Mon | Dec 5, 2016

Gleaner 180 - Shaping the nation's policy

Published:Saturday | September 13, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Jamaicans aren't shy about taking to the streets and letting their voices be heard. Recently, this was the scene in St Andrew when residents protested an increase in bus fares.

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

In 1889 The Gleaner broke new ground as it set out to provide its readers with "a thorough and accurate account of the condition of affairs throughout the island, in order that they may know just what [was] going on in the country, what progress [was] being made in the schools, in the churches, in cultivating the land ... in the homes and general condition of the people ... and the prospects for the future ...".

Further to this objective, articles describing prevailing economic and social conditions were commissioned for the major towns in all parishes. These articles, which were, in essence, community profiles, were printed in the newspaper as a series, beginning in 1890.

Simultaneously, another set of articles, focusing on the communities in the capital city, was also commissioned. Readers were introduced to the daily lives of both the affluent in Rae Town and the poor in such communities as Smith village, Jones Pen, Murray Street, Hannah Town and Bumper Hall.

An interesting feature of the articles exposed the ordeal of the 'higglers' in the city's markets. One of the articles which appeared in 1899 offered a description of what was called the 'Country Peoples' Shelter', built in the vicinity of the markets.

"Two long single-storey buildings where the people sleep ... Mercy on us, what a crowd! Women of all sizes and ages! ... they have all come from distances of from 10-20 miles to sell a few shillings worth of goods. All night they will pass on the hard floor..."

Both series had tremendous public impact. One brought to public attention the social and economic conditions of the working poor, with a view to informing the social policies of the colonial administration, while the other informed readers of developments in the rest of the island.

In 1979 the Department of History at the University of the West Indies launched the Social History Project to "encourage, direct and support the study of Jamaican social history".

A critical output of the Social History Project was the publication of both sets of Gleaner articles, edited by Brian Moore and Michelle Johnson. The publication describing conditions in the capital city focused on the grim poverty and hardship of poor city dwellers and was appropriately captioned: 'Squalid Kingston 1890-1920 - How The Poor Lived, Moved and Had Their Being'.

The second publication, titled, 'The Land We Live In - Jamaica in 1890', provided readers with a glimpse of social life in such places as Linstead, Moneague, St Ann's Bay, Brown's Town, Stewart Town, Falmouth and Montego Bay.

Labour Rebellion

With the outbreak of the 1938 Labour Rebellion, The Daily Gleaner again broke ground when it began publishing reports of labour unrest. This was a new departure from the established conservative editorial policy of the newspaper. The reports in The Gleaner began with the strike at Serge Inland, in January 1938, and continued with the Frome riots in May and the three weeks of worker unrest, islandwide, which brought the colonial administration to its knees. If by adding the working class to its readership The Gleaner extended its advertising reach, the reports of the rebellion also facilitated worker solidarity and bolstered the confidence and resolve of the workers.

The critical factor is that the added dimension of publicity helped to make the Labour Rebellion truly national and launched the political careers of both Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley.

It is significant that,
between 1944 and 1980, the trade union movement (Alexander Bustamante,
Hugh Shearer and Michael Manley) provided the leadership of the
government for 28 of the 36 years and was significantly represented in
both Houses of the Legislature. Against this background, the legislation
passed during this period, which modernised the legal framework for
trade unionism and shaped industrial policy, was hardly
incidental.

The next stage in The
Gleaner
's contribution to the development of public policy was
in the decade of the turbulent 1970s when the ideologies of Democratic
Socialism (PNP), free-market capitalism (JLP) and Marxism/Leninism (WPJ)
contended for the hearts and minds of the Jamaican people.

There is no doubt where The Daily
Gleaner
's editorial policy stood in this debate, but in adding
the name of Carl Ebenezer McDougal Stone to its panel of columnists,
the newspaper made a quantum leap in the development of public policy.
As Stone said in describing his approach to
scholarship,

"In the 1970s I came out of the
university's ivory tower. I broke out of the narrow academic tradition
of UWI where you write only for colleagues, and took my scholarship to
the street. I entered public life as a columnist and a pollster. I
became a public scholar and took my scholarship outside the
classroom."

If Stone blew
his own trumpet, he certainly had a lot to blow about. He achieved and
maintained his enviable standard of excellence and enjoyed the respect
of friend and foe alike by the extraordinary accuracy of his polls and
the impeccable data on which he constructed his articles. He fiercely
guarded his independence. His polls provided public policymakers with a
reliable scientific means of discovering the views and aspirations of
ordinary Jamaican people while establishing an effective channel through
which ordinary citizens could decisively influence public
policy.

In the 21st Century, The
Gleaner
carried its role in influencing public policy to
another level with the addition of In Focus - a
specific section of the newspaper devoted to public-policy debate. The
advent of In Focus marked the ascendency of
professionals as columnists and contributors. As a result, one can
hardly comment on the need for improvements in public policy without
relating this inadequacy to the quality of our professionals and their
capacity for public service. With the forum provided by The
Gleaner
, our professionals should seize the opportunity to
make common cause with the people, not only to critique existing policy,
but to create policy options.

One area of public
policy that needs urgent attention is that governing tertiary education.
What should be the return from public investment to tertiary
institutions? What role should faculty in these institutions play in
developing policy options related to respective areas of competence?
Should the Government continue to invest tax dollars to the same extent
in a University of Technology (UTECH) that seems incapable of making any
contribution to a new and relevant energy policy, which represents the
country's most pressing technological challenge since the oil crisis of
1973?

This question is even more pressing for the
fact that UTECH seems bent on replicating faculties already established
at public expense at the University of the West Indies. In the same
vein, are taxpayers getting a fair return from the publically funded
Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies, which has
been either silent or irrelevant in its response to decades of weak
economic growth and the formulation of a new economic
policy?