IS THE PRESS FAIR?
Ian Boyne, Contributor
THE LOOSE-CANON, loose-mouthed Member of Parliament, Everard Warmington has again set off another round of debate on the issue of fairness in the media, and the pique felt by the sober, mild-mannered and highly respected Minister of Education, Andrew Holness, over last week's Sunday Gleaner lead, has only added to the intensity of the discussion.
Do the Jamaican media "have an agenda"? Are they out to get Bruce Golding and his administration? Are all the people close to Golding now fair game for media attacks and innuendos? Or are Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) members just overreacting and demonstrating the arrogance of power?
The Gleaner was bold and decent enough to apologise unreservedly on Wednesday for two particular errors committed vis-à-vis Andrew Holness and his wife, as well as senior public servant Patricia Sinclair-McCalla, head of Golding's Public Sector Transformation Unit. "We are guilty as charged and we should have done better," Editor-in-Chief Garfield Grandison said bluntly and without circumlocution.
"We have committed", the Editor-in-Chief declared, "in our Code of Ethics and professionalism to always be accurate and fair in our coverage, at all times." Mr Grandison made it clear that it was not just with those two stories that the Gleaner got it wrong, for he discloses that "you have challenged us on a number of occasions in the past few weeks".
Grandison committed the Gleaner publications to "reporting news accurately, thoroughly and without bias or malice." Many who have been scorched by media inaccuracies, bias, and, indeed, malice, must be hissing their teeth and mumbling words which this newspaper would not permit me to print upon hearing that commitment from Grandison.
The Observer was more credulous. In an editorial on Thursday, it said with astonishing Pollyannaish gush: "We believe the (Gleaner) apology will restore the faith that readers would have lost after the wrong done to Mr Andrew Holness and Mrs Patricia Sinclair-McCalla." I am afraid that those who were sceptical about the behaviour of the Jamaican media will by no means be comforted by Editor Grandison's mea culpa and reassurances.
The Observer, however, made an important observation - one often neglected by the media's own hypersensitivity and reflexive defensiveness over any criticism of its conduct: "Mr Warmington, like any other Jamaican, is entitled to criticise the work and performance of the media. We dish out, so we must be able to take it."
But Sunday Herald editor-in-chief and former Press Association president, Desmond Richards, told 'This Morning's' hosts on Nationwide that he did not see any reason for any introspective discussions by media on their conduct at this time. According to Richards, it was only when the politicians were getting some flak that we usually start talking about excesses in media criticism.
Politicians are generally uneasy when the press criticises them. But when we can demonstrate that that criticism is fair, balanced, and deserved, we should not be concerned about their ire. Indeed, we want them to be uneasy - that is why we are the Fourth Estate. Politicians, by virtue of the power that they wield, ought to be made to be accountable and the fire must be held to their feet, for media must always speak truth to power. This country, with all the ills that we do have, would be far worse had our media not been as vibrant and had as much "vim, vigour and vitality", in the words of one well-known politician!
The media must make politicians uncomfortable and uneasy - and must ensure they are never uncaring.
There is palpable bias, gross unfairness and even malice in sections of the Jamaican media. I don't have to name names, for they are so egregious that they can't be missed. There are persons writing and speaking in media who are absolutely contemptuous of any notion of fairness, responsibility, and balance. But we must never let that fact - that incontestable fact - cloud the equally clear fact that overall, the Jamaican media have been doing a generally good and responsible job of journalism.
Our news reporters and editors generally strive to be fair - and overwhelmingly succeed. There are lapses, for sure, but, generally, the points of view of the two political parties, and even some of the third parties, are given prominence. People who run discussion programmes generally try to be even-handed and fair in their panel representation.
Resist being slaves
There are a few who bring on people to reinforce their particular political agenda, but they are easily recognisable for the game they are playing and there is a place for the partisan press. As long as media overall, give adequate representation to various sides, pockets of bias and partisanship are tolerable to most people. In my view, however, journalists and commentators should have enough concern for their own credibility and intellectual integrity that they should resist being slaves to any political or sectarian line. They should zealously guard their reputation. If they don't mind sacrificing that - even for their own vanity's sake - that's their business.
Unlike the 1970s when particular media houses were polarised, with one media house identified with one party, while another was identified with the other, today it is not as vulgar.
It is a fact that almost every single columnist is today generally critical of Bruce Golding and his administration, but this is not because of any conspiracy or evil plot on the part of certain media owners. They might have their agenda, but they are not calling up columnists and commentators, and urging them to take a certain line. I have never received any such call - nor has any attempt been made to muzzle me.
Generally, the columnists and commentators who are highly critical of Bruce Golding have demonstrated over and again that they can be very critical of the People's National Party (PNP) also. Even a casual observation will yield the fact that our opinion writers, commentators, and talk-show hosts are not slavishly following any political party. If you follow Jamaican media closely - and have been for years under successive administrations - you will find that some of the most strident columnists and commentators against Bruce Golding have been equally strident about Portia Simpson Miller and other leaders of the PNP.
The right to express
The majority of my colleagues in the media who express opinions genuinely, sincerely hold those opinions and are not a part of any conspiracy to bring down this Government. If they honestly believe that this administration is bad for the country, then freedom of the press guarantees them the right to express those opinions, and express them firmly and sharply.
I reject the view, though, that only reporters have the obligation to be "objective" and balanced. There is a view that news is a different species and has to be handled delicately and with certain clear, inviolable guidelines and procedures (absolutely no opinion, for example, must seep in), but that opinion journalism is an entirely different creature. I don't believe opinion writers and commentators have the luxury to be unfair, unbalanced and biased in their commentary just because they are not writing news.
I don't believe that simply because they have declared their hand, and let you know which side they are on, that that absolves them of the responsibility to be meticulous, fair and balanced in dealing with the people and ideas they oppose.
The opinion journalists should be as scrupulous and as accurate and fair in giving opinions and making assessments as news reporters. Why should opinions be given a promiscuous pass while news retains the chastity belt?
What we need are people in the media who have integrity - people who are committed to a set of values to which they hold absolutely, even if they don't practise them perfectly.
We really come down to the matter of morality. Integrity is a moral issue. Fairness is a moral issue. Balance and bias turn on morality. If I write about someone I don't like, or who belongs to a party I despise, I must hold myself to certain standards of conduct and must be responsible with the use of power - which journalism confers. I can't use my power as an opinion journalist to defame people I am opposed to or to corruptly advance the interests of those who I favour. It's a moral issue.
So I am wary of ethical relativists who exercise power and influence in media. They can do much harm, for they are not committed to objective principles and standards - indeed, scoff at them. Everything is utilitarian and instrumental to them.
Simply write a letter
That is why it is not enough for the media to say, well, if you don't like what we do simply write a letter to the editor. The Press Association of Jamaica had the nerve to castigate Warmington for his crude criticisms of the media recently by reminding him that "instead of using the hallowed halls of Parliament to take cheap shots at the media, we recommend he use the established route of a letter to the editor." What gall! That is not enough.
There needs to be a press council which can discipline erring media practitioners, shame them for irresponsible journalism, and defend the rights of Jamaicans who are damaged or treated prejudicially, or unfairly, by media. Media people baulk at any suggestion about Government regulation, but here in Jamaica we have chatted endlessly about establishing a press council but done nothing done to bring it to fruition, while blasting others for talking and not doing. Such hypocrisy!
A press complaints commission, such as exists in Britain, or a press council, which exists in some countries, is overdue, PAJ and Media Association of Jamaica.
We call everybody else and every group to accountability and yet we resist every attempt to be accountable to anyone - not even our fellow colleagues and civil society. If any politician dares criticise media, the red herring of "threat to press freedom" is thrown in as a conversation-stopper and a means of intellectual terrorism.
Shut the mouths of people like Warmington and any politician who might have sinister motives. Establish an independent press council or press complaints commission and protect the right of every Jamaican to his or her good name.