely that is easily handled by way of a broadcast license issued to whoever buys the CBC, in that a condition of that license is that a certain amount (percentage) of daily Barbadian content must be broadcast in specified time periods, including prime time, exclusive of news and sports broadcasts. That then places an onus on the CBC (as a private body) to produce quality local progammes that will attract the audience ratings to protect their advertising revenue. I speak under correction, but I think that is what Canada has done through the CRTC (Canadian Radio and Television Commission) which issues broadcast licenses. So, on that basis, I continue to support selling off the CBC and easing the pain of the taxpayers for a service which, today, few tune into, give the superior quality of the alternatives.

  4. @Amused

    The link to this blog was deposited on Facebook at a place where individuals from the arts frequent.

    Who can disagree with what you posit but to compare the standards which saturate those markets and compare with what we have here,,,

    Conceptually as you have stated it would be good to extricate CBC from the political tentacles which has been choking it for much of its existence.

  5. I think you will find that there is already enough money flowing through the NCF and CBC, but like all government departments it is poorly spent. I am always amazed what NGOs and charities can achieve with a few thousand dollars. Government needs to work more closely with artists, funnelling money directly to them, rather than into an morass which is the civil service.

  6. The issue from where BU sits is that many of the players in the Cultural and Creative Industries have been and continue to be manipulated by politicians. The politicians will again the CIB dialogue because too many decisions are being made on the altar of expediency.

  7. @ David
    TV Licence Taxes are not impossible to collect. I recall in the UK TV Licence Inspectors could come to your door and inquire if you had an operational TV and the Licence. If you had an operational TV and no Licence you could be brought before the Magistrates Courts.

    TV detector vans could also be parked in the road and they could detect if a TV was being operated indoors . . . .these things can be enforced, if there is the will and the capital outlay justifies it.

  8. The arts are something which speak to the flowering of a nation and a big thankyou to H Austin for exploring it so well here. More please on this subject. It is so much more vital than ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the colour of our underwear.

  9. Wait Yardbroom, you must know that my computer monitor is a whopping 32 in across (a result of the kind of work that I do). It poses as a HD TV too. (I have another 48″ special for special types of activities that are not TV related) Now how the hell is someone going to convince me that I should be pay a TV license for a computer monitor …?

    Wait Amused, you don’ t’ink that a government’s first concern with the privatization of an entity such as a TV station would be the foreign exchange drain that would result from the purchase of up to date American programs by the private owners as they seek to attract viewership and advertising money … uh? Gov’ments foolish hear but not sa foolish hear … and in any event, the CBC is still the propaganda arm of choice for the party in power … I ain’ lie?

    And the the writer of the article, you like you dstuck in the past with your assessment of the cultural industries … more later

  10. Look the ownership of the lotteries in Barbados were supposed to be handed over to the sports operators five years after they started in the 09’s. If the Gov’ment of Ba’bados would hand over the monies saved by curtailing the amount of international travel by public servants and politicians by 5% per year, they would NOT be enough projects to spend it all on …!

  11. Hi BAFBFP @ June 8, 2012 @ 11:06 PM

    You seem spoiling for a basa, basa, but I got a 3 foot lignum vitae stick in de corner, I have not used it for ages, it just needs a dusting down.
    They will not try to convince you, if it is the LAW they will fine you repeatedly “with cost” until you comply, at least in the UK they would.
    You will not be fined for the monitor, you will be fined for the said monitor if it is capable of accessing TV programmes.

    I am not making a case for TV licences in Barbados, neither am I against the idea….as I have never given it serious thought.

    We have a relatively small pool of viewers, equipment would have to be bought for detection, inspectors required. Then as a deterrent for those who fail to pay or cannot pay our overburdened Magistrates Courts would have to process large numbers. People from the lower income bracket often have difficulty in paying and they cannot be easily imprisoned for such an offence eg mothers with young children. It is a minefield, it is not a simple matter of adding up numbers to get an income . . . .I know of what I speak.

    Ps: The substantive point of the Blog has merit.

  12. Yardbroom

    You see me … I would put a tax on ALL weapons … and you would have to prove to the gov’ment that that stick you got in the corner is to attach to a broom and not fah people like me … 🙂

  13. @Yardie. I revert to what I said above. As David takes delight in reminding me that I am not young by pointing out that we one did actually have TV licensing in Barbados – something I, due to encroaching senile dementia, had forgotten, I now recall that it didn’t work because there was no real way of establishing who was dodging it.

    I have since had a word with friends who live in England and the TV license there (for each and every set) is about $400 a year. They have vans that cruise around every neighbourhood with antennas that can “read” who has how many TV receivers and then check from the vans to see if they have licenses for them. If not, they issue them with the equivalent of a traffic ticket that they have to pay + the license fee, or they are in court. The UK has a population of over 70 million people and I am told that the cost of this exercise is about £250 million per year. So, do the math. And then relate it to our overburdened taxpayers.

    There has been the suggestion that we ought also to look at money going out of foreign currency reserves to pay for better programming from overseas if CBC is privatised. Well, I can’t argue with that. But what I CAN do is point out that the dynamic is then changed and foreign currency to pay for advertising from multi-nationals is then coming into the country. So I suggest and since privatisation means making a profit, we give a little to get more. Then, if the condition is imposed that there must be x% of local programming, exclusive of news and sports, to maximise profits that local programming must be of a quality that can be sold abroad. So, more foreign currency but without having to spend any.

  14. @Amused

    Well boy i have to disagree with you, allowing our station to be owned by outisiders on the premis that we will get us fx currency will present a number of challenges for samll socities like ours

    We have been dominated culturally from outside, and an mnc coming here to take over oour programming will eliminate any renmants of our culture that even our speech pattern will change. Our braodcasters will have fx accents. For years we have a policy in place where it is stated that there should be understudies to those persons who have been issued work permits, and guess what, we still continue to issue work permits in the areas that there should have been understuidies, the hotel industry is a classic example, I am sure that you are aware, that rules are particulary in place for the small man to keep them in check, wheras the connected will be protected in having what they want.

    This outside infleuce can impact on our politcal culture as well. I guess what comes to mind is how most of the persons on fox news back the republican and cnn to some extent favours the democrats. Do we want newssations deteminining the outcome of our elections, and beilieve, those organistaions have fined tuned the art down to a science, So Be wary of such a suggestion.

    Look how we have been overtaken by the cellphone with barbados having the highest density of black berry uses. Lord have mercy, we would be like zoombies dacning to the beat of foreigners for the sake of the mighty dollar. Our local station can do better, there must not be political interference, and people should be paid based on produtivity. I could recall the govt backing a loan for CBC for $25 mil for the purchasing of new equipment, among other things, and where are we?. You have journalists who want to be journalists from their office desk and want to rely on the community for their news.

    Reality television is populaer but we have some backward people at CBC with big egos who would not even concetualise programmes that would interest barbadians, What happened to reality show such as how we used to live in the past as oposed to the presnt. such a concept with target the old and the young.

    By the way, the paying of license wont work in this day and age, a lot of people now use their compuers to wath stream programming.

  15. @Blogger2012. I said “privatise”. But, we are not in disagreement, because I do not think that the foreign private interests should be allowed to buy the CBC. I think it should be local interests – and that can be stipulated. So, can I take it we gree back? I completely agree with you that it should not be foreign-owned. Local. BUTwith the stipluation that they must show local pramming to a certain percentage. How do you think that Canada managed to build its culture? It insisted on a percentage of Canadian content across all time periods. Well, we have got to insist on Bajan content – and that the company must be Bajan owned. You want to shake hands on that, amigo?

  16. Jesus H Christ … all of a sudden there is a difference to be found between local and foreign ownership. HA HA HA HA … Now that is very amusing … HA HA HA .. and even if was a noticeable difference it would only be a matter time before a sale is transacted to a foreign enterprise … I am sure that one a wunna still believe that Voice of Barbados is owned by local interests ,,, MURDA … And even before they were taken over a mere TWO of their many announcers spoke with a Bajan accent, since they favoured Vincentian, British, Trinidadian and Grenadian accents over all others …

    Look don’ mek ma laff (na more …)!

  17. @Amused

    you think we can fall out no where, just had to let RR know that i can challenge you and dont have to always agree with you 100 percent, that should make he feel better. LOL

  18. Ross

    Another good thing ’bout you is that you have forged alliances … That means that you have brought people together my brotha’ … Now that must be a plus … Ha HA HA 😉

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