Betrayed by television
Today we publish the second instalment of the lecture delivered last week by Editor Emeritus of the Nation Publishing Company Ltd, Harold Hoyte, titled Our Democracy — Are the Media Helping or Hurting? at the Central Bank of Barbados. In this segment the veteran editor takes a closer look at how local journalists in television, radio and the Internet function.
The writer, Ira Mathur, referred to Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights that depicts paradise, the great pleasures of life and gruesome punishments. It paints sycophantic couriers jostling for favour and attention among naked humans without masks of civility and certainly without clothing, and without soul, the same as animals. Utter ugliness created out of utter silence and blissfully ignorant of the despair of the wretched of our place on earth. A frightening outcome of the professional neglect we endure right here.
Our calypsonians have sought to fill that empty ugliness by, every year, playing a role as social commentators. I recall the words of two of our great calypsonians, the Mighty Gabby and John King who spoke directly to the need for that art form to go beyond empty phrases of “wine yuh bam bam” as expressed in John King’s classic I am a calyspo and in Gabby’s Write the song, which appealed to calypsonians go beyond the rhythm to the message of the music.
In particular, John King words are poignant:
“DJs can only play rock and jazz
“I love you, I love you, yes I do.
“In a world that’s hard as hell
“Make world leader feel all is well…”
He then critics the image we project to:
“Buckingham and Uncle Sam”
that all we are good for is jam,
“pampalam and big bam bam.”
Instead he urges calypsonians to sing about Gadhafi’s atrocities and the danger of Reaganomics and that “US is not for us…”
Adding: “Show them, show them, calypsonians, the purpose of calypso.”
The threat I see on the horizon of Barbados, created by a neglectful media, is not dissimilar: Some journalists, like some calypsonians, do not comprehend our power, purpose and mission. Journalists are afraid to show our people and indeed, the world, there is more to us than our rhythm and that we cannot be judged only by our carnival and our cricket.
What I therefore see is a mere form of journalism. Not the substance. In this case I speak only of Barbados because from what I know of media in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in particular, healthy and fertile fields exist.
At this juncture I will venture to justify my conclusions about Barbados by looking at the different branches of our media and selectively assessing how they help or hinder in the growth of our democracy.
I will look at television, radio, the Internet and the press.
As an experienced practitioner I know our role and how we execute and how we should execute. We can play up or play down the news and its significance, foster and feed emotions, create complacency and blind spots, misuse great words and uphold empty slogans.
We can deify or demonise public figures. This is frightening power. Placed in the hands of fools and people who confuse social conviction with social mobility, or those with improper agendas, it can have disastrous and long-term consequences.
I want to examine our media in the context of this authority we enjoy, and to question if how we conduct our affairs is fair to our people, our country and our democracy.
First of all, television.
We have a sole television station, a matter which unfortunately satisfies both major political parties because they are able to abuse its monopoly in order to access a vast majority of captive decision-makers and in so doing gratify selfish partisan ends.
Even as I now criticise local TV I must declare my interest. I serve on boards of local and regional media houses that have expressed interests in obtaining licenses to operate television services in Barbados.
None of my criticisms though, are meant to further the cause of any applications for licenses which it may be construed that I am a part of, to the extent that such interest may yet exist.
And so I ask a series of questions, the answers to which are self-evident.
What percentage of local television is local or regional and thus relevant to our decisions in life?
What percentage of television broadcasting is devoted to public affairs? What constitutes public affairs in TV programming?
What constitutes television news?
We know all the answers and are ashamed of them nearly 50 years after political independence.
The diet of ministerial speeches and reports; the avoidance of covering matters of national importance which may offend an over-sensitive government, and the suppression of critical comments are nauseous and repulsive to the eye and ear and should be to the profession.
This type of non-coverage lulls an uncritical or unthinking audience into a sense of having a country that is so well ordered that there are no problems, no concerns, no complexities. People are soothed into slumber; deluded into acquiescence as trusted soft-spoken talking heads paint only rosy pictures and promise only milk and honey, supported by rabid and putrid views unsheathed by commentators chosen exclusively for the jellyfish characteristics they barrenly display.
This costly high stakes deception is ruinous to democratic ideals. It is a betrayal of exclusive access to the homes and minds of our people. It secures flattering control of the consciousness, thought, volition, emotion and judgment of the unwitting, especially as fact is forfeited for fiction and legitimised by the absence of contrary views, an enforced silence of the other side.
Our television programming throttles the right of people to full access to information and thus saps our democracy into dry nothingness.
Few members of the public recognise the extent to which radio is severely restricted in what it can broadcast because of very rigid legislation, enforced by detailed rules. Radio has a limited role to play in public affairs in the way that newspapers that are largely unregulated, do.
According to the terms and conditions under which radio licensees operate, according to the Broadcasting Act (cap 274B), the allocation of time to the broadcasting of matters of religion, politics or industrial controversy and the ensuring of the preservation of impartiality are subject to ministerial control. In other words, the minister in charge of broadcasting can step in and cancel licences on the basis of content on radio.
Beside our dominant jukebox stations, there are the exceptions which dedicate about two hours per week to serious examination of public matters. Almost by agreement, they choose the earlier hours of sedate Sundays to worship at the feet of Freud.
Radio stations with call-in programmes provide valuable fora for the input of the governed of our society. These are however dominated by those who are idle enough, keen enough and patient enough who dominate the airtime of programmes, using use repetitious rhetoric as if they delight in the sound of their own sweet sameness. And I suspect they do. It is a sick form of self-arousal.
One would wish for a more varied, more vibrant set of opinions than this daily diet of the dedicated. Indeed, the fact that call-in programmes are dominated by a few regulars whose positions on every issue can be safely predicted by a clear and sustained political bias, speaks to the fact that some means has to be found to more often make these programmes more accessible to a wider number of unbiased, independent and eager Winnies and Winstones in our country.
Call-in programmes add real value to the democratic process, however, and must not be mislabelelled or misappreciated.
Mass social media through the Internet which knows no boundaries, is a recent phenomenon of immense potential. Its access to multiple people on multiple platforms offers opportunities for instant access in a way hitherto unimaginable and unknown, overcoming challenges of currencies and freedom of trade.
The Internet has transformed the communications and information world. For the most part we are better for it. It is an incomparable global network that transcends national frontiers, cultural borders and time differences to open vistas that collect and disseminate views as varied as the entire world population and often, just as colourful, and just as misunderstood and misjudged.
Unfortunately, it is that same vast collection of data that confounds more that it is comprehended.
Does the Internet help our democratic process? I certainly think it does. What this media do well, as we are meant to, are offer thorough thought and discussion to advance the progress of civilisation, transmitting information, facilitating the exchange of views, constantly holding up a mirror before the people.
Do they hinder? I think they do.
Insistence on instantaneous transmittal of information has compromised some of the valued tenets of brand journalism and has, in the process, injured our cause and tampered with the text of our mission. Information is not news and those who use social media to transmit information are not bound by the strict and essential rule of fact-checking of news, or an absence of recklessness in respect of issues and people’s reputations, which are all integral to good traditional journalism.
The prudent exercise of taste and compassion in sensitive affairs has been thrown through the window, sacrificed on the altar of the scoop and the sensational to satisfy only an appetite for the salacious.
It has also offended by airing wide-ranging opinions not properly identified as such, and often made indistinct with news information, a confusing and dangerous threat to the examination of issues and ultimately democracy, since the purity of fact and the sanctity of figures are happily ignored.
In addition, in Barbados we have grown our own version of popular social (or unsociable) blogs. They have not distinguished themselves for accuracy, transparency or fairness to the extent traditionalists like me would prefer; and I abhor the anonymous nature of most of their offerings as well as the temptation of many to resort to personal attacks and scurrilous abuse.
With this demand for urgency and speed, gone is the concept of accurately reporting events. The requirement of careful checking, making sure competing sides are offered the chance of full ventilation, particularly in controversies, is often not accommodated.
But the so-called blogs have revolutionised the old media culture of limited interchange of views and should be seen as complementary to established media as they certainly do not supplant them.