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Helpful or harmful?

Starting today we will publish in segments, the lecture by Editor Emeritus of the Nation Publishing Co. at the Central Bank last week titled: Our Democracy – Are The Media Helping or Hurting?

The future of the media turns out to be far more topical today than I could have imagined when late last year I accepted an invitation from Carlisle Alonza Best, administrative officer of the Central Bank, on behalf of that institution and the open campus of the University of the West Indies, to join a growing list of well known citizens who have kindly given up luncheons at Mustor’s, Mullins, Mews or Mama Mia, to share ideas on matters of public interest at this lecture series.

It was not convenient and would not have been prudent in the pre-election season to engage in a discussion on this topic. Now that the political dust has settled it seems opportune for me to step up to this rostrum to discuss a deep, burning matter of personal concern about the profession which gave me a living. I hope the choice of topic affords others in the audience also to share their views on a matter that I believe needs ventilation at this juncture of our history.

Its topicality is heightened by the fact that only yesterday we learnt of unprecedented collaboration in Westminster, England, where an all-party decision was taken to bring the British press under new regulatory laws to ensure an end to the phone-hacking and bribery scandals which have ruined far too many lives through unlawful practices by unscrupulous media houses.

I want to support the view of the United Kingdom’s political leaders that the right balance has been found to protect the freedom of the press while at the same time ensuring innocent people cannot be harassed and bullied by powerful people in the press.

I also appreciate the outrage of a number of U.K. newspapers as expressed in their leading articles over the past 24 hours. The Press Complaints Commission, on which the Eastern Caribbean Press Council was fashioned 15 years ago, has served a useful role in regulating the press, but the veto powers that newspapers had over appointments to the council will unfortunately not be enjoyed under the new regulator. His powers are pretty sweeping and I fully anticipate a boycott by the media of this Royal Charter appointment because the rules have been created exclusively by the political elite. There was no media consultation.

The respected body known as the Index on Censorship claims the new deal has left “the British democracy tarnished.” And one commentator observed: “When three political parties stitch up a deal in the middle of the night, you should smell a rat,” adding, “when everyone involved claims victory while accusing others of caving in, you can be sure someone has been sold down the river.”

The proposal deserves further study by us all. But there is no doubt it was born out of dastardly press conduct which has invited political wrath.

Today’s subject, although very much centred on the press, moves away from looking at these monsters in the media to instead examine our minnows and their undermining role. But I could not resist the temptation to mention this balanced step in England that may yet go down in history as a significant underpinning of the democratic values which this speech will seek to reinforce.

The motivation for tackling the subject of whether the media are helping or hurting our democracy at this time, is a burden I carry as a citizen who has spent an entire working life in the exercise of a profession which I perhaps naively believe has a critical role in shaping the security of our tenuous democracy. I say “tenuous” because I have seen how quickly many emerging countries in the so-called Third World stumble and fall in pursuit of so-called “democratic ideals”.

It is never a straight road, but invariably the role of the media, and from experience that of the judiciary, are so compromised as to facilitate the trampling of rights of citizens.

I carry a particular burden for Zimbabwe in southern Africa which I visited more than once since my first tour in its early glory days of 1984. I felt sure at the time of its independence it would have emerged as a model new nation, well endowed as it certainly was – chromite, gold, copper and coal – and black-controlled as it undoubtedly became under President Robert Mugabe who has been President since 1987, and faces possible re-election this year as a 90-year-old. But it became a country which I saw crumble as a failed state with 80 per cent unemployment, inflation at over 200 million per cent and no currency of its own. Today the United States dollar and South Africa’s rand are legal tender there.

I only mention Zim, as we familiarly call it, as perhaps the worst example, but there are other nations we have seen drift from democratic to autocratic leadership, admittedly for different reasons and with varying results, but in each case with disastrous consequences for citizens, society, economy and the country’s international standing.

I happened to be close to media leaders in Zim at the time and I know the story they tell. Infatuated by Mugabe’s spell-binding oratory and inspirational leadership, the media encouraged him to believe he was Africa’s Messiah through, first of all, uncritical writing to support his development model and then into open and blind loyalty to a disturbing regime of hatred under the cover of a national desire to redress certain imbalances of power and wealth.

Now those media leaders who had the courage to resist Mugabe and risk life and property in furtherance of their burning professional desire to provide fora for alternative points of view against the greatest odds, have been driven underground through political interference and draconian media laws and tough penalties.

I watched there, as I did in Guyana in the seventies and eighties, as the media, bent on a misguided notion of a non-offending role in the interest of so-called “national development”, slowly had their rights eroded by forces determined to create a pliable press and a compliant people, while their constitutions both proclaimed freedom of the press.

The Guyana story is better told by some of the journalists from that vast and once great country who found refuge in this and other regional countries once favoured the then frightening Forbes Burnham figure and the tentacles he employed, wrecking newspapers and radio stations and devastating the legitimate pursuits of some of the Caribbean’s most talented scribes.

Guyana is perhaps the Caribbean’s worst example. But before those in this audience in search of sound bites run off with scare-mongering quotations from these opening remarks, let me say up front I do not detect any such deliberate attempts to muzzle free speech in this country. And neither am I predicting our fair land will become some dictator’s wasteland. That is not what I am saying.

But what I do observe here as I saw in other emerging countries at the time, is a weakness among some in what should be the professional class and some who control the media, to cow-tow to the interests of persons in positions of power, be they political or business. And in so doing there is an erosion of the concept of serving the citizen and society against all prejudices and interest groups without fear or favour.

I see it played out through an unquestioning media; lazy journalists and quasi-professionals who believe they exist to please persons in positions of power; to trot out what they say; glory in what they do; and await their applause. These people either do not understand their role and duty or they are letting political bias or personal friendships obscure their broader and higher duty, a betrayal of the implicit bond of trust historically placed in the media by the wider society.

It is inexcusable to forfeit this solemn confidence on the altar of unbridled profits, unimpeded personal gratification or elusive upward social advancement.

It is on this basis that I raise the question today: “Democracy: Are the media helping or hurting?”

I feel a duty to raise this concern. In the light of observations I will make later on, to do otherwise would be a desertion of my sense of professional propriety and national obligation, particularly as one of Barbados’s senior citizens.

The question arises for me because thankfully the form of government to which Barbados subscribes ensures people are at the centre of decision-making and that supreme power is vested in our voters based on a system of periodic freely held elections. This process known as democracy is said to be an unending experiment in taming hazardous concentrations of power. The checks and balances are based on having wise and informed voters. This assumes that these decision-makers – the people – are fully informed of the issues that impact their lives and the future security of their children and country.

The more informed the citizen, the more assured we are that continuous scrutiny will provide appropriate chastening of those vested with the authority to govern.

The holding of knowledge and the freedom to express ourselves is enshrined in Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not only does this article proclaim our right to hold opinions, but also to hold these without interference and with the freedom to express ourselves. At the iconic Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Principle 10, of what is regarded as the universally accepted blueprint for sustainable development, endorsed the same right to freedom of expression and access to environmental data as a fundamental right. It was re-iterated at the Rio Plus 20 conference last year. It went further to urge states to “encourage public awareness and participation.” No longer just freedom, but encouragement of full participation by all who are made aware.

Although it was not always the case (for the media was once the powerful arm of the privileged) but are now the well-established method of sharing on a mass basis, the expressed views of the many. This system of mass communication is meant to have a backbone. It operates as an imperative manner of holding the power elite to account, rendering them publicly responsible to that supreme power known in democracies as the people.

The media are that backbone and exist to heighten our knowledge of ourselves and consciousness of each other, hopefully to the point of eliminating the prejudices and misunderstandings that keep us apart as cults or tribes of race, religion, politics, or culture.

We, and I say “we” because I am at heart, even if retired, a journalist committed to upholding the finest traditions of the profession, even though we have no formal role as part of the estate of the realm. In a democracy the media are part of the mass-audience function which society demands or should and must demand in the interest of order. It is this status which ranks us as an important pillar and was designed to emphasise our independence of kings, lords and indeed even of the commons. That must remain our unswerving commitment.

It is this indispensible media independence to which I unapologetically subscribe that affords access to all information that is vital to the success of democracy. It must be central to our choices, our decision-making. Independence!

It is acquired and cherished as a key part of the freedom of all citizens to express themselves. It is therefore not an exclusive entitlement of persons who are employed in public or private media corporations only. We merely exercise it on behalf of the entire society.

Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty, the Press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”

It is an honour that should be respected in observance rather than in breach.

When we breach, as I would suggest is our new reality, we abandon a rich privilege. We shun this ethic of service to our peril and that of our people on whose behalf we are entrusted to act fairly and responsibly. And independently.

This independent role is supplanted by the practice of suppressing true pictures of reality that should otherwise be plain for all to see, examine and judge. This ugly practice hinders the presentation of other, different, equally plausible pictures or resemblances that are vital for making meaningful judgments about the great complexity of affairs around us and perhaps the emergence of dangerous or damaging directions and trends. This is caused by the failure of media houses and journalists to recognise the intrinsic need for more than glossy and colourful pictures, great sound bites and the enticement and excitement of sex, crime and trivia.

Over and above our responsibility to act freely and independently, the next most significant function is to bring to the fore those fundamental matters which impact our direction as a country through insightful analysis, quality commentaries and revelations of true and relevant facts and figures without the colour of politics or the prejudice of personal preferences or pride in persons other than ourselves.

Instead, we have what a commentator in Trinidad recently termed “the descending of a shrouded grey mist of silence”. He went on to guess that this surreal evidence is what purgatory must feel like. That helped me to want to avoid both purgatory and worse, hell!

He was talking about a chasm in our lives, specifically created by today’s indifferent media habits. He was saying to journalists you live here and we live here. Behave as though we inhabit the same space and deserve to know more than its emptiness.

What an indictment.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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