By Larry Smith
Another election, another pledge from an incoming administration to transform the fortunes and purpose of ZNS. What, if anything, has changed in five years since this column, reprinted from May 30, 2012?
The firing of Christina Thompson (aka Chrissy Love) from the ZNS talk show ‘Immediate Response’ after the May 7 general election has led some to predict the return of the Pingdom, while others see it as mere tit for tat - since the Free National Movement (FNM) fired Steve McKinney from the same show right after the 2007 election.
In the current charged partisan atmosphere it may be difficult to differentiate these two terminations, but if you look closely there is a distinction.
Thompson had a $200 per show contract with ZNS. She has spent the last 20 years hosting talk shows on several radio stations - including Love 97, More FM and Island FM - and that’s basically all she does. Her style is frank and abrupt - sometimes escalating into a feminist rant.
McKinney, on the other hand, was a political operative under the former Christie government who held a nine to five job at Bahamas Information Services (BIS), as well as crony contracts with at least two government ministries - in addition to his ZNS show.
As we learned in 2007, those contracts added up to more than $140,000 per annum - meaning McKinney was collecting more taxpayer bucks than the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice or Permanent Secretaries. And surprisingly, his government contracts included perks like paid vacations, sick leave, casual leave, gratuities, etc - all at taxpayer expense.
Under the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), McKinney had a contract to provide communications services for the Ministry of Tourism, which has its own in-house public relations and broadcasting unit, as well as an expensive out-house PR firm. And he had a similar contract with the Ministry of Education.
Official PR for both of these ministries is also provided by Bahamas Information Services, another government agency that employs a ton of writers and cameramen (including McKinney until recently) to produce information of dubious value at a cost of $2.6 million a year.
McKinney was able to keep his substantive BIS job under the FNM government - for years after he was fired from ‘Immediate Response’. So his termination at ZNS could not be considered victimisation. On the other hand, Thompson was completely deprived of her income by the PLP government.
BIS was set up by the Pindling regime in 1974 to “ensure effective communications between the government and the people ... to assist the government with public relations, and to promote the policies, programmes, goals and role of the government.” Note incidentally, it also provides jobs for the boys - from whichever party is in power. So it would be fair to say that McKinney’s contracts were at the very least an egregious duplication of effort, and clearly a misuse of public funds.
But it gets even more curious. As McKinney himself has said, he held similar contracts under the previous FNM government. The story is that after demanding a top job at ZNS along with a constituency nomination, he switched sides when he didn’t get what he wanted. And for the past few years he has been acting as a propaganda shill for Peter Nygard.
The most laughable thing about all this costly public information infrastructure is we still can’t get information from the government when we ask for it - no matter which party is in power. And don’t hold your breath until the new PLP government implements that half-baked Freedom of Information Bill passed by the FNM earlier this year.
As for McKinney’s contract with ZNS back in 2007 to host the talk show ‘Immediate Response’, some may have considered him a Bahamian Howard Stern, the shock jock radio host who was fired from NBC years ago and eventually moved to satellite radio in an effort to escape corporate censorship.
Except that McKinney was pushing a hard political line on the national broadcast station during a heated election campaign. He could have hosted a show called ‘PLP Propaganda Hour’, which the party could have sponsored (and typically not paid for). Then there would be no argument. It wouldn’t be more tax dollars wasted on nonsense. Clearly the circumstances of McKinney’s crony contracts, combined with his virulent and amoral political propaganda were such that a normal review by normal people would result in their termination by due process.
Nevertheless, this is what I wrote following McKinney’s termination after the 2007 election: “This issue should not have been dealt with on the political podium, no matter how irritating it was. And it should not have been dealt with by a call from the cabinet secretary (according to McKinney’s account) instructing the general manager at ZNS.”
Now the tables have turned, and we are facing a similar narrative about Chrissy Love.
According to Thompson, “(ZNS’ two top managers) called me upstairs on Monday, May 14, before going on air and told me they had decided to invoke the clause in my contract which says we can part ways with four weeks notice. They said ‘you know we’ve been receiving complaints about the show for a while ... you talk about things like sex and your way of hosting is new to our listeners’ - after three years!
“I was always told that when the PLP came back I was gonna be fired, and they did it ... called my name at a PLP rally. Loftus Roker, Shane Gibson, Marguerite Pindling, and other minions and assorted goons told me this for three years. I guess they didn’t mess with me at Island FM because Charles Carter is their boy.
“Steve McKinney was a semi-skilled political operative sent to ZNS to shove lies to the masses. Yeah, HAI was wrong to talk about him on the victory rally stage, but how can PLPs condemn that and then threaten me for three years straight, allude to me throughout the campaign, call my name on May 4, then fire me on May 14? It’s typical PLP victimisation.”
This brings us to the real issue - which is what to do about ZNS.
As a member of the Broadcasting Corporation board from 2007 until resigning a couple of weeks ago, I know exactly what to do. It should have been done a long time ago. It was supposed to have been done during our tenure - but sadly it wasn’t.
For some reason politicians just can’t seem to stomach loosening the reins of state power. The College of the Bahamas (COB) faced the same experience with its much-delayed plans to become an autonomous university.
The McKinney/Thompson business is symptomatic of the larger issues surrounding freedom of information in the Bahamas. Let me explain.
Bahamians had to wait until 1977 for the government to implement television service, private radio was withheld until 1993 and private television did not switch on until 1995. All of this could have happened much earlier, if it wasn’t for the usual political bullshit.
Today we can listen to droves of talk shows and watch hundreds of channels via cable or satellite. But ZNS is still an irrational entity, despite strenuous efforts to bring some fiscal and political sanity to the place (when we took over, for example, management did not have the benefit of monthly financial statements and employees received severance pay when they resigned).
So the question that naturally comes to mind is: what value do we get for the millions we spend on ZNS every year?
The answer, for some, is that Bahamians are able to watch Junkanoo on TV, as well as special events like state funerals, parliamentary openings or political conventions. But Cable Bahamas has a community channel and a parliamentary channel that also do these things - at no cost to the taxpayer. In fact, the obligation to do them is written into its licence.
According to Charles Carter, the former ZNS boss whose private radio station once produced news for Cable Bahamas, “There is a cultural and educational role that can best be served by (ZNS). It should be funded by grant and its programming content should reflect the needs, concerns and expectations of our developing society.”
Of course, that’s the conclusion Carter arrived at after leaving a long politically-appointed career at ZNS. As we all know, he quickly took advantage of the FNM’s post-1992 “Ingraham Spring” to set up his own radio station and has never looked back.
His conclusion is essentially the same one that the FNM came to in the 1990s, but baulked at implementing for political reasons. Study after study by consultant after consultant have recommended downsizing ZNS, selling off radio channels and running TV as an independent public affairs service.
Unfortunately, the public didn’t have the means to make a judgement on the financial viability of ZNS under the previous Christie administration because then chairman Calsey Johnson failed to produce audited statements for five years. We had to spend a lot of time, money and sweat producing those audits during our tenure.
When we took over, ZNS was more than bankrupt. Salaries alone for 2005-06 were almost $10 million, against revenues of about $7 million. Unfunded obligations to government and other creditors were another $9 million (not including millions in unfunded pension liabilities), and the total public subsidy was over $24 million a year, supporting 280 employees - including more than 90 managers.
The details would make you weep. This was the culmination of decades of outrageous political abuse and wholesale financial irresponsibility.
But here we are five years later and ZNS remains a state-run agency directed by a cabinet minister (it was Tommy Turnquest under our tenure, but now it is Bernard Nottage) that simply cannot work in the public interest.
So the question is, what do we do about that?
The FNM’s 2007 election manifesto committed the previous Ingraham government to transform ZNS from a financially unsustainable state broadcaster into an autonomous, non-commercial public service broadcaster.
For the record, my position throughout has been that If substantive changes were not made - and made difficult to reverse - conditions at ZNS would continue as they have for the past 40-odd years, and many more millions of taxpayer dollars will be wasted on a value-less and politically emasculated operation.
There is simply no need for the government to be operating a commercial broadcaster - period. The only real need is for a national emergency broadcasting service - which is why ZNS was created in the first place. This could be achieved via subsidy, or the operation could be reduced to a very cost-effective national service.
As Dr Keva Bethel’s advisory committee on the transformation of COB into a university declared a few years back: “The proper exercise of academic freedom ... can only occur in an environment of institutional autonomy that is designed to protect the independence of the institution from partisan influence and the uncertainties of political change.”
The same can be said of ZNS - in spades. Without legal autonomy, any improvements can be reversed at the stroke of a political pen. And as I told my colleagues, you can bet that they will be this time around.
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