Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Opposing local content quotas for T&T broadcasters

Have you ever been a respondent in a social research project and thought the researchers had already come to a conclusion about its eventual outcome, but were purely seeking some kind of public validation?

Thanks to Mark Lyndersay’s diligence as the journalistic technology czar of T&T, I had such an eerie experience earlier this week when I waded through the Survey Monkey link generated by the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) entitled “Local Content Consumer Survey”.

It was not the apparent confusion between the use of “neither” with “nor” and “or”, nor was it the use of leading questions that left no room for informed dismissal of some basic premises that had me concerned.

Now, I don’t mean to nit-pick over the imprecision of the survey. I can do so, but I won’t.

It’s a phenomenon we have all grown used to in the way we do business in this town. The police, politicians, attorneys, journalists not paying attention to fine detail and/or nuance.

It has also been an integral feature of the “gimme gimme” campaign to employ coercion in pursuit of a better deal for people in the creative services industry.

Essentially fascist in nature, it is the mistaken notion that in order for the creative industry to thrive, there need to be checks on freedom of expression, in the essential meaning of the term, guided by a sense of “nationalist” preference and favour.

Go look it up. I am not going to deliver a sermon on freedom of expression, especially to people who rely on it in order to practise their craft as musicians, poets, dramatists and visual artists.

Yet, we have this perennial campaign to legislate taste. To regulate, by official dictat, personal preference.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

None of this is to suggest that in small, vulnerable societies such as ours there cannot or should not be an effort to incentivise creative content as an industry. We do it for a host of other economic sectors, including the lucrative energy industry and for the vital production of food. Don’t get me wrong.

So, for example, I was a strong supporter of the tax rebate for investments in the local creative industries when it was first introduced years ago, but never actually implemented. Where is the campaign to have this put back on the agenda, by the way?

There is a role for fiscal intervention in such matters. But there should be no room for the coercive arm of the state that would have the impact of restraint on trade (broadcasters beware) and erecting regulatory “walls” against “foreign” content.

In fact, such a wall as much keeps us locked in as it insulates us from what flows from the outside. It also betrays a complete lack of understanding of the increasingly borderless nature of the global entertainment industry. This is something that is good for us, not bad.

I know young Caribbean musicians who have collaborations with their counterparts all over the globe and create content that defies all current definitions of what constitutes “local” and what constitutes “foreign”.

Which leads me to the question in the survey about what is the meaning of the word “local”. This includes proposed definitions that both include and avoid reference to Caricom.

Now, our immigration officers might not yet have received the memo, but there is something called the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which recognises equality of treatment for all goods, services and people from within the Caribbean Community (Caricom).

This is a binding international treaty that has been subject to no shortage of judicial scrutiny (a major raison d'ĂȘtre of the Caribbean Court of Justice) with the general pronouncement that there is a natural expectation that Caricom nationals should feel entitled to equal or equivalent treatment for themselves, their goods and their services.

TATT’s question thus betrays a misunderstanding of this country’s place in the scheme of Caricom things. The Europeans, via the European Union, have used an integration-based formulation to address the precise challenge TATT believes it is theirs to settle, albeit with a “where practicable” proviso.

This will also no doubt be reference to the application of content quotas in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, Malaysia and South Africa. Well, some of these countries recognise same-sex marriage. Let’s do that too.

Built into many of the arguments I have been hearing has been a primal anti-Americanism and the kind of anti-globalism talk we have most recently been hearing from Washington DC itself.

How far away is the step to regulate “foreign” music and film from placing similar restrictions on the stage, books and the visual arts?

Let me make a prediction. Survey or no survey TATT, in concert with the “gimme gimme” crowd is moving forward with content restrictions in the broadcasting sector. Email me your wagers.

First published in the T&T Guardian on May 18, 2017

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