On leaders engaging their own electors
A few weeks ago now, I watched Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness hold an initiative called Jamaica Media Day. The initiative saw several journalists and media personalities interviewing the country’s new leader.
The Media Day saw a breadth of issues being tackled by Mr Holness: everything from taxes to political victimization and education.
This initiative is obviously aimed at offering a contrast to the relative inaccessibility of his predecessor Portia Simpson Miller who, one report suggests, had not provided a one-on-one interview with a journalist from 2012 up to the time she left office earlier this year.
For whatever reason Jamaica Media Day was conceptualized, it provided an opportunity for a record of the prime minister’s views to be created on some of the most pressing issues, not to mention fostered transparency and accountability for the new administration.
Juxtapose the strategy of the Jamaican government with that of our local administration. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart invited journalists to his official residence for a luncheon that included an opportunity for those gathered to question him. Though described as one in a series of engagements the Prime Minister will host throughout this 50th year of Indepedence with select groups who have been instrumental in the nation’s development, the opportunity to ask questions was long overdue.
The infrequency of such opportunities was a critical variable in how many people reacted to it, with one journalist calling the Ilaro Court invitation robust and referring to Mr Stuart as energized.
The Prime Minister spoke on some of the hot button issues of the day: everything from the Auditor General’s Report to Cahill and the Mark Maloney-Town & Country Planning affair.
Mr Stuart however spoke with a degree of detachment that was greater than his usual aloofness, and certainly not befitting of a leader who was actively involved in the resolution of those very issues, or even viewed them as critical to the way we moved forward. A perfect example of the seeming lack of engagement arose out of Mr Stuart’s comments on the bail for murder accused, where his position could be summarized as “well, it shocked me”.
Needless to say, I am no clearer on the direction of the country, and none of my most entrenched concerns has been addressed. This was a poor-rakey attempt at engagement, which in part was to stave off critiques about the Prime Minister’s silence, if not the mere beginning of a set of opportunistic engagement two years away from the next general election.
It has been reported that this not the first time journalists were feted at the official home of the Prime Minster, and then allowed to ask questions. I have no major grouse with the structure, because these types of engagements are not uncommon in other parts of the world. Additionally, we are to remember that the media is just one in a series of groups who will be up for similar treatment, and so, perhaps, the event was not tailor-made for members of the fourth estate.
However, in the context of the relative unavailability of Mr Stuart, the format was another example of tone deafness. I –– like many other Barbadians –– would have preferred a straight Press conference, or a conversation with the nation, like Mr Stuart’s predecessor David Thompson was known to do.
The luncheon/question time opportunity was an example of the Barbadian Press taking what it could get. And it also begs the question: are journalists advocating for themselves and by extension the people of Barbados?
Have individual journalists been requesting interviews with Mr Stuart? Does the Barbados Association of Journalists (BAJ) still function, and has it articulated its displeasure to the Office Of The Prime Minster and whoever handles such matters as the inaccessibility of the Prime Minister.
If journalists and the BAJ are, then I sympathize because there is little else that can be done when the subject himself seems to think little of the need to talk.
Unlike Mr Stuart, the aforementioned Mr Holness has demonstrated an interest in communicating to his electors. Any keen observer could tell that the Holness communications team has read the Barack Obama playbook on such matters and is using each medium of communication with apparent skill and ease.
Contrast that with Mr Stuart’s digital presence which appears confined to Facebook in a page that highlights his public appearances and news stories about him, but is devoid of any obvious strategy.
This concerted effort on the part of the Jamaican administration has made a difference. It has transformed a dry, one-dimensional politician into someone who appears efficient, engaged and even affable. It is impossible not to connect this change in perception to what is a solid set of grades on his first 100 days in office as per a recent Sunday Gleaner report.
A prime minister who cares little for real engagement and a media that does not get the opportunity it deserves is a glum thing. A media that shortchanges its public is an even sadder thing.
Days before the recent St Lucian general election, former prime minister Kenny Anthony expressed concern about what he thought was a team of individuals associated with the Barbados Labour Party seeking to influence the upcoming poll.
This led to a flurry of commentary and reporting, all of which implied that not only was this type of thing unprecedented, but indicative of a sinister plan to ensure the St Lucia Labour Party’s defeat.
No media entity in its original reportage of this story chose to make it clear political “cross-fertilization” has never been foreign to our culture. The unwillingness to do this points to a more fundamental issue with Barbadian journalism. Media professionals have got trapped in the quagmire of merely reporting the events of the day.
Making consumers aware one thing or the other is happening is fundamentally important; however, context of these events needs to be provided for clarity in a political environment characterized by hollering and hyperbole, lest the public is left bamboozled.
This set of circumstances has made stenographers out of the people whom I admired and aspired to be like as a journalism student a decade ago. Beyond my personal disappointment, the Barbadian people are robbed of information that helps them to make solid and informed judgements about the goings-on in their country. Perhaps our media professionals believed the provision of context on the aforementioned story would have been an affront to the objectivity that is supposed to be the most fundamental principle of their profession.
However, this belief would be misguided and fuelled by a narrow perception of the endeavor that is journalism, not to mention be a dilution of the storied history of individuals like Edward R. Murrow and others who were impartial but never hesitated to draw a line in the sand when the political narrative had overshot the truth.
A country already in perilous waters is carried further adrift by a leader who does not appear adequately engaged, and moreover, does not wish to be –– and by a media that has made a practice of not telling us all it knows, especially when we need the whole truth. At the end of the day, the only people who lose are all of us.
(Andwele Boyce is a young communicator who is passionate about politics and popular culture.)