By CLYDE McKENZIE
Well I have certainly lost count of the number of radio and television programmes in Jamaica to which I have been invited to give my views on how we should regulate the distribution of entertainment content in the public space. I believe that the debate prompted by the principal of Ardenne High School, Mrs. Esther Tyson’s public reaction to the “Ramping Shop”and the subsequent move by the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission to address the airing of certain types of problematic content is a most important one.
Already two of the leading voices in Jamaican popular culture, Vybz Kartel and Mavado, have reacted to the move by the regulators in the way they know best: musically.
In “A nuh my music” Kartel questions the legitimacy of the Commission noting “how yu fi reach inna public office without any election?”
Kartel seems to suggest that popular election is the only route to political legitimacy. Kartel should be reminded that one of the most important parts of our governance structure is our judiciary. It is important for him to recognise that our judges are not elected and this is perhaps a significant reason why the judiciary might be the most trusted branch of our system of governance.The fact that the judges are not elected means that their primary concern is the interpretation of the law. This is not to say that the judiciary is unmindful of popular sentiments . In fact one of the arguments for a Caribbean Court of last resort is that the judges from the region are more conversant with the social structure in which they are required to pass judgment than are their counterparts on the Privy Council in London. What is more, is that the members of the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission, like the judiciary, are appointed directly or indirectly by the representatives of elected branches of government in Jamaica.
We have been given many horrendous examples of judges having to face elections in the United States being swayed by partisan political concerns rather than rational legal considerations. Maybe we should be happy that we do not elect our judges.
It is important to note that the members of the Supreme Court and the federal courts in the United States are appointed and not elected. The fact that the members of the Broadcasting Commission are appointed and are insulated from partisan political meddling through provisions for their security of tenure lends itself to greater impartiality among the regulators.
It must also be noted that if the objective of protecting our children from harmful entertainment content is to be met it cannot be done without the collaboration of other agencies of the State. The Broadcasting Commission cannot go it alone.
This will, however, have to be done with a proper evaluation of the economic and social consequences of some of the efforts to regulate the public square. I recall a debate raging in the scholarly journal Foreign Affairs sometime ago as to whether having children working in “sweat shops” in developing countries had any positive social value? One argument put forward by supporters of the sweat shop was similar to Churchill’s observation on democracy; it might not be good but it was better than the alternative. Many of these kids, the argument goes, would fare far worse without the sweatshops.
I, for example, believe that children should not be allowed to enter spaces of mature entertainment.
Yet how realistic is this notion? It might be easy for me and my middle-class friends to philosophise on this matter but what about the youngster who would starve or become a gunman if he does not peddle cigarettes and sometimes even contraband at these events? Is the protection of our children from harmful entertainment content a middle-class obsession? Will we do more harm than good to some of the children from the poorer classes whom we are trying to protect by restricting their access to places like the dancehall where they earn their living? What kind of measures will we put in place to ensure that children will not have to enter places of mature entertainment in order to survive
The managers of the media houses are not saying it but a concern which must now be occupying their minds is how will they survive in the absence of edgy content? Is it possible that we could see an overall decline in viewership and listenership of local programming as a result of this new wave of regulatory activity? In such an event what will be the reaction of the advertisers? As an entrepreneur who runs the weekly audience-based television countdown “FiWi Choice” on TVJ and Fame FM in Jamaica, I am keenly aware of the financial impact of a ban on certain types of content. While I may be able to absorb the financial implications of this development at least in the short run there are other players who might not be able to withstand the economic effects of the new regulatory environment. How will we balance the economic with the moral
imperatives? This is why there needs to be rigorous debate about the parameters and implications of our decisions. I believe that a ban on the playing of music on the buses and other forms of public transportation can be effected without any harmful effects to the operators of this system. I don’t contemplate that there would be much economic fallout on this matter. Dealing with the dances might be a bit more difficult as regulation of this sphere has more direct economic implications. There is the Noise Abatement Act but in these harsh economic times government might not be too eager to trifle with a man trying to “make a food” and therefore might be willing to countenance a man who is a nuisance to his neighbours through the playing of his music.
The Commission has latterly moved to ban violent lyrics and also imposed restrictions on soca songs which are explicit in their sexual reference whether aurally or visually. The Commission hardly had any choice in the matter of addressing Soca since to do otherwise would have opened it to charges of class bias.
The fact, though, is that the double entendre-loaded musical products from the Eastern Caribbean are not as linguistically accessible to our children as are works done in our vernacular. The fact also is that there are works which would be classified as “problematic content” in Jamaica which are freely played on the airwaves in other territories. Problematic content is a matter of context.
I personally am a strong advocate of better regulation of the public space. This I believe can be achieved through the enforcement of existing laws and regulation. Young Stephen McGregor (son of musical icon Freddy and already a top flight producer in his own right) made a very important point when he noted that many works with problematic content were finding their way on the air because the disc jocks have edited and taken them there.
What this speaks to is the unauthorised alteration of the artistic efforts of others. This is illegal ( however well intentioned) and speaks to the impracticality of punishing producers for the content in their “work”. The original producer might not even be aware of the use to which his work is being put.
I do believe, however, that we will have to examine a system of prior restraint which will ensure that certain types of material do not reach the airwaves in the first place.
I have suggested that an industry body assume the responsibilities for rating musical output in conjunction with the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission. This would minimize the risk of misinterpreting the regulations from the Commission. We must ensure that adult content do have their own avenues of expression which would not traverse the paths of our children. I do not countenance placing a limit on one’s ability to express oneself. However I believe we should impose restrictions on where certain types of expressions are allowed.
We cannot tell how history will treat “Ramping Shop”. I see it as a work of scatological brilliance (a point shared by even some of the harshest critics of Kartel). Mr. Palmer ( Kartel’s real name) should have the right to express himself so that history might be able to make a more accurate determination of the issues which dominated the concerns of his generation. Language is dynamic and words which are seemingly harmless today can take on a sharp edge tomorrow. The reverse is also true.
The fact is many of the words used by Kartel would have lost their sting and shock value in a few years’ time. However, there is nothing wrong in establishing some rules as to how his material is currently distributed to the public.
I welcome this debate and the input of Mavado and Kartel to this most important discourse on the kind of society we are contemplating. As I have indicated before, if this debate leads to a kinder gentler Jamaica then we can thank Spice and Kartel for their sins.