Framing Delroy Chuck
A leading newspaper, which shall remain nameless, reported the NE St Andrew MP's bold recommendation for housing development for inner-city renewal under the blaring headline, 'Buy them out! Chuck wants poorer Jamaicans removed from lands with rich potential'. The body of the story was no more friendly - or accurate.
The lead framed Chuck's comments in the Constituency Debate this way: "The Simpson Miller Government is being urged to consider leading a process of renewal in Jamaica's inner cities by purchasing, on a large scale, property owned by poor people and selling them to developers to build housing solutions for middle-class and affluent people. Delroy Chuck, the member of parliament (MP) for North East St Andrew, a constituency of mainly middle- to upper-class residents interspersed with inner-city areas, said the State should lead the way in removing the less affluent persons, thus paving the way for development."
The paper directly quoted Chuck's brisk response to the question from another member about what would happen to the poor people who once occupied the bought out lands. "You buy them out and they go elsewhere," was Chuck's quoted reply.
This media story turned an urban renewal and development proposal with strong prospects for poverty alleviation without handouts into another rich-against-poor clash and sets up the MP who made the proposal as being insensitive to the needs of the poor, including those in sections of his own constituency. The surest measure that the four-time and hoping-to-return MP was not intending to diss poor people, as the newspaper story was guiding us to believe, is the simple fact that in his mixed rich-poor constituency, his electoral victories have been heavily dependent on the mobilisation of the poor vote. The man would be a fool to turn the poor against him.
Jamaicans are very familiar with framing. Ask the people in jail and most of them will tell you, "Ah frame dem frame mi." And their family members outside believe the framing story even more passionately.
But by media framing, we mean what the media choose to report and how the matter is reported which steers audiences to a particular view of reality. Or to put it more formally in one of the most-cited definitions of media framing: "Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment for the item described."
CAN'T AVOID FRAMING
No journalist or media house can avoid framing. It happens. Everybody has a view of the world which gets transmitted in how we communicate. Media smarts require that we learn to read frames and rearrange them to our suit. Media audiences are not exactly passive. But some are savvier consumers than others. And media do have a sacrosanct obligation for accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting. The Chuck anti-poor newspaper story, a big, bad story, attracted a massive 146 online comments, many of which rejected the frame.
Delroy Chuck, with a good deal of media savvy, former columnist and all, went on the offensive to unframe himself from the negative newspaper frame. By the following day, the paper was running with equal prominence on its front page a follow-up story, 'I am not anti-poor' - Chuck explains 'buy them out' proposal'. Something which he had already thoroughly done in the presentation in Parliament but which had been filtered out as not fitting the frame. And on Sunday gone, he was allowed his own voice in a little letter to the editor elevated to a full column under the headline, 'Urban renewal - a way forward'.
Later in the week, the paper used its own editorial space to say, 'Mr Chuck's idea worthy of serious analysis'. What a change! Commendations to the paper.
The member of the House of Representatives was speaking in the new Constituency Debate which allows MPs to talk about their constituencies in a bid to affect the next Budget and influence public policy. A good move by the Parliament.
Several MPs speak per session of the Debate but Chuck was the story, and a big front-page story written a certain way - framing. Luther Buchanan's objection in defence of the poor was positioned before Julian Robinson's endorsement of the Chuck proposal - framing.
Several MPs have been chafing over the 20 minutes allotted to speak in the Constituency Debate. This is good discipline for sticking to what's most important and to achieve maximum persuasive effect. We don't yet see emerging something which is common in many other legislatures and which, from time to time, I have argued for in this space: Members with common constituency problems forming a representational caucus, even across party lines, for greater strength of demand upon the executive of Government which determines spending and policy. Urban renewal is a great candidate for such a caucus.
And now that the original frame has been broken, Chuck's proposal for 'buying them out' for urban renewal and inner-city development can be seen to be eminently sensible and not at all anti-poor. It is win-win all round.
The people who own these decayed properties typically have no resources to upgrade them or any real avenues of escaping poverty. And even when they might have some resources, a one-lot renewal in the midst of a generally depressed community does not make sense. Potential developers are going to have a hard time, and very little incentive, to seek to acquire one lot at a time from individual owners.
Chuck is absolutely right. It requires Government to "take a five acre, buy out the people, and let private developers bid in order to put in some housing developments".
At fair commercial rates, the bought out will come into cash wealth that they have never seen before and could only dream of. They can then purchase decent now affordable shelter or go into business with their new capital. All round a boon to the national economy, and an improvement of the life of the individual poor who had property but no money.
But Chuck and the Government he was offering ideas should go further. As one online commentator shrewdly pointed out, many occupiers are not the owners of these properties. Actually, in our England-derived legal code, the Crown ultimately owns all lands with individual subjects granted titled access to portions at the behest of the Crown. Government should reappropriate all idle lands for which living owners cannot be legally established, particularly in the high-density urban areas, and sell off these properties for revenue, or even give them away with appropriate regulations, to facilitate more of the urban renewal and development that MP Chuck is talking about. Squatter occupants, where present, would be offered one-off welfare assistance funded from the revenues earned.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller should be a big supporter of the Chuck proposal from across the aisle. She should not listen to the misguided Luther Buchanan on her side of the House but to Julian Robinson, who sees prospects in the Chuck proposal for run-down communities like Vineyard Town and Allman Town in his own constituency of SE St Andrew.
The PM should be the biggest supporter not only because of the state of her own SW St Andrew constituency, a leading poor inner-city constituency, but because she's recently told the 24th Assembly of Ministers and High Level Authorities on Housing in Latin America and the Caribbean meeting here in Jamaica that her Government views housing as a social and economic right.
While the housing 'right' can be readily contested in constitutional jurisprudence, the need for housing is incontestable.
The prime minister told the assembly that her Government was treating housing as a priority through avenues such as inner-city housing renewal and the development of squatter settlements. That priority is more fantasy than fact.
The former head of the low-income housing scheme, Operation PRIDE, Paul Buchanan, now a frustrated first-time backbencher on the Government side of Parliament, used part of his contribution to the Constituency Debate to plead with the Government to take up his suggestion to revive the disgraced housing programme. A revamped PRIDE, Buchanan proposed, would help to inject some new vitality into the economy while providing shelter for low-income earners.
Delroy Chuck, despite his new responsibilities as shadow spokesperson for justice, and Paul Buchanan should get together across the aisle to form the nucleus of a housing caucus in the Parliament. And that unnamed newspaper should frame them right when they do it. We have more than enough bad news and too much bad light on good news.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.