' The Gleaner has much more to offer'
Below are excerpts of the sermon delivered by The Rt Rev Dr Howard Gregory, Bishop of the Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, during the celebration of The Gleaner Company's 180th anniversary church service, held at the Kingston Parish Church, downtown Kingston, on Sunday.
CONGRATULATIONS TO the management and staff of The Gleaner Company Ltd on achieving this milestone of 180 years of existence.
You have demonstrated a longevity characterised by a level of adaptability which has allowed you to survive in a national and global context in which many newspapers have come and gone.
Your survival has also led to a development which is subject to controversial interpretation, namely, your influence on the Jamaican psyche. So deep is this influence that Jamaicans of the diaspora have been known to go to buy a newspaper in their country of domicile and ask for a Gleaner, while many citizens, engaged in arguments of various kinds, make it clear that their point is factual because they read it in The Gleaner.
You have also survived the criticisms of your journalistic focus, as political interests of both major political parties have over time accused you of having partisan bias. To that extent, one would have to characterise you as a schizophrenic partisan political institution.
The passage which I have chosen as a text on this occasion captures the vision of the prophet Isaiah regarding the fate which awaited Babylon, not yet the powerful force and oppressor of Israel which it later became, a picture of utter destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. The prophet speaks in the first person, spelling out the anguish which his vision causes him. He has no alternative but to carry out his mission to announce this impending mission of destruction.
So, in verse eight, the prophet is pictured as a watchman, an office of great significance in the ancient world, in which the safety of a city could depend on the vigilance of the watchman. The prophet, like the watchman, had to be able to make sense of and interpret correctly obscure and mysterious signs for his people.
Matthew Henry expands on this passage in his commentary by indicating that it is the watchman's duty in the city in a time of peace, to see that all is safe, as watchman in the camp in time of war, to warn of the motions of the enemy. So, the watchman has a sacred duty in relation to the people, but it also comes at a personal price.
The profession of journalism does not, to my knowledge, locate its foundation in Judaeo-Christian Scripture, but I assume that the observance of this anniversary celebration by this media house, in this setting, is a statement about its roots and value framework. So, what does this text have to do with the occasion for which we are gathered today? In a simplistic and reductionist manner, many think of the journalist's role as that to inform, educate, and entertain. But, let me suggest that there is much more to it, and that it is in this further exploration that we will see the relevance of the biblical insights to the work of these professionals, especially those working in the print media.
Not being a journalist myself, although I dabble in matters journalistic from time to time, I found it necessary to go to the Internet to seek clarification of this discipline, and of course encountered Wikipedia, that famous or infamous tool.
Journalism is a discipline which involves the gathering, processing, and dissemination of news and information directed to a particular audience. Journalism is conducted through a diversity of media including newspapers and magazines (print), television and radio (broadcast), and their digital versions. For our purpose, we will focus on the print media as we celebrate the anniversary of one such expression today.
Journalism's influence extends beyond the purveying of information and opinion about public affairs. To that extent, I would assert that the media is neither an amoral nor neutral entity within the society, but must be clear on the guiding principles, moral or otherwise, which it seeks to disseminate.
The media play a central role in supporting a system of checks and balances, in power amongst governments, businesses, individuals, and other social entities. Professional and effective journalism can also be of service to ordinary citizens, by empowering them with the tools they need in order to participate in the political process. (Wikipedia)
Cognisant of the fact that governments have sought to intervene in the free-flow of information which the media provides, the protection of freedom of the press by the journalistic community and the society as a whole must be a priority.
With the advent of digital technology and publication of news on the Internet, we now live in a world in which news has become, in many instances, sound bites which supposedly capture, in a few lines or sentences, a whole event, the effect of which is often a reductionist, if not, distorted reporting of facts, but also the creation of an audience with limited attention span. Also, there is the impact of social media as a way of spreading news without reference to professional journalists or media houses, but which has been seen to be effective in mobilising people to social action. How might this development be changing the role of the press and the society's approach to what is trustworthy and credible media reporting?
There are further challenges facing the print media in communicating in Jamaica, as we are a society in which many are not readers, preferring still the oral tradition, while many are still illiterate, including those who have supposedly passed through the school system. Additionally, our educational system does not teach our students to be critical in their thinking, which leaves citizens gullible and open to manipulation. This places a further responsibility on the newspaper to handle what it disseminates, fully conscious of the limitations of the audience it serves.
I want to touch a bit on the history of newspapers in this land and the role of this particular newspaper, as it has not been all smooth sailing. On the one hand, we take note of the editorial of August 15, 2014, dedicated to the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of this paper, in which it was stated that, in the first issue in 1834, The Gleaner made its purpose clear in its editorial of the day as follows: "... We feel assured from the proverbial kindness of the Jamaica public, joined in our unremitting exertions to render our paper worthy of their support; that all difficulties will be surmounted, and a fair portion of patronage will crown our attempts to please, to amuse, and to inform."
Nevertheless, we must also take note of the fact that Ewart Walters, who at some point in his journalistic career worked with The Gleaner Company, in his recently published book, We Come From Jamaica: The National Movement - 1937-1962, discusses the role newspapers played in the development of the pre-Independence movement which he calls the national movement. In highlighting the seminal role which Osmond Theodore Fairclough played in the shaping of this movement through the establishment of the public opinion newspaper, he points out that Fairclough, recognising the need for a newspaper to drive the process toward the advancement of his ideas about nationhood, and the creation of a political party in this country, concluded that "these ideas were not welcome at the island's main daily newspaper, The Gleaner, which largely spoke for its owners who were part of the status quo". So, a newspaper and any other institution of the media may carry out its function by being a servant of the status quo. So, the question is, how has this newspaper understood and exercised its journalistic role over this century and more, and how is that being defined and exercised in today's Jamaica?
Let me raise up some issues which I believe must be of central concern to a newspaper which would fulfil its journalistic ideals in today's Jamaica.
Post-Christian, post-modern society is characterised by a kind of individualism which has led to a breakdown of communal value systems around which we can have a common base from which to approach issues, while simultaneously generating instead a level of pluralism which makes issues of values primarily a matter of personal choice. It also creates a society in which many are not interested in the things that make for community building. The challenge which must confront a media house as your own is, how to be a voice within this pluralistic context without catering to the lowest common denominator, but rather to be a beacon of light in this maze of competing values.
Within this context also there is the challenge of how to engage and present major societal challenges such as crime and violence without sensationalising or trivialising the same in a bid to cater to what sells newspapers. We know that there are currently under way, attempts to quantify the effects of crime and violence on our nation's economy and its development, which underscores its seriousness, but it is also true that if one pays attention to aspects of the mass media, one often gets the impression that the only thing happening in this country is in the realm of crime and violence.
Additionally, this post-modern world has been characterised by the institutions of governance and commerce assuming more and more control over the life of people globally, and citizens and nations have become pawns of the industrial, commercial, and political forces driven by what we are now experiencing in our contemporary world as globalisation and liberal capitalism.
What has happened in this modern world is that political systems and those responsible for governance have been assuming more and more control over various areas of the life of citizens. There are laws governing every area of our life and which are becoming more and more intrusive and controlling, as we are being told that Government knows best and acts in the interest of the nation, assuming, of course, a vibrant democracy and an accountable and transparent system of governance. Looking globally, we note the way in which scare tactics have been so effectively used since 9/11 to pass controversial pieces of legislation, that there is now an unprecedented level of intrusiveness in the lives of citizens all over the world. Indeed, we now see a world in which the buzzword of every government, from the least to the most corrupt, is that of "terrorists", and which can be used to persecute and annihilate opposition of any kind, legitimate or otherwise.
In this regard, I believe humanity owes you a debt of gratitude for your willingness to speak to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in your recent editorials entitled, 'Israel's impunity, Blair's cynicism', and 'Perverse morality in Gaza'. When freedom of speech around the issue is being curtailed, persons are labelled and even the subject of recrimination, and when global leaders preach morality, justice and human rights, while upholding violations of the same when it serves their geopolitical and economic interests, you are to be commended for the watchman's role you have played, with all the anguish that no doubt accompanies such a stance.
The point of all of this is that, as the system of governance takes more and more control over the life of citizens, there seems to be no commensurate openness and exploration of the kind of values which are informing the decisions being made, and the extent to which these reflect the thinking and values of the members of the society. We note, as an example, the way in which the reputation of this country was placed at stake in the mishandling of the Christopher 'Dudus' Coke affair, and take note of the role the media played in keeping the issue alive, and to be the vehicle of voices of civil society which joined the protest. In the long run, we all know that it took external pressure to bring about a resolution. Unfortunately, we still, as a nation, seem unwilling to do the things that we know we need to do, until external voices speak.
The educative role of the journalistic community has been made more complicated by the culture of political tribalism and the politicisation of every issue in our national life, and the attempt to label and pigeonhole anyone who would speak on issues that have a clear political dimension and implications. Under the cover of this tribalism and process of politicisation we have perpetuated a system by which the most lucrative jobs in the public sector and in statutory corporations are reserved as reward for party loyalists, whose first qualification may have nothing to do with competence, and in a manner lacking in transparency and accountability to the people of this nation. And what we fail to realise in all of this is that this is part of the process leading to the brain drain pipeline, as many of our emerging young minds realise that there is no future for them unless they are prepared to play ball in this political culture. And the rules of the political game have not really changed since 1962. This makes the work of the journalist one of walking a tight rope if one is to maintain a sense of credibility and professionalism.
I do believe, however, that this newspaper, through the faithful discharge of its journalistic discipline, has much more to offer, and that includes contributing to the vision and hope for a society which wallows in hopelessness, despair, conflict and political tribalism to its detriment. Without doubt, a free and responsible press constitutes part of the guardians of our democracy, but it must also understand that like the watchman of Isaiah's time, it is the herald that helps to interpret the events in the life of the nation, to sound the warning, and to experience the anguish which comes with the discharge of such a weighty responsibility.
So, today we affirm this newspaper on this 180th milestone. We wish you God's blessing as you continue to carry out your mission in our nation, even as we recognise the tragedy that would befall our nation without it.
The Rt Rev Dr Howard Gregory (right), Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, in discussion with Dr Fenton Ferguson, minister of health, during the 180th anniversary celebration of The Gleaner Company Limited, held on Sunday at the Kingston Parish Church.-Rudolph Brown/Photographer