The Press Can Oppress

“Please stand!” I requested and the 800 or so delegates to the Caribbean Tourism Conference rose to their feet. “Sit!” and they all sat. It was my attempt to demonstrate the distorted image of the power of the Press. Many feel there is a literal power wielded by news and opinion media that directly affects how people behave.

It was probably why the Caribbean Tourism Organization and its allies, as they sought to make tourism the region’s cause célèbre, had invited the Caribbean Association of Media Workers (CAMWORK) to address a plenary on the Role of the Media in Caribbean Tourism. And as the tourism specialist at the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) my colleague, CAMWORK president, Rickey Singh, asked that I do the honours.

The reportage on the Cuba trip by former Jamaica Prime Minister, Percival Patterson and executives of telecoms purveyors Digicel, that has resulted in the chastisement of some Jamaican media houses, makes it timely to reexamine the roles, powers and responsibilities of the Press.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding and the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) have both separately concluded that there was inaccurate, scandalous, mischievous and irresponsible reporting about the arrival of a flight from Cuba and allegations about the presence of US$250,000 cash in a diplomatic pouch carried by people who, disgruntled by a customs search, stormed back to a private jet which took off, supposedly without clearance from air traffic authorities.

Within minutes of the allegations, which apparently were broadcast in Jamaica, the Internet’s email network was ablaze with the story from “eyewitnesses” and “horses mouths” and with intricate details of facial expressions and dialogue that would make Robert Ludlum and John LeCarré look like pupils writing a primary school composition.

“The police will be submitting a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a determination of whether the authorities of the relevant agencies were influenced by public mischief and whether criminal or disciplinary proceedings should be instituted,” the report from the Office of the Prime Minister.

“The PAJ wishes to reiterate its concern over the quality of reporting on this incident by colleagues in particularly two media houses, Nationwide News Network -which broke the story – and Power 106 News,” said a statement from the association over the signature of its president, Byron Buckley.

“After reviewing audio recordings of the reportage of these media houses, the PAJ observed varying degrees of journalistic breaches.”

Patterson has announced that he has requested his lawyers to investigate whether he has any legal recourse in what is so far an intriguing affair. That Jamaica House/Office of the Prime Minister and not the regular security system requested and published the finding of an investigation that dismissed the allegations as scurrilous has itself provided more bar room chatter about bipartisan mutual survival cover ups.

Then reportage of bidding on a bidding war to secure a footing in Cuba’s slumbering telecoms sector added the dimension of industrial espionage, even as the financially stretched broadcaster that broke the sordid tale and faced the chastisement of the PAJ was seeking a renewal of its broadcast licence on a reserved public broadcast FM band.

But back to our main point, the power of the press or more correctly these days, the powers of the media. It may be well to take some sort of historical look at Jamaican/Caribbean media which were once concentrated in the hands of a few private commercial and political interests, followed a hefty does of media ownership and control of electronic media and into a more liberal era when democratization of ownership and access, rather than increasing quality through competition has resulted in what could be seen as an unholy chase from the buck.

The old guard comprises papers like Jamaica’s Gleaner founded in 1834 as the Gleaner and DeCordova’s Advertising Sheet, the Barbados Advocate established 1895 and the Trinidad Guardian founded in 1917. You can glean from their titles what they were advocating, the Trinidad paper for example, billing itself “The Guardian of Democracy”.

While the Gleaner came into existence at the epilogue of efforts to emancipate the enslaved population, it never identified itself with with matters of freedom before the 1970s when Michael Manley pledged to walk to the mountain top with Fidel Castro, the Advocate even now distances itself from the more liberal portions of the Barbadian society and the Guardian of Democracy did not stand behind the Ciprianis and other labour leaders of the early 20th century.

So they were challenged for dominance by papers allied to other causes such as political parties, labour unions or pressure groups demanding change in their communities. The nominally “independent” papers which arose during the period – such as the Jamaica Standard, the weekly Jamaica Times – were generally eventually squashed by the old giants and it was in the post independence period that reasonable print competition began to challenge the one view dominance that the democratic old guard cherished.

The Trinidad Express was first published in June, 1967 and the Nation in 1973 – both of which in their tabloid format overtook the older papers. In Jamaica the private Daily News did not enjoy the success of those newcomers in the southern Caribbean and moved from lively alternative to government-owned in five short years before dieing in 1983. Neither did the Jamaica Record nor its remnant the Jamaica Herald. That the Jamaica Observer has survived since 1993 is more testament to the deep pocket of its ownership than true challenge to the Gleaner’s market dominance.

In the electronic media radio and television came to the Caribbean in the early to mid 1960s as state-owned organs with the noble clichéd role of informing, educating and entertaining. With economic liberalization policies taking root in the 1990s and the prevalence of satellite receivers closely followed by cable, it became relatively simple to enter the field commercially without the overheads of paying programming and production staff, using instead canned programming and music videos.

Then came the internet, the great democratizer which made it possible to run a multi-media empire from a college dorm room or a basement. Over the years, in their own conservative way, the traditional media had developed a code of decency, conduct and quality to the extent that their writing at least could stand up to the rigours of good grammar and spelling if not quite academic objectivity.

They also evolved a level of power and influence and could be relied on to be factual if not unbiased. The reportage of a Kingston shooting could be believed but the editorial commentary on crime could take a distinct political colouring.

Caribbean press, which grew into Caribbean media with their roots in defence of the political status quo of a class did not evolve in an ethos of civil liberties debates on the rights of man and the community in the intellectual tradition of North America or some parts of Europe, although there is a commonality. Therefore “the Press” did not arise as a democratic actor in its own personality but as part of the freedom of speech and expression granted in the society, and the people’s right to know may be more a recent idea rather than a constitutional enshrinement.

But who can afford to publish and broadcast in a competitive and liberalized environment becomes a crucial issue. There are not many jobs or industries built on the notion of social responsibility as even the provision of health care and education are competitive. Who will provide “free” and far less discernibly valuable transient information – news, opinion, analysis or contemporary events?

The internet’s “free” access to information has helped diminish further the economic value of news and pushed up the entertainment quotient to match television which itself is pressured into more urgency/immediacy with reality TV supplanting thoughtful screenplays and researched documents.

The advertising and public relations dollars of business and politics, which subsidized old media and hacks (political and commercial) are now spread thin into traditional and new media but rather than to Web sites of traditional media, goes into social networking activities.

With a gun like that to the head of a struggling traditional medium, it is easy to fall prey to a political smart alec, as one attempts to beat the competition and gain attention. However, while the media do not wield the power to command society to sit, stand or march, they do have considerable influence in what people buy and believe about their neighbours.

The Jamaican media may not be able to depose of a prime minister in the way the Washington Post rid America of Richard Nixon but it can determine whether a whole country runs faster into poverty and seethes in animosity through one misspelled name, or forgotten word or one ignored phone call to verify a piece of information. Such power not granted by votes or enshrined in a constitution requires great responsibility.

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

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Great Mark! May you and Kadene continue the work for only as we join our voices can things change for the better. Bless you all in the struggles.

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