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“The silence of the institutional lambs” (edited version in The Fiji Times, 19 Ja. 2016)

24/01/2016

Silence of the institutional lambs
Professor Wadan Narsey

There should have been institutional protests a few weeks ago when the Bainimarama Government announced that they had awarded the sole government (and public enterprise) advertising rights to the Fiji Sun.

The protests should have been even louder given that the Government had called for tenders according to an extensive list of criteria, which if followed, ought to have resulted in a decision in favour of The Fiji Times.

While I declare my interest as a regular columnist for this newspaper, I explain below that it would not be in the public interest to award sole advertising rights to the Fiji Times either and that the Fiji Sun should also be included.

Given the clear evidence (total dollar values of commercial advertising) that the private sector advertisers, on the basis of reach and cost effectiveness alone, favour the Fiji Times, then the Bainimarama Government decision to select the Fiji Sun as sole print advertiser, amounts to gross misuse of tax payers’ advertising money, which is NOT in the public interest.

The first protests at the Government decision should therefore have come from the institutions which have been set up under the Fiji Constitution precisely to prevent the misuse of tax payers’ money, i.e. the Office of the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee of the Fiji Parliament. There has been silence.

At the next level of constitutional responsibility, there should have been protests from institutions like the Commerce Commission, the Media Industry Development Authority, and the Consumer Council of Fiji. But sadly, there has been total silence from these three institutions which readily jump and down when the Bainimarama Government would not be opposed to them.

This silence is utterly dismaying for good governance, given that the Bainimarama Government decision is striking at the heart of a “level playing field” and fair competition for media organizations, and the constitutional basic human right of citizens of Fiji to have free access to all public interest information that a government disseminates using tax payer funds.

It is totally abhorrent that there a large number of public enterprises whose advertising decisions ought to be totally independent of the government of the day and based purely on commercial grounds alone, are also following the government, indicating the utter spinelessness of their boards, who should resign in the public interest.

The advertised criteria

The Bainimarama Government claimed that it would be assessing tenders on the basis of stated criteria which included the following:

  1. evidence of circulation
  2. evidence of national reach
  3. commitment to educate and inform all Fijians with respect to development and government issues in an unbiased and responsible manner, and
  4. ability to accept urgent and last minute requests.

These four criteria would seem reasonable and commercially oriented.

But the advertisement also asked for evidence of commitment to:

  1. quality
  2. national unity, national identity development and nation building
  3. the development of the Fiji economy
  4. the welfare of all Fijians

By no stretch of the imagination can criteria 5 to 8 be important considerations for any government to get its messages out to the people on matters that concern them, given that the actual vehicle for the advertisement is surely irrelevant.

Any media which had a solid commercial track record of reaching the largest set of citizens in Fiji, ought to have been selected as an avenue for government advertising, purely from the point of view of outreach of advertisements.

Common sense

While a good high school mathematics student could show the following arguments with a “Venn Diagram”, common sense indicates the same.

(a) Only a small number of readers read both the Fiji Sun and Fiji Times

(b) the largest number read only the Fiji Times OR only the Fiji Sun.

(c) hence to reach the maximum number, government ought to advertise in both newspapers.

(d) as the largest customer, government could even demand the lowest fees compatible with reasonable profits for he newspapers.

Note that even if it is implied by the government call for tenders, the Fiji Times should also not be given sole rights to advertise, as there are many members of the public who, for whatever reason, read only the Fiji Sun, and they also should also not be deprived of easy access to government advertisements.

But of course, the arguments could be couched in more technical language relevant to the formal responsibilities of the institutions.

The institutional duties

The Auditor General (backed by the Public Accounts Committee) is duty bound to examine whether the Bainimarama Government decision is on commercial grounds and, if not, whether it amounts to a gross misuse of tax-payer’s money.  They are entitled to demand an immediate explanation from the Minister of Finance.

A principled Consumer Council CEO, who is never reticent about appearing in the media on behalf of small groups of consumers, could have passionately informed the media that by giving ads only to one newspaper, Government was depriving readers of the other more popular newspaper legitimate access to public information, as a basic human right as citizens and consumers of government services.

A principled MIDA Chairman could have pro-actively pronounced (and he has done quite frequently on other matters of less national importance)  that government was undermining fair competition in the media, which was against the public interest.

A principled Commerce Commission, which has often acted against small private sector companies who are perceived to have exercised monopoly power, ought to have pro-actively explained to the Bainimarama Government that it was against the public interest, to bestow by contract, monopoly power on the Fiji Sun as the “sole retailer” of government advertisements.

A principled Commerce Commission ought to also point out that the Fiji Sun was thereby also unfairly obtaining newspaper sales revenues because members of the public interested in government advertisements were being forced to buy the Fiji Sun, and thereby also giving Fiji Sun unfair advertising revenue from commercial advertisers attracted by the artificially added circulation.

A principled CEO of Transparency International could have reminded the Bainimarama Government that it was not good governance to be unfairly granting subsidies to a media owner (CJ Patel) whose newspaper was not a good watchdog on government and could well be accused of being a propaganda arm of government in return for unfair commercial advantages.

But unfortunately, when it comes to contentious Bainimarama Government policies or misdemeanours by companies close to the them (such as a mobile company), it seems that these organisations have become institutional lambs, afraid to do their duty, for fear of slaughter that would probably be their fate.

Solution is easy

The Commerce Commission has been ever ready to set controlled prices for thousands of products and services in the Fiji economy, ranging from drugs, hardware items and even the rents charged for accommodation, where ever there is a hint of lack of competition.

The current Government decision to award sole advertising rights to the Fiji Sun is a blatant example of creation of monopoly which is against the public interest, and which the Commerce Commission is duty bound to combat.

The Commerce Commission could quite legitimately and easily, with the support of the Consumer Council and MIDA, following the proper investigation, establish a regime of advertising charges system for government advertisements, fair to both taxpayers and the media companies, with both companies being asked to run all important advertisements.

What is so difficult about this solution?

The people of this country are ever ready to write Letters to the Editor (The People’s Parliament) on rugby sevens, same sex marriages, Bollywood and Hollywood, the bad state of the roads, or the blunders in the education system.

I call on the “People’s Parliament” to express their opinions on the Bainimarama Government’s decision to advertise solely in the Fiji Sun.

 

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