Mon | Jan 27, 2020

Gordon Robinson | The press needs to get over itself

Published:Sunday | December 8, 2019 | 12:21 AM

We seem to have reached the stage in Jamaica where Tin Gods are the norm.

Politicians have considered themselves above reproach or criticism forever. It’s the nature of the beast. In an occupation where popularity is the sole qualification, criticism is seen as undermining livelihoods. In a small country with substandard education, critique can be devastating. In many parts of Jamaica, if, while John traverses a sidewalk, an inebriate leans from a window and shouts, “John, yu is a b****bwoy” then, especially if John doesn’t reply violently, he IS one.

But civilised societies are built on analysis and informed assessment. If there were no criticism, there’d be no improvement. If everybody agreed to everything, we’d still be treating cancer with leeches and calling the doctor (when a family member falls sick) by running over hill and valley then knocking on doctor’s front door. Disagreement is the foundation of progress.

In every society, media ought to be a significant purveyor of information (news), constructive criticism, and government oversight. In Jamaica, where Parliament, the theoretical first line of constituents’ defence against government abuse, is no more than a government lackey, media’s obligation to expose and condemn abuse of power is more imperative than in other, more democratic societies. So for years, I’ve been an unrepentant advocate for full freedom of the press to be constitutionally entrenched.

Let’s be real: freedom of expression is NOT freedom of the press. In addition to being able to express itself, press must have access to official information to guide its expression. The Access to Information Act, a scheme to hoodwink media, actually restricts media’s access to official information and would be unnecessary were freedom of the press to be constitutionally entrenched.

BUT media also needs to avoid Tin God Syndrome. Freedom of the press isn’t free. The consideration is responsibility. The reality is that Jamaica’s multimedia platforms have frequently been infected by extreme political or corporate bias, lazy and indulgent reporting; and straight-up payola. Media must clean up its act. Reporters/opinion writers must base stories/opinions on FACT. One-source news reporting is NOT fact. Views thrown away off the top of empty heads or contained in imaginary conversations with un-named phantoms are NOT opinions.

PREMATURE APOLOGY

The Gleaner’s recent rush to apologise to Peter Phillips (and family) for opinions in a column in which defamation couldn’t be found with a microscope only serves to fuel perception that media either sucks up to power or is so accustomed to unprofessional work from contributors that premature apologising becomes an embarrassing reflex.

If reporters and columnists habitually practised responsible journalism, editors would have no difficulty providing the firm and unwavering support against politically motivated complaints that was once automatic. Remember Gleaner’s unflinching defense of Cargill, Hearne, Stone, D’Costa, and Perkins?

But I’ve noticed, in the thin-skinned stakes, most media houses have outpointed many politicians. Letters to the editor critical of a newspaper’s editorial position rarely appear. Columnists daring to criticise any media house (not just the one to which they contribute) can count on at best, disapproving noises or, at worst, ‘editing’. I don’t experience any of that at The Gleaner but, admittedly, my reclusive nature protects my ears from malcontented mutterings.

Recently, thinskinnery rose to basal cell carcinomic proportions when the PM dared to essay a mild-mannered jab at traditional media:

“I was just listening to the news…and you know, the news report is the news report. I make no comment on the opinions proffered by journalists because that’s the freedom of the society.”

Not only fair and balanced but true. But, obviously, based on body language and innuendo, something he’d heard in the “news” disturbed him.

“They can take whatever stance they want to take because it’s free media, it doesn’t have to be the truth. It doesn’t have to relate to the facts. It’s their opinion ... .”

Ok, maybe a tad harsh. But, again, true! Opinion exists and is often bruited about without regard for fact, BUT when that happens, it isn’t honest opinion. Opinion based on rumour or falsehood is either dishonest or reckless. If it’s presented in media (or otherwise widely published), it’s defamatory. But it isn’t a crime against free speech for the PM to suggest journalists have been known to publish opinions divorced from fact. It happens too often here. Media should accept the criticism for what it is;,look directly into the mirror, and wipe the mote from its own eye.

“…. not all the things that are presented to you are facts or are true, and you have other alternatives besides what’s presented to you as news. You can go on social media, you can go on my page, Andrew Holness JM, all my social media pages, the party pages. You have so much now, news opportunity, to get informed. You don’t have to rely on one particular media for information, or commentary, or opinion.”

In my opinion, there’s nothing objectionable in that. Hands up if you believe everything you read or hear in media. The PM didn’t suggest that his social media page is the sole source of eternal truth. It’s obvious that he’s saying, that his page will present his view of truth and you should check out many perspectives, including his. What the framfrig is wrong with that?

But (channelling Paul Keenes-Douglas) who tell he criticise Almighty Media? The combined wrath of the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) and the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) descended on him.

PAJ: “Like any citizen, the prime minister is free to criticise the press and to comment on any media report, whether because he thinks it’s inaccurate or for any other reason... .”

Nice of you to give your blessing, but that transparently arrogant, back-handed concession is as redundant as bald men fighting over a comb. Why waste words on the obvious unless, in reality, you mean the opposite?

The “but” was swift in coming:

“However, it’s cause for concern when a political leader, speaking from a political party platform, seeks to undermine the media as a whole. It’s even more disturbing that Mr Holness did so under the cloak of supporting freedom of the press, for which Jamaica has an enviable reputation.”

It’s arrant nonsense to suggest that PM’s comments undermined media as a whole. They criticised some media, which, as PAJ grudgingly admitted, is the PM’s inalienable right. If the PAJ wants to see what undermining of media looks like, it needs only cast its eyes Northward, where mainstream media is under persistent and uncompromising partisan political attack. Furthermore, only mind readers can say what the PM “seeks” to do. Based on his words, he only sought to express concern and promote and endorse competition in media.

PAJ’S RESPONSE

In response to PM’s contending that opinions in media don’t “have to be the truth”, PAJ delivered a stern lecture about what SHOULD be:

“We are sure the prime minister is well aware that his assertions are entirely untrue. Reporting should obviously be fair, balanced, and accurate, and opinion commentary, whatever the position taken by the commentator, should also be based on facts. For the PM to state otherwise to his listeners, many of whom are being guided by him, is a troubling misrepresentation of the work of the press, which will inevitably have the effect of weakening trust in what’s an essential pillar of any constitutional democracy.”

I can’t say what PM is aware of, but I’m aware that his assertions are entirely true. Yes, reporting SHOULD be fair and balanced. Is it?

On Tuesday morning, Nationwide News Network reported that a jury had found Tesha Miller not guilty hours before any verdict was actually delivered. On what fact was that report based?

Opinion commentary SHOULD be based on fact. Is it? Twice now a certain columnist has essayed opinions on a subject he acknowledges knowing nothing about without claiming to have done any research. On what facts are his opinions based?

The MAJ (representing media ownership) was quick to follow up. It also began by paying lip service to free speech, which it says it supports but obviously didn’t believe that the PM should enjoy. They lamented the PM’s “generalisation” of media. Really? Seriously? So tell me, MAJ, which media houses are guilty of the PM’s charges? Which are innocent? Honestly, sometimes I wonder if these condescending organisations read what they write.

The MAJ complained that the PM’s remarks distracted from PAJ’s week of celebrations. So flipping what? Media criticism often distracts from politicians’ celebrations.

Has the PAJ considered that its celebrations may have been a bit too smug and self-serving? For example, instead of debating a defensive moot, “Is the news too negative?”, a more mature PAJ might have debated the need for constitutional entrenchment of press freedom and journalists’ concomitant responsibility. Which is kinda what the PM said.

C’Mon, PAJ/MAJ! get over yourself!

Peace and love!

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com