We in media can’t let our guard down

We all know the feeling. You are at the end of a long journey; your flight has landed and all you want to do is get out of the airport and move on. You have gone through the sometimes painful –– often painless –– immigration process, endured the (often) lengthy wait for luggage, and you say to yourself: “Almost there.”

Then the reality sinks in; as does the bitter taste of bile perfusate in the mouth.
You are about to go through customs.

It is a commonly held perception –– and, for many, this perception is their reality –– that dealing with customs in virtually every country is akin to going through the fires of hell. This might well be an exaggerated view, but one nevertheless of many who will recount their several experiences that have been less than pleasant or pleasurable.

Many a customs officer will often be mistaken –– if not in looks, certainly in approach ––  for the Prohibition agent Eliot Ness of the Untouchables of 1920s to early 1930s Chicago in Illinois, United States.

But then, customs service doesn’t mean customer service; and it certainly doesn’t mean customized service. After all, customs is like the final frontier, designed to keep you –– or your goods –– out, and not necessarily to welcome you in.

Therefore, when the Sunday Sun published a 2011 report on the Barbados Customs Assessment Trade Results (CAT-R) that painted a damning picture of the operations of our Customs Department, many would have read it with the glee, gratification and great delight of a tricoteuse. It was a validation of everything they would have thought and said about the “wretched” men and women who, for the most part, simply set out to do their jobs.

However, few might have bothered to ask: why? And, why now? Why would anyone with access to such a damning report, nearly four years old, leak it to the Sunday Sun at a time when Barbados Customs officers are protesting what they contend is a violation of their right not to be “forced” into the Barbados Revenue Authority?

Why leak it at all? What, if anything, had been done in the four years to correct the deficiencies identified in the report?

It is true that the ongoing go-slow has caused inconvenience and loss of productivity and money; and it’s true we all want an end to it. But leaking the report at this time smacks of nothing but priggish vindictiveness and joyless –– some might say boastful –– inquisition.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the Customs officers is one of anger, fury and outrage, with the officers describing it in their newsletter as “a nasty and wicked piece of work”, according to the Daily Nation, the Sunday Sun’s sister publication.

To many, this reaction might seem as mere pedantry. In fact, it gave the impression the officers saw whoever leaked the report as engaging in serial regicide at worst, or, at best, fratricide –– or preparing for a Soviet-style 1930s Great Purge of Customs.

The irony of this entire episode is that one moment Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer had accused the media of trying to pit her against the very union that represents most Customs officers; less than a week later, those with access to the Customs report were using the media to expose said officers. And let’s make no mistake about it; the Sunday Sun was used.

Which brings us to the role of the media in this fresh saga. There is no doubt that in this age of ultra-intense competition, an age when one newspaper will boast it has a wider reach than Barbados TODAY, despite evidence to the contrary; an age when a paper will lambast Barbados TODAY over a harmless photograph of a child, when that very paper is the poster child for moral violation –– sorry, we couldn’t resist the temptation–– it is understandable that the battle for scoops, the fight to get it first, will be fierce.

In the normal course of duty, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in the process of “scooping” the other media, we cannot afford to let our guard down. We must remain conscious of the fact that people will attempt to feed us dirt in order to satisfy their own hunger for revenge.

We have a responsibility not to swallow the dirt; we have a responsibility to question motives; we have an obligation to weigh the information, gauge the field, and reject the waste –– if we so determine –– being fed to us.

Don’t get us wrong. The media should and must be allowed to function freely. We cannot, and ought not, to neglect our responsibility to expose secrets, both in Government and elsewhere, and ought not to be afraid to offend, if this is what it takes to carry out our duty to provide our audiences with useful information and perspectives that can influence their decision.

But through it all, we must never lose our values.

And amidst the venomous and anathematized opinions that will smear Customs in the wake of the publication of this report, we should all welcome trenchant arguments on the role of the media and the need –– no, desire –– to break the story first. But let us not overburden the moment with wasteful niceties. Let’s call this for what it was.

Someone wanted to shame and humiliate Customs; to so anger and infuriate the public that they would violently bite, chew and spit whatever respect that was left for Customs officers into the mud. And the Sunday Sun fell for it –– all in the name of a scoop.

The danger in this might very well be unfounded expectations of a spectacular rise in its readership. The reality is that it’s nothing but a phoney carnival!

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