Not merely ‘stupid noises’
There are public and private academics. I am a private academic and I make no apologies for this. However, recent reporting by sections of the media on comments made by me in a public space and the resulting backlash, including comments made by the country’s chief legal advisor to the Government as well as personal comments by a ‘reporter’, have forced me to engage in what I really do not have much appetite for.
I must, however, confess that I have long been disturbed by the state of corruption throughout the Caribbean and certainly Barbados. Beyond what I have discerned for the last 20 years or so, I have been privately told by scores of my current and former students and electors across the Caribbean, Asia and Africa of their experiences with corruption. But what has been most revealing is the level of genuine ‘un-appreciation’ on the part of many young, and not so young students and other citizens, of what constitutes corruption, far less its implications for development and democracy.
While corruption takes many, many forms, election after election in Barbados for example, I am regaled with stories from my students of their vote having been bought by candidates and political parties, some accepting monetary ‘gifts’ of $200 to $800. This ‘ignorance’ I can understand, for many of them work in institutions which are corrupt and therefore, culturally, they are unaware of a life which can be differently ordered. But there are many in Government, in the private sector and elsewhere who cannot be so excused.
It was, however, a chance encounter with a “gentleman” at a funeral in Barbados which disturbed my equilibrium as he publicly and smugly boasted of his manipulation of procedures to derive benefits for himself and a circle of persons within the organization which he headed. This ignited a renewed concern with the blatant abuses of power which appear to be so pervasive, yes pervasive in almost every single Caribbean country, including Barbados.
So, given my longstanding concern with issues of democracy and good governance, combined with these experiences and the range of responses to my comments and the personal and sometimes deliberately false interpretation of these comments attributed to me by a small section of the media, that I took the decision to make some more “stupid noises” in the hope that this column will serve not only as an educational forum but that it also will generate greater public discourse in this county as well as create a crescendo of “stupid noises” that will drown out the passivity and political smugness that promote the corruption of our system.
Hopefully, the “stupid noises” will result in more careful consideration of how we cast our votes at elections. I am therefore hopeful that the outcome of the discussions around the national integrity system will result in a more informed public with greater introspection of their behaviours but, equally important, is the hope that the electorate will approach the ballot box with greater awareness of the importance of their vote in ensuring that we bring to Parliament, representatives who understand the importance of achieving and maintaining the integrity of our system and who are made to answer for their actions or non-action.
I hope to start a conversation on the state of play of the national integrity system (NIS), beginning with a brief focus on the media and its critical role in maintaining the integrity of the national system. The NIS is a framework approach developed by Jeremy Pope, one of the founders of Transparency International and a former chief legal officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat that seeks to undertake a comprehensive assessment of corruption.
Methodologically while it examines institutions, areas of activity, rules and practices separately, it also looks at the intersection, inter-dependence and the overall combined effectiveness of the system. In a nutshell, the NIS is a methodological framework through which key areas/institutions/practices where corruption is most likely to occur can be examined with the objective of controlling and limiting its occurrence through necessary reform.
But, first, what is corruption? While many definitions have been offered, I will defer to a Bill (157 pages) originating from the Office of the Attorney General of Barbados which seeks to prevent corruption in Barbados. The bill sees corruption as any act in which persons in public life seek to gain advantage for themselves and others whether through such means as a gift, a loan, contract, valuable property, employment, the exercise or forbearance from the exercise of duty, power or right, an offer, promise or undertaking, whether conditional or unconditional.
In other words, misuse of office, favouritism, nepotism, cronyism, graft and other such behaviour, some of which border on criminality. And less we forget, in every act of corruption, there is a ‘briber’ and a ‘bribee’. Secondly, under what conditions does corruption flourish and or is most likely to occur? The answer to that is quite clear. Corruption flourishes in an environment which is marked by a lack of transparency and accountability and where sanction regimes are minimal or absent. In that context, access to information is critical.
Undoubtedly, ethical media are critical elements in the NIS. Among the media’s many responsibilities is their obligation to accuracy which ought to dictate that the media, whether print or non-print, do not deliberately embark on a process of misinformation and deliberate distortion. Equally important, ethical journalism is related to fact-digging reportorial work, facticity and fairness, not mind you, “opinion-less” objectivity.
Favouring a hard news approach only will not necessarily result in the exposure of infelicities on the part of the political and bureaucratic elite when such exposure is required in the interest of transparency and public accountability. Where the media are overly dependent on the State and or enjoy a close relationship with political parties and politicians, it is difficult for such objectivity, impartiality and fairness to prevail.
So what is best? A genuinely independent media, ‘unmuzzled’ by the State, engaged in close scrutiny of governments in the best interest of democratic governance. How far will the media go in order to bring to the attention of the public, information that ought to be in the public domain and not hidden behind closed doors? Should matters of public interest be debated within a small and connected circle? What kind of transparency does this suggest? And what is the position of the media on such issues?
Given the link between access to information and the media, it is always shocking when media personnel condone secrecy of information which ought to be in the public domain. But then that is completely understandable, because I am simply non-partisan without a political axe to grind. For such individuals, I leave with you the following:
“There is no lykelihoode that those thinges will bring gryst to the mill” (Arthur Golding’s translation of the Sermon of J. Calvin upon Deuteronomie, 1583).
These are not arcane matters, they are well ventilated in many private spaces. Nonetheless, citizens, let’s make some “stupid noises”, until next week.
(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus).