in ,

OPINION | Paco Oliva: “£5.2m annual subsidy for GBC revealed in Parliament”

OPINION by Paco Oliva

Journalist Paco Oliva has been a lifelong viewer of the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation’s television channel. Mr. Oliva has written an opinion piece on GBC to coincide with their move to their state-of-the-art new headquarters and studios at South Jumpers Bastion.

The migration of GBC from its dilapidated studios at Broadcasting House to new premises at South Jumpers Bastion captured the headlines during a slow news week.

After a series of insipid relaunches, renovations, re-brandings and aborted attempts at relocations, the definitive resettlement seems to have been finally accomplished.

An exultant CEO Gerald Teuma heralded the providential tidings from his not yet officially unveiled multi-million-pound, state-of-the-art television headquarters.

Beaming with smug self-satisfaction he said that “despite the fact that it has cost a significant amount of money, it would not be as much as you would expect.”

He then explained that the total cost of the fit-out and redesign of the building amounted to £3.7m of which GBC had contributed 700,000, so the hit to government coffers had ‘only’ been £3m. The building has been rented from the developer at a cost of £300,000 a year in rent.

But this does not tell the true story of direct public funding at GBC.

Teuma is an old hand at this game and his opening message in tried and tested pre-emptive tactic tradition was to warn the public not to expect more.

“We cannot deliver more than what we did, we are maxed out,” further stating that the operational budget has not increased and neither has the number of staff.

However, he vowed that what they already do they will do better in the new surroundings, that the programmes will look better, with better content and that the overall GBC product, both radio and television, will improve.

That remains to be seen.   

Let us examine more closely where the broadcasting monopoly is today:

One thing is Teuma’s optimistic narrative, and quite another the reality of GBC television output.

Do the CEOs claims stand up to scrutiny?

The key question is, does it deliver value for money? Let readers judge for themselves.

UNMANAGEABLE LEVIATHAN

GBC Headquarters, Jumpers Basion Gibraltar | Colin Thompson, Shutterstock

GBC staff is growing all the time. It has become an unmanageable leviathan sucking the udders of the state dry especially in the past decade. The trickle of staff vacancies advertised on the channel is constant.

They must now have close to 100 employees. This is almost two thirds more than what it used to be during George Valarino’s time as general manager, when GBC provided a similar service, in some respects superior, with one major difference.

He did it with a shoestring budget. 

(I remember watching David Lynch’s seminal series ‘Twin Peaks’ on GBC in the very early 1990s well before it aired on Spain’s Telecinco, and classic British comedy like ‘Rising Damp’, ‘Yes Minister’, and ‘Spitting Image’.

There were also quality BBC historical series like ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s nostalgia dripping ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and mainstream blockbusters like ‘Dallas’ and ‘LA Law’, without forgetting the weekly omnibus fixes of ‘EastEnders’.

Then there were also the home productions like ‘How Much Do You Know?’ with the charismatic, larger than life Col Hunt who presented an enjoyable quiz show that became unmissable family viewing.

A programme which tested the cream of the local establishment, establishment, when it was written with a capital ‘E’.

Also, Kevin Dobson of Deadline fame, when newsreaders had clear diction, an impeccable command and pronunciation of the English language (and the screen), could read and deliver their broadcasts with the required gravitas, without the use of a teleprompter.

What the old GBC lacked in terms of infrastructure, investment and technical resources they made up with inventiveness, imagination and creativity. Necessity certainly is the mother of invention.

In many ways more money, more resources and a larger physical footprint has merely amplified the negative traits, the complacency, and mistakes of the past, without any of the charm, the personality and attractive features of what was a manageable, austere and truly local channel.

GBC then had a well-grounded sense of realism, self-consciousness of what it was and what it was not, something missing from the organisation today.

Yes, there was compulsory payment of a licence fee which irritated many, but by comparison to the sums of money handled today, it was mere peanuts.

Clearly the passage of time, a pathological sense of entitlement and a seemingly bottomless pit of public funding does not guarantee forward motion or advancement. As far as value for money and even content, we are arguably worse off now than we used to be.

FINANCIAL DEPENDENCE

In terms of impact on the public purse, Mr Teuma’s figures fail to recognize the black hole that GBC is to the public purse, historically consuming dozens of millions of pounds, with a sharp increase in its dependence on handouts since 2007.

At the beginning of the millennium people were shocked to learn that the broadcasting monopoly received an annual public subsidy of roughly £1m.

The subvention gradually grew to £4.7m per annum while this year at the Budget Debate it was disclosed that the taxpayer subvention had reached a staggering £5.2m.

 How many millions has GBC cost since 2000?    

GBC breast fed beyond the point of engorgement cannot expect to remain indefinitely in a publicly subsidised cocoon, living under the misapprehension that money grows on trees, shielded from the cross winds of competition, existing like a museum artefact in a protectionist utopia, producing sub-standard material that lacks any semblance of quality control, doped by a fantasy world of ‘national broadcaster’ status, waiting for the next Government cheque to drop in through the letter box.

Those days are gone. The model is unsustainable.

Not content with being in such privileged position, they further exploit their advantage by competing for a share of the advertising market as if they were just another normal player in a level playing field.

While the current model of media subsidies remains intact, the resultant scorched earth of unfair competition that GBC perpetuates, creates an environment where no independent media outlet can ever hope to flourish.

GBC do some things well, there is no denying that. They cover the big events to a satisfactory standard, but the day-to-day journalism leaves a lot to be desired.

They are content to regurgitate press releases, content to scratch the surface of domestic affairs, lounging in the commonplaces, without any in-depth analytical coverage of current affairs, that probably amounts to 90% of their news output.

Newswatch and Viewpoint are the only programmes that people do watch, the first more than the second, but monopolies create tired, sclerotic formats and only come alive when the breaking news is spectacularly dramatic or has direct, immediate repercussions on the life of the community.

The rest of the time it is a mechanical process, going through the motions of filling up airtime with bland broadcasting fodder.

Their reporting technique is mostly reduced to planting a microphone in front of someone and asking them the most anodyne questions, never challenging their subjects, rarely having enough knowledge of the subject matter to be able to press and cross-examine the interviewee.

There certainly is a case to be made if not for the defunding of GBC in its entirety, certainly for a dramatic reduction of the annual subsidy, enough for them to deliver a daily news service.

They have to be weaned off their reliance on public money and they should generate all their income and adjust their operation to what they can realistically pay for, either become financially self-sufficient or sink.

DECENT PROGRAMMES

GBC do have some good material in their schedule. Everything that Richard Garcia does is worth watching. The quality control, the meticulous attention to detail and rigorous historical research is guaranteed.

‘Journeys in Law’ was also a stand-out feature particularly the highlights of the series, the interviews with James Neish QC and Charles Gomez. This is a production that should be expanded and continued.

The recent gardening programmes ‘Lives in Bloom’ where Gibraltarians on both sides of the border showed their backyard horticultural allotments was also superb.

‘Thought for the Weekend’ with Reverend Robin Gill, is also an oasis of deep thinking in a generally shallow channel, and always contains thought-provoking matter, as he is able to convey profound philosophical and theological insights in an effortless manner, often enough coming at the audience from unexpected, leftfield directions.

Even Richard Cartwright’s ‘The Collectors’ is a watchable programme, that revels in its own sense of straightforward immediacy.

Richard’s down-to-earth character, quirky style, always infused with good humour and a regular-guy temperament, has allowed him to carve a niche audience and prolong his popularity and time in broadcasting.

He has a nose for offbeat content and an ability to unearth unusual personalities. Perhaps his challenge is to push the boundaries of his programmes a bit more.

Shelina Assomull is clearly the monopoly’s best onscreen asset.

A bright, thorough reporter, tenacious but unlike others not unpleasant in seeking information, she has a professional screen presence, good diction and correct pronunciation.

It is not surprising that she is reading the news most nights, but it remains to be seen how long it will be before she is noticed by a bigger English-speaking channel and makes the move like others before her.  

Programmes like ‘Tattoo Stories’ have potential to delve into the anthropological significance of tattoos.

It should address hugely interesting questions to explain how in less than two decades they have gone from the marginal confines of penitentiary and underground subcultures, from the rarefied surroundings of military and marine traditions, to mainstream in your face vulgarity, to the point that ordinary housewives, film stars, footballers, tramps, garage-pump attendants, Olympic athletes, dustmen, corporate executives and shop assistants are busy tattooing themselves as if there was no tomorrow.

This would be far more interesting than the purely personal themes explored in the first offering of the series.

‘Gourmet Stories’ also provide well researched, informative incursions into the world of gastronomy, with the bonus that everything that comes out in the programme is within easy distance from Gibraltar, in the hinterland or just further afield.

Additionally, the rare sound of a TV presenter speaking in correct Spanish gives it a novel attraction, until you realise that he is a Spanish national and not a Gibraltarian. There is nothing more annoying than GBC presenters who struggle to pronounce local surnames.

BAD PROGRAMMES

Then there are dire programmes of which GBC is full.

They can be divided into two main categories, those that are wholly frivolous and non-transcendent, like wisps of smoke that dissipate into nothingness even as you watch, and those that carry a political intent, designed to create states of opinion for an ulterior ideological purpose.

‘6 Calls’ falls into the latter category. It is just a calamitous, recurring attempt at convincing local public opinion that Gibraltar is a racist, third world ghetto, where ethnic minorities are forced to live in poverty and deprivation. Soweto in the Mediterranean…

This is a Groundhog Day rerun of all the tedious Action for Housing specials that GBC screen at regular intervals to give a distorted impression of the reality of Gibraltar.

The series has become an undercover party-political broadcast for individuals who have stood for election in the past and lost their deposit each time.

Their radical discourse and propagandistic visual manifestos are transparently disingenuous, disproportionate and manipulative.

There is so much to be said about how bad this programme is that it deserves an article in its own right.

Then there was ‘(Mis)Understanding Gibraltar’ where a panel of mainly non-Gibraltarians pontificated and patronised us with their platitudes, clueless cliches and prosaicisms, individuals with strange accents theorising about tolerance, about identity, about nationhood and how all of this relates to what it means to be Gibraltarian.

Let us recover the Register of Gibraltarians.

The political party that retrieves that document from the undeserved banishment and oblivion under which it languishes, will forever have my gratitude and vote!

This is in some respects even worse than The Hub, because at least the latter is conscious of its own cultural worthlessness, whereas this overload of bunkum is impregnated with sinister and utterly transparent pseudo-intellectual pretensions.

It should be renamed understanding narcolepsy and be marketed as a miracle cure for insomnia. 

There are those which must rank as among the worst television products ever screened anywhere in the civilized world, enough to have John Logie Baird turning in his grave.

Programmes like ‘Viral TV’, a collection of the stupidest YouTube videos on internet, probably breach every broadcasting code of conduct given the subject matter, dangerous domestic accidents, accidents at work, people slipping in pavements, crashing, falling downstairs or headfirst into walls, risking life and limb.

In effect people suffering injuries, at times nasty injuries, while some moron is rolling a camera.

These programmes are ‘enhanced’ by canned laughter which raises the horrid nature of the experience a few notches.

It is surprising that the programme has not been the subject of a complaint by Health and Safety Inspectors.

Then there is what can only be described as the unwatchable television programmes like ‘Beach Borge’ which just feeds off internet videos interspersed with unfunny comments and ‘The Hub’ with its superficial interviews that elevates banality to a new substandard category of inane television. 

This is not value for money.

Having a Google translator for the Spanish news bulletin is an embarrassment and not value for money, as is having a spelling mistake in captions illustrating key Budget Debate themes.

The number of irrelevant repeats from 2016 are not value for money, just more incomprehensible airtime fillers, in the form of obscure programmes that nobody watched first time round replayed over and over again for no good reason.

Finally, I must refute the criticism of anti-GBC bias as some at the corporation have suggested. That is complete nonsense.

I have been a keen, habitual viewer of the channel since childhood. I still am but in the GBC lexicon objectivity and critical thinking amount to being anti-GBC.

Opinions expressed in opinion pieces throughout ReachExtra are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of ReachExtra as an organisation.

What do you think?

29 Points
Upvote Downvote