Friday, December 27, 2013

Untangling the Mess at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation

Editorial Comment: Untangling the mess at ZBC essential

December 27, 2013 Opinion & Analysis
Zimbabwe Herald

Among those going without pay or bonuses this festive holiday will be the staff of ZBC and their families — although the bosses will be comfortable — since they have yet to be paid for more than six months.

Yet within the next eight weeks something between US$10 million and US$15 million will flow into ZBC’s coffers, thanks to Zinara enforcing the law at their tollgates and the police enforcing the law at their road blocks and both making sure all vehicles on the road with a radio, and almost all vehicles now have these, even if they do not work, carry the radio licence disc. A rough idea of the sort of money about to become available can be done through a simple calculation: 400 000 vehicles at US$30 each comes to US$12 million.

Even this large sum will not be enough to liquidate all of ZBC’s debts, but it can make a significant difference if it is applied properly with the correct set of priorities.

Guidance from the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services will obviously be needed, probably given through a replacement board for the one ordered to resign after the Minister, Prof Jonathan Moyo, found it was doing very little to nothing and which, it has subsequently become clear, must have approved startling packages for senior staff of ZBC.

Untangling the mess at ZBC will take time and it will take even longer to convert it into a proper public broadcaster, one that offers decent basic radio and television service free-to-air to all in Zimbabwe, in as many national languages as possible. Commercial services are very good at providing the most profitable programming to concentrations of people that advertisers want to reach.

But someone has to do more than this, and in most countries a public broadcaster backed by a modest tax (and licence fees are a tax, not a subscription) is the one that provides this extra.

In an ideal world, ZBC would provide a lot of its services commercially, using the licence fees more as a subsidy for the necessary extra services which cannot, at least at this stage of Zimbabwe’s development, come from private stations.

But while time will be needed to rebuild ZBC into this respectable public broadcaster someone is going to need to decide how the first millions from licence fees flowing in next month will be used, and fairly obviously that someone probably should not be an existing manager at ZBC.

Besides the Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Ministry sorting out ZBC, the crisis at the broadcaster raises more general questions that the Labour Ministry and Parliament may well need to have answered.

At present it appears to be quite legal for an organisation not formally declared insolvent to award high salaries to some staff, and pay these month after month, while declaring that it has no money to pay more junior staff.

It is only when the courts appoint a judicial manager for a company formally declared insolvent that a more rational distribution of available income can be made. What startles a lot of people is the legality of bosses paying themselves before paying their general staff and then declaring salaries for the latter cannot be paid.

A modest change to the law requiring staff to be paid in ascending order of job grade, from cleaners to managers, rather than descending order, from managers to cleaners, might well concentrate the minds of managers at several organisations, both public and private.

The second set of questions arising from revelations at ZBC involve the level of compensation at state enterprises.

Ideally, state enterprises should be in the forefront of their sector when it comes to pay; and if the state enterprise is viable and profitable there is no reason why it should not be such.

And yes, to attract required talent a State enterprise should be able to compete with the private sector.

But the sort of remuneration packages given to top staff at ZBC were well in excess of what the private sector offers for equivalent responsibilities, while packages set for junior staff tend to be lower than the private sector.

Even then, the question would never have arisen if the management of ZBC was running a highly-profitable enterprise awash in cash. The private sector does not pay top dollar for failure, nor does it reward de facto insolvency.

The Minister and Ministry have been gathering facts since the nature of the crisis became known. Partial ameliorations of the problem are possible as licence income starts to flow.

But a number of tough decisions now need to be made over what bills are paid.

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