Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Orville Taylor | Free press always wins

Published:Sunday | November 19, 2017 | 12:45 AMOrville Taylor

Stepping on the toes of politicians in the interest of the public, or the nation, is something I treat as an occupational hazard. There is no politician of any colour whom I personally have any kind of campaign against, or for, and this includes the king of boorishness, pettiness and anti-media rhetoric. 

One of the reasons that I have remained with RJR and Gleaner long before they were merged into what people might think is a monolith is that for the 12 and 13 years, respectively, that I have been associated with both entities, I have never got any kind of editorial interference. Furthermore, the ownership structure of the corporation prevents domination by any one interest.

Indeed, as regards The Gleaner, on occasions, there has been a particular theme that the editor might want to address, such as Christmas or Independence or the occasional election. However, never has anyone told me to include or exclude any content, or presign any letter or disclaimer about what my conscience must accept. That is the beauty of democracy.

Key to any democracy is freedom of the press. For all the negatives associated with this country, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters without Borders ranks us eighth in the world and second in the Americas behind Costa Rica, who are at sixth. Freedom House, another international entity, notes that only 13 per cent of the world lives in countries with free presses. Our media environment at 19/100, where a score of 0 is perfect, shows that we might be murderous but we are fearless as journalists and opinion shapers. This must never be forgotten by politicians

Even at our worst, we have never been a very unfree media environment. In 1838, this newspaper was able to report on the glorious emancipation. Prior to that, we engaged the conversations regarding the period from Apprenticeship and Emancipation Day. Search the archives in the aftermath of the Morant Bay Rebellion.

Indeed, a hundred years after slavery, the founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), William Alexander Bustamante, and original founding member of People’s National Party (PNP), got his hype not from the leadership of the trade union movement but from writing in The Gleaner. Despite the anecdotes about his lack of orthographical prowess, Busta was “an inveterate writer” of letters to the editor.

Pillars of electoral success

Press freedom and the support and trust of the working class are the twin pillars of electoral success or failure in this country. The debt to these two must never ever be forgotten by any government, and especially the JLP.

Electronic media in this country began in 1939, and the precursor of RJR, the station that the public privileges me to be working on, had its first incarnation as ZQI. Although RJR was formally inaugurated with its signature acronym in 1950, the station pre-existed the JLP, which was founded in 1943. However, it gave voice to its diatribe for decades.

For all the broadsides and swipes taken against media houses and personalities, and sometimes admittedly with good reason, the Jamaican press has earned the right to be respected. Recent polls conducted both by international and local researchers showed that 70 per cent of Jamaicans believed that the press was fair and not corrupt. For educators and pastors, the figure is an identical 81 per cent.  Therefore, political parties must understand that clergymen and academics who work in media have far more credibility than politicians. Jamaicans also trust the media more than they trust the justice system, which polls put at just under 50 per cent.

In fact, the numbers regarding trust in political parties and Parliament range from as low as 15 per cent to a high of 21 per cent. Dismal showing. One revealing report from USAID and Vanderbilt University, in collaboration with local academics, showed a steady decline in trust in the political process since 2008. The sad distinction was that “Jamaicans report average levels of trust in the national legislature and political parties that are below the regional average”.

Despite the recognition that the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) is a worthless piece of trash when measuring actual dishonesty in our society, it shows what people inside and outside think of us. This includes Jamaicans who dip their index finger in the ink and point the middle digit at the loser. Our CPI was stuck around 33/100 between 2009 and 2012, clearly because of the shenanigans of the JLP and the embarrassing Manatt-Dudus debacle, which, ultimately, cost them the 2011 election. It should not be forgotten - and the media have not - that many current members of the Houses of Parliament, including the prime minister, justice minister and minister of national security were all there when we had our most embarrassing episode of partisan loyalty trumping the national interest.

With regard to the National Identification System, I caution the Government. When raised by the PNP in a somewhat different modality, my position was the same. It is invasive, and as with the Caribbean Court of Justice and the repeal of the buggery laws, it must not be forced on to the public from behind the scenes. Despite the flaccid attempts to spin by a spokesman who was named after the national icon who sang ‘Old Pirate…’, public education has been woefully inadequate.

I hold no brief for the Opposition, the Bar Association or any other conscientious group of objectors.  However, the sixth leader of the JLP, which introduced the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) in introduced in 1966, should know that numbers don’t lie.

I am not one of the bright people who are close to the prime minister. However, my word of caution to the Government is twofold. First, haste could lead to the proverbial waste; and second, history has clearly shown that every single government that has attempted to attack the press has lost the next general election despite the main warmonger winning his seat.

It is written; read it.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.