No hand at the wheel

Sunity Maharaj

The financial health of the media is the responsibility of its managers, but its institutional health is the business of us all.

Both are in trouble and although the economic pain falls most directly on media employees and shareholders, the debilitating impact on the institution is a matter for urgent national discussion and intervention.

Our democracy demands it.

Successive waves of employee retrenchment throughout the media ecosystem of newspapers, radio and TV stations, advertising agencies and supporting services should alert us to the contraction which is bringing with it the risk of collapse, consolidation and, dangerously, concentration. With the share prices of the country’s two main media houses trading below $5, the signs are ominous.

If we haven’t yet considered it, the recent round of lay-offs coupled with the decision of one daily newspaper to outsource its printing confronts us with the question of how deep a cut must the media industry sustain before it hits the artery to the beating heart of press freedom.

As purveyor of public interest information, watchdog on government, and national platform for the expression of diverse opinions and ideas, the media are a cornerstone of democracy.

This is why freedom of the press is recognised among the 11 “fundamental human rights and freedoms” in Section 4 of the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution.

In the lead-up to the 1962 Independence Constitution there was much debate on whether the right to press freedom should be included in addition to freedom of expression which some argued also covered press freedom. In the end, Trinidad and Tobago became the only Commonwealth Caribbean country to explicitly recognise freedom of the press as a constitutional right.

Its combination of business enterprise with a constitutional obligation makes the media a unique hybrid of institution and industry with a built-in tension between headline and bottom line mostly palpably felt between newsrooms and advertising departments.

Over 58 years of Independence, Trinidad and Tobago has had one of the most envied, storied media landscapes of the Caribbean. Our journey from a town of one British newspaper, two radio stations and one TV station to today’s saturated environment of three daily newspapers, 37 radio stations, six free-to-air stations, ten cable TV stations, eight subscription TV stations and four niche TV stations is a captivating story rich with legendary figures and colourful characters, acts of professional courage and episodes of hair-raising escapades. The T&T media have survived periods of chilling censorship, private and public sector boycotts, imprisonment and harassment of journalists, unrelenting intimidation, shaming and threats, and the massive change and dislocation resulting from the liberalisation which began in the late 1980s and is still being played out. It has risen to sparkling heights of journalism and plumbed the depths of cringing lows.

At no time, however, have the media been assailed by the combination of forces that are now driving it into the perfect storm: a disruptive technology that has made reporters of everyone and fragmented national audiences into groups of like-minded persons corralled by algorithms into echo chambers; an obsolete business model; unrelenting intimidation fuelled by the power of social media; and the media’s own propensity for self-inflicted wounds.

While not unique to T&T, they have triggered a seismic shift that could further weaken the media’s ability to hold powerful institutions to account. When the price of independence becomes prohibitive, many will settle for the rewards of co-option.

The road that has brought the media to here is over two decades in the making even if it has been rosy at points. Like other sectors, it has enjoyed the ride, ignoring the signs indicating danger ahead while missing critical turns to the future.

Long before Covid-19 turned up at Piarco, the signs of contraction were evident. Now that they are blatant we can expect the balance of power to tip further against the media and in favour of the State which dominates advertising and sponsorship. It is a buyers’ market in which press freedom could be up for sale. Unless it has learned nothing from being in Opposition, this is a power that the Government should be wary about flexing. In any case, Government investment in compliant media has never been proven to deliver the goods even if a few people have got rich by making politicians believe it.

This moment calls for a national response to the challenges facing the media, beginning with the question: is the media an institution worth saving or an industry to be released to market forces?

Whatever our differences and disappointments in the media, I would like to think we all recognise the value of a vibrant and independent media to the health of our democracy and the progress of our nation.

The dual nature of the media as industry and institution demands a response tailored to protect, support and strengthen its core function of serving the public’s right to know. Instead of cutting back, media and other interests must join forces in fighting back against this economic wolf at its door.

What is needed is a comprehensive and strategic plan based on a new economic model supported by tax reliefs and incentives aimed at strengthening the news function of media houses, encouraging the expansion of news coverage, including into rural Tobago and Trinidad, and helping traditional media to take the leap and expand the transition to digital media.

The logic of the shrinkage now under way is for more shrinkage and shake-out with the real risk of media monopolies, as those with more access to capital pick off the competition at bargain basement prices. That would take us right back to the 1960s, which would not be good news at all.

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To be honest, today’s reports can be rather depressing, except of course, the good news about a 94.5 per cent success rate of a vaccine against his dreaded virus.

To be honest, it’s the 5.5 per cent balance that troubles me. You know, it’s like those liquids that kill 99 per cent of household germs; who measures the 1 per cent? Anyway, better than nothing.