The Gleaner and democracy
This is a special weekend for one of the oldest newspapers in the entire Western Hemisphere, The Gleaner, now celebrating 180 years. The newspaper continues to play a central role in Jamaican media landscape, despite the fact that newspaper readership has declined, even with new tech platforms.
But The Gleaner's influence is not measured by its readership and circulation, but by its prestige, stature and tradition. The Gleaner heavily influences the more popular electronic media, as seen not just by the fact that both television and radio presenters and talk-show hosts start the day by reading the paper on air, but also by the fact that The Gleaner often sets the news agenda for radio, and television reporters feed off stories ferreted out by The Gleaner. Media colleagues still take very seriously editorial positions taken by this esteemed newspaper.
The Gleaner had long been synonymous with 'newspaper', with many Jamaicans famously asking in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and London for the American or British 'Gleaner'! There is no greater tribute to your eminence than that. Many see The Gleaner as a saviour of our democracy in the 1970s, when it was a leading voice against Michael Manley's alleged dalliance with communism. So trenchant, fierce and forceful was The Gleaner's opposition to Manley then that he famously led a march against the paper, threatening, with clenched fists, "Next time, next time!" A most regrettable move on Manley's part. But, in my view, The Gleaner then could not justifiably claim to have been fair and balanced.
Even today, discussions about the 1970s ignite ferocious passions and bitter disagreements, but as a close observer of the media then, I say with full conviction that The Gleaner in the 1970s was a far cry from what it is today. Of course, the times have changed, so one could say it is not so much that The Gleaner has changed, as the times have. There is no ideo-logical war anymore. There is little to choose from between the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party in terms of ideology and party programme.
And I could see why some would hold the view that in the face of such a grave threat to our liberties and with our chance of becoming a 'Soviet and Cuban satellite', it was responsible, committed journalism for The Gleaner to have taken the partisan stand it definitely did in the 1970s.
It would have been foolhardy and reckless, some would say, in light of Manley's flirtation with communism and the propaganda war then, for The Gleaner not to pull out all stops to challenge Manley's threat to democracy. Therefore, it was patriotic of The Gleaner to have played the role it did.
The Gleaner's commentary page then was not like it is today. There was no great variety of views. Wilmot Perkins, John Hearne, Morris Cargill, David DaCosta and Cedric Lindo were all singing the same anti-Manley, anti-socialism tune. They were caustic. They were pungent, belligerent, biting - and bitter. It was outrage journalism at its best - or worst. It was because of their manifest one-sidedness why pressure was brought on the Gleaner editor to get at least one voice that would have something progressive to say. It was then that Petras was recruited - whom we later knew as Carl Stone. He was, in my view, the finest columnist we ever had. Eventually, of course, Stone himself turned against Manley and the PNP, but he was tempered by his scholarship and his passion for intellectual excellence.
There was no pretence at any balanced journalism then, as Manley had to be defeated. The socialists and communists, though, had their own partisan outlet, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC). JBC was used as a propaganda tool for the PNP and later for the Workers' Party of Jamaica. The Jamaica Daily News was founded by PNP interests and largely carried pro-PNP views to 'balance' The Gleaner's JLP line. In that media milieu, Radio Jamaica stood out as a beacon for balance and fairness.
Those who were not of age in the 1970s don't know how much media in Jamaica has changed. As I said, one could say it's the times which have changed and the media has simply followed. But then, the partisanship was vulgar. To some, in retrospect, those were The Gleaner's finest days, as it stood as a champion for democratic values against Manley's oxymoronic 'democratic socialism'. Then, journalism was journalism, they would say. Commentary was hard-hitting, shattering, piercing, punchy and devastating. It would make today's sharpest commentary in The Gleaner seem tame and yawn-inspiring.
The Gleaner was the Fox News of the 1970s. It had as its editor a former chairman of the JLP, Mr Hector Wynter. While the times have changed, The Gleaner could have remained partisan. But its editorship and leadership today can boast of delivering to the Jamaican people a commentary fare and reportage that is decidedly and transparently non-partisan.
The Gleaner has columnists who have distinguished themselves for their non-partisanship and independence. They generally take a plague-on-both-your-houses approach to the PNP and the JLP, and some are openly cynical of both. Even Comrade Daniel Thwaites is by no means vulgar or nauseatingly partisan. If you are fed up with this Government, you can read columnists who reflect your anger over the issues. If you want sharp, riveting, cantankerous, mad, cross, and angry anti-government commentary, you can get that. If you want outrage, that is in these pages in fair measure. If you want cool, dispassionate, even-handed, cerebral treatment of issues, that is here, too.
The Gleaner has brought on fresh blood such as Patria-Kaye Aarons, Michael Abrahams and Keiran King, who are refreshing and delightful. Keiran is deeply missed, as he is a first-rate stylist with an excellent, iconoclastic mind. Come back quick, Keiran!
There is a view of journalism which says it does not matter if a paper is partisan, as long as there are other papers taking an opposite partisan view. What is important in a democracy, on that view, is that we have enough media outlets giving voice to the various views and tendencies in the society. I disagree. While there is a place for the partisan press, I think national papers should give a voice to all views and should have writers who represent a cross section of views. People should be able to find in the one newspaper, one media outlet, a variety of views. Otherwise, what happens - which is what obtains especially in America - is that people only tune in to media which reflect their own prejudices, biases and interests. That's not good for a democracy.
It is vital to democracy that people have a conversation. It is vital to building tolerance and understanding that in the same forum, we exchange views, argue and engage in constructive dialogue. It was a journalistic tragedy in the 1970s when The Gleaner and the Jamaica Daily News were partisan outlets (though the Jamaica Daily News was less gratingly so), while JBC was the partisan voice in the electronic media. I mean no slur on my colleagues who worked for these entities at that time (I myself worked at the Jamaica Daily News). But Garfield Grandison and his team (as well as Wyvolyn Gager and Dudley Stokes before him) deserve full praise for their enormous contribution to The Gleaner. They have much of which to be proud, as well as Chairman Oliver Clarke and Managing Director Christopher Barnes, who have facilitated this growth.
I, for one, can say, as the longest-serving writer for this paper (now 30 years; eat your heart out, critics!), that not once has any pressure, not even the subtlest, ever been brought on me to take a certain line or desist from one. I am free to criticise The Gleaner itself without any comment or reaction from any editor - and with prominence given to it, too. I am proud to be associated with this great institution, which is now a beacon of the free press. Happy anniversary and many happy returns!