All is not well with the expenditure figures provided for Caribbean Press

Dear Editor,

The more information that the Minister of Culture is forced to reveal about the operations of the Caribbean Press, the more he proves himself of questionable competence and accountability, and hence deserving of a great deal more scrutiny than he has enjoyed until now.

On the issue of governance alone, the Minister’s responses to AFC’s Trevor Williams should receive a failing grade.   For example, the Minister informs us that the two anthologies of local poetry and prose that were “edited, proofed, laid out, designed and printed by Caribbean Press” are “awaiting writers [sic] approval.”  This would have meant that under his watch, and the stewardship of David Dabydeen, not one but two books would have been printed using taxpayer money without as fundamental a measure as author approval being established.  As one of the writers concerned I will never give permission to the Caribbean Press to publish my work as included, and I know others affected who will not.  Therefore, the books listed would have been printed but legally cannot be distributed since they would constitute proof that the Press violated local author copyright.

The myriad ways in which the Caribbean Press has flouted basic principles of governance warrant more than a space in the letter columns, so in this intervention I am going to focus, though not exhaustively, on issues of financial accountability.

Firstly, I am not sure whether Dr. Anthony fully understands the concept of what is voluntary work or not.   In an article last month, published in Kaieteur News under the headline “Culture Minister answers questions on the Caribbean Press” (KN, June 10), the Minister made the statement that: “Everything that is being done for the Caribbean Press is done voluntarily. No one gets paid and it should be noted that it is funded by the government.”

Yet, according to Stabroek News, a month later, we find out that the expenditure on the Press included, for example an incredible amount of money, $7.85M for what is vaguely described as “secretarial assistance for the editors”.  If we were to generously presume that this figure covered all four years from 2009-2012, this would have equated to about $1.9M a year, or $165,000 a month.
Regarding the layout and design cost, clearly not voluntarily done, we have a total figure of US$57,600 or $11.5M a remarkable figure.

Considering that the vast majority of the publications are primarily text, and considering that current layout and design technology is almost seamlessly automated, that figure is completely indecent.  The average newspaper layout artist in Guyana arguably lays out far more text in a year than the accumulated publications of the Press for a similar period, and with a higher degree of technical difficulty (columns, jumps, picture placement), and I know of not a single one that is paid what would amount to almost $4M a year.  What is also curious about the layout cost is the distribution of the annual allocation, “US$28,800, US$14,400 for 2011 and the same figure for 2012.”  The problem is, layout and design costs are usually calculated via a formula that is dependent on factors which include word count, contiguity of text and the number of images to be placed – with that taken into account, an hourly rate is then established.  The Minister’s presentation implies that either someone was hired at the exact salary of US$28,800 in 2010 and had that salary exactly halved the next two years; or, by remarkable coincidence, the layout and design costs for the books simply fell into that pattern.

I reserve full comment on the printing costs offered by the Minister until I am privy to all the figures but judging from the average high costs given, the figures can be considered to be ludicrously high, unless the Caribbean Press was engaged in republishing editions of Joyce’ *Ulysses* or Tolstoy’s *War and Peace*.  Amazon’s independent publishing outfit, CreateSpace offers a quality 300+ page publication at US$4 per copy, whereas the Minister’s high average is thrice that amount at  $2400 or US$12.

Now, I suppose the Minister should be commended for finally recognizing the usefulness of an editorial board, as I have repeatedly recommended, and the commitment to establish such.  The problem is that experience has shown that Dr. Anthony’s grand public commitments have a way of studiously evading fruition.   For example, in January of 2010, when the first titles were produced, we learnt from Stabroek News that:

“These books were, however, printed outside of the region and the Minister said this was primarily because of concerns that the required quality would not be obtained if the books were printed in Guyana or the region.  Anthony said, however, that efforts were being made to ensure that the next publications were at least printed within the region if not in Guyana.”

Three years later, not a single book of the 24,000 books (60 titles x 400 copies) claimed as produced by the Press has been printed in Guyana.  The Minister has also made no commitment to ensure that the upcoming titles will be printed here, nor even that a local office using local administrative, editorial services, and layout and design staff will be established.

Finally, there are two particularly disturbing answers tendered by the Minister.  One is the Minister’s response that for the AFC MP to access a copy of the establishing document for the press,  “a request for a ‘declassified’ copy should be channelled by Williams to the Cabinet Office.”  This presumes that the establishment document for as simple and supposedly innocuous an entity as the Caribbean Press would be classified

by the PPP in the first place.  Why did Anthony – a member of the Cabinet and aware of the question in advance – not simply arrange for a copy to be presented in the first place?

Then there is the Minister’s failure to provide an exact breakdown of the books produced, landed and distributed in Guyana. If the books were landed in Guyana, there should be shipping manifests, invoices, an entire paper trail of information that would be necessary for the Ministry’s internal accounting processes.   If we were to use the complete shipping costs divided by the number of books said to have been printed to establish the individual shipping cost per copy ($855,000/24,000), we are presented with the remarkably low average of $36 per copy.  Considering that it has been reported in the local media that the legal repository, the National Library, only had single copies of just 17 titles as of a month ago, the failure to present comprehensive information on the amount of books actually in the country is troubling at best.

Equally troubling is that, according to a GINA article, the Minister claimed “…that publications by the unit were distributed to the National Library, University of Guyana Library, Turkeyen, Walter Roth Museum, foreign embassies based in Guyana, Caricom Secretariat, and the Guyana Police Force among other entities.”

Conspicuously absent from this list was the distribution to schools that the Minister and Dabydeen both claimed to have been done – in fact, we were led to believe that the bulk of the books were intended for school distribution.  If the majority of the books were indeed given to schools, the Minister should be able to readily provide a list of the schools supplied and delivery notes to verify that the books were delivered. Perhaps Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand could seek clarification on this issue with her colleague since her members of staff have gone on record as collecting at least some of the books.

As is, the bulk of the 24,000 copies (John Mair actually cites 30,000) of the Caribbean Press books appear to have an existence supported only by rhetoric coming from Drs. Dabydeen and Anthony, the fact that some of the books have been sold to Austin’s Book Store, and press events where a few token copies are strategically handed out.

My humble suggestion to Mr. Williams as well as other members of Parliament is to ensure that Frank Anthony provides verifiable documentation to support his claims of expenditure, since on the surface of the Minister’s revelations alone, anyone involved in publishing would discern that all is not well with the figures presented.  After that, we can move on to exploring his lackadaisical performance on governance.

Yours faithfully,
Ruel Johnson

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