Print media’s shortfall
Today we publish the third and final 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 undertakes an intimate examination of the performance of the print media and its practitioners.
In Barbados, I regret to observe, their role and relevance are diminished by suicide well before their ultimate homicidal departure. And this is largely because of neglect by practitioners and owners and managers of our own media.
I tread on this aspect without reluctance, but conscious of my own interest and my role. I feel a sense of failure, not for my record, but for my legacy. I now observe a gaping emptiness that tells me what advocates of press freedom, and guardians of our rights fought relentlessly for, has all but dissipated into vacant darkness.
It is not a state I anticipated when collectively journalists in all forms of the Barbados media, particularly those associated with late Jimmy Cozier’s Daily News, pursued our craft without a thought for our personal well being, to the advantage and in the interest of an enthusiastic population of eager Barbadians enjoying the first flush of political independence.
Then came a period of challenge at the start of the seventies. This was heightened during the period of the crucial Constitutional amendments in 1973. It ignited the spirit that gave birth to the Nation newspaper.
We felt that political independence meant we had to have our hands on the important institutions of the country, including the media, to ensure that the destiny of the people would benefit from a decision-making created from a process of information-sharing.
What a refreshing new aura of freedom prevailed at that time. It inspired me and others to crusade for an independent, locally-owned press to replace the remoteness and stuffiness of overseas newspaper ownership and to locate control in the hands of people who inherited this special space, walked these back streets, lived on these shores all year, shopped in these stores, worshipped with each other, paid our taxes and elected our own government.
Now I wonder if local ownership by itself guarantees the standards we sought at that time. For all media are owned by local and regional interests, yet journalists have gone back to those bad old days when they yearned for a call from a government minister to give them “something to put in the paper” as they then referred to this valued information source.
Journalists are back to that point where they simply check every occurrence with the minister in charge. He or she holds all the answers for them, provides all the explanations they need, puts all wrongs right and is the final all-saying, all-powerful arbiter.
Stories can be told: Once when there was a major road accident the Minister of Transport was called for a comment, of all things, on road mishaps. When he was not available, as they can be conveniently both available and unavailable, the reporter resorted to the more accommodating Minister of Health who suitably delivered of himself a long, meaningless view about the hospital’s emergency department’s ability to handle mass casualties. It was helpful to the reporter with space to fill in the paper. No one else.
So in the drought we are now experiencing, the sought-after views that matter are either those of the Minister of Health on the effects of wild fires on asthmatics; the Minister of the Environment on degradation of the land; the Minister of Agriculture on water scarcity on food production; or the Minister of Finance on what it will cost us.
All along they forgot that the Minister of Education would have given them the most eloquent assessment and the best quotes. Every answer to every problem in the society is available at the end of the phone line once you have the minister’s cell number. What misplacement of values and priorities!
We must be more creative. More sensible and more aware of the message we are sending both the minister and mankind. Let’s ferret out the real version, not necessarily the official version.
I fondly recall the first edition of The Nation newspaper and the energy we generated in the interest of fearless journalism and a just society.
Editor Carl Moore asserted in our front-page editorial: “We’ve come on the scene because we want to do something about our state of affairs.
“We’ve come on the scene because we share the view that an uninformed public is an enslaved public.
“We are not asking for any special freedom over and above that which the average citizen enjoys. We are interested in the sort of climate in which we can practice a more positive and investigative form of journalism…”.
Thank you, Carl Moore.
Columnist Clive Daniel wrote: “Too many government policy statements have been accepted by the community as if government’s positions were the only tenable ones.”
He later went on to suggest: “A newspaper must raise issues. It does not await the government’s lead to realise there are ills in this country. It seeks out issues and causes, always bringing pressure to bear on elected and other officials in the interest of good government.”
Another columnist, Joe Brome, our respected veteran, drew on history. He said changes in colonial policy only came as a result of the crusading efforts of H.G. deLisser at the Jamaica Gleaner, A.P.T. Ambard at the Port of Spain Gazette, Albert Marryshow at the West Indian in Grenada, and in Barbados Charles Chenery at the Barbados Advocate, Grantley Adams at the Agricultural Reporter and Clennell Wickham at The Herald.
He observed: “The West Indian press must be alert and accommodate itself to a new orientation if the region is to make any progress.”
He urged: “The press thrives on its ability to examine the conduct of people be they princes, prime ministers, puppets or parvenus and to portray the merit of the conduct of those who dwell in the lowlands and not near the Olympian seats of new-found power.”
I’m afraid this is not today’s press. We have fallen far short. We have not, as Brome urged, accommodated a new orientation.
Again, no one put it better than Winston Churchill: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize…”
Today’s journalists have indulged in a new orientation indeed, but not the one Joe Brome wrote about. They have moved away from the high principles and have changed the climate to their own liking but also their own disadvantage. They stifle news and thwart it. They do it for narrow self-serving reasons and as a consequence, debase our people.
I can be charitable and say some of this is being done absent-mindedly. But frankly, lots are done deliberately.
I know some of the challenges. One relates to the fact that we are besieged by former colleagues who are public relations agents, who in the exercise of their well paid positions and armed with promises to plant positive stories on behalf of their clients or their ministers, to shield them from negative coverage by infiltrating the media are unconscious of the damage they do to the body national. Or maybe they are just honestly serving their clients whose interests do no always coincide with the constituency of the journalist.
Then we have journalists whose only interest is in preserving their own privileges of perks and parties. They will sacrifice personal integrity, avoid enquiring journalism, not to speak of investigative reporting and other conventional forms of high-quality writing, in order to remain close to those who wield power — in business, in sports and in government.
These are journalists who ensure there is only one side to a story and guard it with their lives. And editors accept that tripe with a giggle or a smirk. Or a shrug of inconsiderateness. Or of smug stupidity. They deliberately avoid bold and courageous assertions of professional competence that fearlessly set people thinking about alternatives. And sets people free to make right decisions. They are traitors to the great cause and the good society. Nothing less.
Since democracy is that imperfect form of government which presumes it can best advance the interest of society through a system that is of, from and for the people, we have to gird those people with decision-making information like reporters and editors, and inspire them to work out their own salvation which is bound up in the fate of all citizens.
Recently I met a man who clearly knew me well. Sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital, he angrily pleaded with me. He said with more than a hint of desperation, what the newspapers offer him to read is an insult to universal free education in Barbados, adding: “I can read and I can reason, I need to be challenged by ideas and thought. Don’t treat me as an idiot by trotting out what people tell you to say without confronting it. I am not stupid.”
He left me in shock and almost in tears. Somewhat my junior in years he amazed me by the passion he exhibited and the vehemence he expressed. His words sent my mind directly to the newsrooms of media houses I know well in search of such articulate fervour for the job we are supposed to do. I left with the names of but a few men and women.
It made me mourn.
It made me journey back through the annals of Barbados’ journalism in recollection of untrained, poorly paid patriots whose restless conscience aroused them, without the aid of modern tools of technology, to search, to dig, to question, to unearth, to peruse, to examine and to expose.
I recalled the names of great commentators of the not too distant past. Gladstone Holder, John Connell, Jeannette Layne-Clarke and Oliver Jackman are among those who dared to differ without apology in the name of all that is fair and good for the country of their inheritance.
Their tools may have been relatively primitive, but they fully understood the mission of the media and they did not betray their people for popularity nor porridge.
As I conclude, let me state in case I have not sufficiently implied, that I know of no better way to inform people than to do it by way of diverse media, as several as possible, as independent as possible and as strong and as competitive as possible. In the end some rough approximation of the truth will be presented to the people. The people must be free to use it or abuse it, but they should have that choice.
That choice must be given to them through the information provided by a discerning, crusading media. The voluntary decisions of the people through the ballot box then shape the imperfect form of government that we call a democracy that in my experience is still best in advancing the interest of society.
When we look at the examples of say Zimbabwe and Guyana, we see how a press that becomes over-zealous about personalities and not principles, opens the way for exploitation and subsequent erosion of rights and freedoms.
Erosion first of the press and then of the rights of the people follows. We are wrong to assume that our role is one paved with cash or our responsibility laced with gold. Arrest that thought!
Instead I commend the long and narrow road as I yearn to use my profession in the interest of democratic values. I urge free and fierce media. Let’s use the one to aid the other. To help, not hinder. A tape recorder or pen and paper in the hands of a reporter can be a tool of uselessness if not used; it can be a weapon of mass destruction if mercilessly wielded against the public interest through spite or silence; through coercion or indifference.
Our people in the media, owners, mangers and players alike, must recognise harm is being done to society and its right to know, to be informed, and to understand the issues if we neglect our calling. How we manage our information and our analyses, how we then utilise them to help people understand themselves and come to conclusions, determine our status as a people. Our democracy. Our destiny.
“We must, through much tribulation enter the Kingdom of God”, admonishes Acts chapter 14 verse 22.
I come to the end of this speech with a Biblical injunction that suggests there is no easy path to Christian success. Since the Kingdom of God represents the ultimate, then we should strive for the professional ultimate.
I therefore urge journalists to see true meaning and genuine purpose in what we strive to do. But I also caution that we expect disappointments and setbacks, knowing that, as the Bible also intones in 1 Peter chapter 1: “Make your calling and election sure.”
I advise you: If your professional calling is secure, so too will be your election. Great and precious will be that inner reward of professional accomplishment and satisfaction. And your service to mankind would be just.