Many TV station owners exercise no control over programme content
Stabroek News
April 27, 2002

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Dear Editor,

It's good that Ms Blackman, for Channel 9, has responded to my letter [ please note: links provided by LOSP web site ] holding the station's management responsible for the broadcast by Mr Lorri Alexander which very clearly offended against acceptable standards of good taste and the requirement for the observance of due accuracy and impartiality in the presentation of programmes. It provides us the opportunity to put the matter of broadcast licensee responsibility in its proper perspective.

My letter made the point that the licensee, under the law, is held responsible for all the programming broadcast in a broadcast day and must make reasonable provision for the 'expression of differing views on matters of public interest'. Ms Blackman has drawn attention to the fact that another programme, "Girl Talk", produced and hosted by Pat Woolford and Andrea McAdam, broadcast in the same week, twice dealt with the Universe Pageant in a very different and refreshingly responsible and professional manner, most certainly providing balance.

The problem is, however, and remains applicable to just about every licensed TV station, that Channel does not have a published programme schedule of its own, but simply sells time to independent producers like Alexander and Woolford and McAdam, over which the licensee has little or no planning, creative input, prior influence or knowledge of content or balance. Simply put, the "Girl Talk" broadcast was a fortuitous accident which saved the day.

The licensee, in our circumstances, exercises little or no overall management of the day's programme content and balance, yet the licensee is legally and morally responsible for everything broadcast as a condition of holding a license.

Broadcasting is a unique form of public expression, different from any other medium because it depends on using a finite natural resource, the electro-magnetic spectrum, and, is, therefore, subject to regulation in the public interest, while still entitled to the constitutionally guaranteed provisions of free speech. In dealing with this anomaly, the US Supreme Court, for example, and other courts in the major democracies, have consistently acknowledged the obligation of the licensee to protect and serve the public interest while forbidding prior censorship by the licencing authority.

Judgement of whether programme content is in the public interest, it has been universally accepted, can only be brought to bear by the average person applying contemporary community standards through a duly appointed, independent authority.

Not one of our 23 licensees would be granted a broadcast licence in most countries outside Guyana and certainly not in countries such as the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or in the Caribbean, without first presenting the licencing authority with its proposed annual programme schedule and having to justify and establish a production and technical ability and capacity to meet the standards legislated for serving the public interest.

It's virtually unheard of, outside of what passes for television in Guyana, that a licensee is given the right to use the broadcast spectrum to sell air time to whomever comes along with a programme, regardless of quality, content, balance or serving in the public interest. It's the other way around.

The obligation to produce or buy productions to fill the air time, directed and presented as a whole in a broadcast day or week, is that of the licensee.

In this case, it was purely coincidental that the producers of "Girl Talk", who buy air time on Channel 9, exactly as Alexander does, aired a programme that provided the balance on this occasion, but Channel 9's owners cannot claim credit for having planned or even influenced this.

At present, the Wireless and Telegraphy Regulations provide for very limited requirements in holding licensees to their obligation to serve the public interest as trustees of the frequency they have been licensed to use. The current licensees are on the air because they were allowed there illegally in the first place and government has, by virtue of this fact, allowed them their licence on receipt of a licence fee.

The Amendment to the Wireless and Telegraphy Regulations, which has the full sanction and approval of the governing and main opposition parties, ought to be a wake up call to the broadcasters in anticipation of a new broadcast act being drafted from the Report of the Joint Committee on Broadcasting.

Soon, broadcasters will no longer be able to rely on pirated foreign programmes of the satellite or video tapes in violation of copyright laws and international conventions to which Guyana is a signatory. Soon, they will be required to establish that they qualify to be granted and retain a license as a "public trustee" of a broadcast frequency.

Both private commercial and State-owned broadcasters are going to be held accountable to the public they are licensed to serve, whether they are black, white, pink, brown or somewhere in between, and it's long overdue.

Yours faithfully,

Kit Nascimento