Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Guarding democracy - from the press, too

Published:Sunday | November 30, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Abka Fitz-Henley played hide-and-seek with the mic at last Wednesday's press briefing.
Huntley Medley took the mic from journalist Andre Jebbinson at Jamaica House.
De facto Information Minister Sandrea Falconer has had many duels with reporters at press briefings.
TVJ reporter André Jebbinson.
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Martin Henry, Columnist

Today, I tackle two of the big stories of last week, getting them to do the tango around the common theme of the operations of a free press in a democracy.

While regular journalists were busy 'Guarding Democracy' during National Journalism Week, and in some very odd ways, too, a bishop was guest editor at The Gleaner on Monday choosing 'Globalisation's unintended consequences' as his broad theme, with a strong focus on health at this time of raging chikungunya and threatening Ebola.

Democracy does need a lot of guarding and defending. As a form of government, it is neither natural nor normal. It is a rather shaky contrivance in the long history of the governance of humankind. And as the following well-used quote of contested authorship insists, it is destined to be not permanent: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always vote for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilisations has been 200 years.

"Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage."

Jamaican democracy may have skipped several stages in the prophesied cycle, arriving at apathy and dependence without courage and abundance.

By guarding democracy, journalists generally mean getting Government to behave as they direct. They seldom mean allowing Government to function, not when a sensational story like Outameni can be flogged beyond reason and reasonableness.

So a duly elected Government appoints a board for a QUANGO ('an organisation that deals with public matters and is supported by the Government but works independently and has its own legal powers'), a board duly constituted to the specifications of its statute. The board makes within its remit a majority decision that turns out to be highly unpopular. And all hell breaks loose across media for resignations and dismissals at the dictate of all kinds of alternative governments, including media.

MAKING MATTERS WORSE

The responsible minister, who happens to be the head of government, makes matters worse by bucking orchestrated public anger and appointing new board members to fill some of the vacancies created by resignations rather than dismissing the remaining old members as instructed.

Public anger has been fed neither by any serious technical assessment of the degree of badness of the allegedly bad decision nor by any demonstration of unlawfulness of the action. People want houses, are unable to get them from the designated provider, which takes their money by force of law and is unable to deliver. And they are damn mad.

Outameni, played to the max by media, is the straw that broke the camel's back. It is also heavily weighing down on the capacity of public administration to function. How is democratic government to proceed if, playing by the rules, it is to be overruled by unruly elements not themselves willing to play by the rules or to respect the rules when they disagree with results?

Two journalists in particular, by self-appointment, were at the forefront of guarding democracy last week: André Jebbinson of TVJ and Abka Fitz-Henley of Nationwide.

They would not yield the microphone to any of their colleagues to ask questions at the post-Cabinet Jamaica House press briefing. Amazingly, it was the man who enforced the rule of fairplay, albeit somewhat roughly, who felt obliged to tender something of an apology.

Jebbinson and Fitz-Henley owe an apology to their colleagues, if to no one else, for their selfish behaviour in big, big Journalism Week. No one appointed them to be spokespersons for the entire media corps.

Amazingly, well, not-so-amazingly after all, their professional association, the PAJ, used the opportunity in true trade union style to deliver a long lecture to the OPM about how to conduct the weekly post-Cabinet press briefing with not a word of reprimand to the two
members who hogged the show to the detriment of their fellow members of
the association.

How is that for fairness and balance
in a profession that prides itself on fairness and
balance?

Similarly, it was the interviewee, NHT board
member and senator Lambert Brown, who felt under obligation to tender an
apology without reciprocity over a Jebbinson 'interview' that broke all
the rules of proper journalistic interviewing and descended into a
shouting match and near brawl between two strong, loud
men.

Keep calm, André, as you were taught. Ask clear,
objective questions without biased leads and allow the subject to answer
without being cut off mid-sentence. Hold your judgement for commentary.
Don't rile up the subject. Respect the subject, even if convicted for
the worst crimes, much more a board member of a statutory body and a
member of the Upper House of Parliament.

Sorry that I
have to do this. But somebody has to do it, sometime,
somehow.

Let's work better to guard democracy in our
country with one of the freest press in the world, as judged by
independent external assessments, a country with a constitutional,
democratic government which must be allowed to carry out its duties as
the media should be allowed to carry out
theirs.

Deciding against more Outameni, or more
back-scratching within the profession in Journalism Week, or his field
of religion or even education, Anglican Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman
Islands, Howard Gregory, chose to devote his guest editorship of
The Gleaner last Monday to the world of
'Globalisation's unintended
consequences'.

CONSEQUENCES OF
GLOBALISATION

The media have significant
agenda-setting power and framing power. That is, media determine, to an
extraordinary degree, what we pay attention to and think about (agenda
setting), and how we think about those things and view the world
(framing). Globalisation, a little fuzzy at the boundaries of the
concept, is a large and important matter for the agenda. Joining up the
whole world in everything and at accelerating speed has large and
significant consequences for all of us.

The bishop
editor had his reporting team heavily zeroing in on health. Chikungunya
hopped a plane to here from there and has ravaged the population. We are
bracing for Ebola. One of the bishop's stories was 'Spread of
infectious diseases being propelled by
globalisation'.

Bishop Gregory framed alternative
medicine positively and gave voice to alternative medicine activist Dr
Sonia Davidson, saying, "Stop resisting alternative
medicine."

With the recent onset of chikungunya
locally, the dual doctor argued that conventional medicine could do very
little to assuage the onslaught of the painful disease, and Jamaicans
hit by the severe discomfort rushed to ease their agonising joint paints
and headaches with a plethora of alternative
medicines.

High on the agenda is cooperation in
developing nutraceuticals. South Africa has formally worked traditional
medicines and traditional healers into its health-care system and into
its research and development agenda. Dr Davidson, with the bishop's
blessings, is advocating the same approach for Jamaica against the
resistance of conventional 'scientific' medicine. The medical guild, or
cartel, which locks up and locks down the practice of medicine is one of
the most powerful in the world.

Our democratic
government must listen to Dr Sonia Davidson and the other advocates for
the recognition of alternative and traditional medicine and move much
more briskly and decisively to create an integrated wholistic medicine.
People are moving between the systems anyway.

By sheer
coincidence, on the day the prelate's paper was published, I started on
some of Dr Henry' Lowe's Eden Gardens nutraceutical products. Lowe took
the 2014 National Medal for Science and
Technology.

After Outameni fades away, as it will
(hopefully with the NHT board and the Government still intact), media
have some important positive developmental work to do on both the agenda
items of science and technology and integrated
medicine.

 Martin Henry is a university administrator.
Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and
medhen@gmail.com