Against the grain of fair journalism
We do not, like Irish writer Oscar Wilde, hold the view that instead of monopolizing the seat of judgment, journalism should be apologizing in the dock.
Nor for that matter do we subscribe to the cynic’s often repeated belief that journalism is akin to the making of evanescent bricks with ephemeral straw.
What we do believe is that as shapers of public opinion, and practitioners of profession where our words are often trusted by our publics, we must always be mindful of the impressions we create and the responsibilities which we have to friend and foe, pleb and patrician, victim and accused, oppressed and oppressor.
As journalists, we are sometimes loath to police and rebuke ourselves publicly, preferring the internal meeting to examine our gaffes and committing to doing better on the subsequent occasion. However, doing better the next time is often conditioned by whether the faux pas was accepted or excused in preference to the scoop.
Two recent situations challenge much of what should be journalism’s responsibility; and we highlight them, not with malice or smugness, but with the knowledge that while we might point an accusatorial finger, the thumb is also directed at ourselves.
In Barbados’ 2013 general election the records show that 5,755 people cast their vote in the St Peter constituency. Of these, 3 665 voted for the incumbent Owen Seymour Arthur; 1,982 voted for Haynesley Benn; 72 for Lynroy Scantlebury; and there were 36 spoilt votes. Former Prime Minister Arthur is a product of that northern parish, where he went to school; still has family resident; and has built up significant friendships there after more than two decades as its parliamentary representative in the House of Assembly.
It is therefore an inaccuracy, based on those mentioned numbers, for any journalist or media house to make the broad and sweeping statement that the people of St Peter do not want to see the former Barbados Labour Party member back in the constituency, when the opinions of only four or five –– give even ten –– parishioners were sought and published. Such an assertion is simply misleading.
We can see with those five or six souls who suggested they were slighted by Mr Arthur’s failure to consult with them prior to his decision to quit the party for which they voted. In this instance, the few are addressing common political decency rather than purporting to speak for 5,000 plus people.
We hold no brief for Mr Arthur, but we hold one for completely unvarnished, fair and accurate news reporting. The former Barbados
Prime Minister and the nut vendor in Swan Street both deserve that professional courtesy.
The second issue which we highlight is perhaps even more damning, and strikes at the heart of our judicial system.
All accused people are deemed to be innocent until proven guilty. And in situations where they are to be judged by a jury of their peers, that trial should not commence with testimony from the virtual complainant on the front or back page of a newspaper or via broadcast or other electronic media.
There is the belief that as long as an individual has not been criminally charged, he or she is fair game as it relates to the story being told. While there is no legal sanction to be had for the publication of intimate details of an incident for which no one has as yet been charged, a responsible media still have a duty not only to the victim, but also to the accused.
Therefore, to print or air chapter and verse about an incident, where the accused is known, under police watch at a hospital, and likely to be charged on release, is to give every potential juror in Barbados unchallenged “facts” of the case before the trial is held. This is not the United States, and such uninhibited exposure of details of a case prior to trial goes against the very grain of the English jurisprudence to which we adhere.
Under most circumstances, any self-respecting editor will tell those under his or her charge, before going to print, to get both sides of the story. In the troubling case of domestic violence to which we refer, only one side of the tale was vented. Circumstances would not have allowed for the other side to be revealed at this juncture. Thus it would appear that no journalistic consideration is owed to the accused, to the oppressor, to the pleb, to the foe.
That is no journalistic tenet of which we know. We must debunk the notion that journalists are more attentive to the minute hand of history than to the hour hand.
Oscar Wilde once said that journalism justifies its own existence by the Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarist. We do not share this view and practitioners of this profession should not engage in script to prove Mr Wilde correct.