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Are you Shaw?

Published:Wednesday | February 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Gordon Robinson, Contributor

In Apocrypha, there was a man whose initials were G.B.S. When asked "Are you Shaw?" his reply was "My dear old thing, I'm certain of nothing." Based on our finance minister's public performance for most of 2009, he became known in my home as Audley 'Are You' Shaw. Previously, based on his performance as Opposition spokesman on finance and the loud and scandalous revelations for which he was famous, his first name had already been altered (in my home) to 'Big Mouth' Audley.

So, this man has been often the butt of my peculiar sense of humour based on the perverse nicknames 'Big Mouth' Audley and 'Are You' Shaw which I've given him. But, one thing that has always been clear to me regarding the Honourable Audley Shaw is his character. He's been saddled with a reputation (fuelled by People's National Party marketing) of a bumbling, bungling, business buffoon which he seems to have taken in his stride. But, like his PNP counterpart, Omar Davies, his personal integrity has never ever been brought into any question. And, despite my frequent critiques of his economic management and jokes at his expense, I've always felt that his heart was in the right place (as I have also felt about the much maligned Omar Davies) namely with Jamaica's interest at the forefront of his actions right or wrong, agreeable or disagreeable to me.

Lead counsel

So, after all this fun at Shaw's expense, you can imagine my surprise when, over a year ago, through a friend of a friend, who occasionally doubles as one of my instructing attorneys, I was asked to be the lead counsel for Shaw in a libel action against another media house. I've been known in the past to act as counsel in many libel suits against several news media including The Gleaner but, when the details of this one came before me, I was completely taken aback at the apparent anxiety to discredit Audley Shaw above all else, which struck me as unfair.

As a result, despite my stubborn refusal over the years to represent any active politician (worse, one in 'power'), I acceded to my friend's request to be counsel for Audley Shaw.

Now what is to take place in court will take place and we'll leave that alone. But, within the context of a pending Supreme Court matter and the well known but oft honoured in the breach sub judice rule, I find it abhorrent that the media house would recently repeat its crude attempt to discredit using half-truths, falsehood and jumbled chronology as journalistic tools of its trade. And it's this tendency towards gratuitous abuse of public officials (which has crept into our public discourse since the advent of wider competition in media) why I strongly oppose the current movement to 'reform' the libel laws.

There's nothing in the current state of the law on libel which puts any honest, and diligent journalist at any disadvantage, and the most superficial reading of the landmark decision of the House of Lords in the Reynolds case will make this clear. It's the negligent or dishonest journalist who needs to fear the current libel laws. It's the journalist who publishes defamatory allegations from a single uncorroborated source (usually with a vested interest), without contacting his victim for comment, who should be fearful.

Talent pool

We need to remember that Jamaica is a small country. The talent pool available to take up public positions is already limited by such variables as population size; lack of educational opportunities; and the paltry salaries on offer. We don't need to further reduce this talent pool by subjecting our public officials to scurrilous, salacious allegations made without foundation, which destroy reputations and place undue stress on families.

Let's leave that to the USA where the much vaunted Sullivan case, so popular with some commentators, was decided in the context of a constitutionally explicit freedom of speech provision not replicated here (yet), and a vast federation of, states with massive populations of various origins providing large, well-educated talent pools, competitive salaries for public officials and a complicated system of governance (which includes the press) of individual states as well as the Federation.

Be careful what we ask for in Jamaica. Too much 'freedom' to abuse public officials without them having any recourse to the laws of defamation, may well get Jamaica what it wants. Let's run honourable public servants like Audley Shaw out of town on a rail and see what we get as replacements.

Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.