Boyne barking up wrong tree

Published: Sunday | December 23, 2012 Comments 0

Arthur Hall,Senior News Editor

For the past two editions of
The Sunday Gleaner's In Focus section, veteran journalist Ian Boyne has conducted a review of the state of the local media, and that is welcome.

While giving the Jamaican media high marks for its performance one week ('Is our press fair?', December 9), Boyne launches a vicious attack on the media in general, and the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) in particular, the following week ('Don't mess with the press? Media mollycoddle Big Business and dodge the bullet of regulation').

According to Boyne, media are not interested in going after big businesses, and local journalists, led by the PAJ, are waffling with the long-proposed introduction of a press complaints council.

Boyne's claim about journalists not going after big business is one that individual media houses and journalists can respond to.

Suffice it to say that Jamaica is blessed with a cadre of excellent investigative journalists, including Cliff Hughes, Tyrone Reid, Ingrid Brown, Kirk Wright and Andrew Canon, and the PAJ is determined to provide all support to journalists to improve their ability to expose corruption in the public and private sectors.

However, Boyne surely knows that members of parliament and heads of government agencies have been elected or employed to spend billions of dollars on behalf of the public, and it is the role of the independent media to ensure that these scarce resources are properly spent and that the ordinary man is given a voice.

For every dollar misused, stolen or misappropriated by a state entity, one Jamaican loses the opportunity of resources from the state.

That media continually turn the searchlight on state agencies cannot, and will not, change in Jamaica or anywhere else where free, independent media operate.

As Boyne well knows, access to the information held by private-sector entities, especially those that are not listed, is particularly difficult, and that is why the PAJ, as indicated in the communiqué, will be working to improve the skills of practitioners to investigate this and other issues.

The matter of the complaints council is a little more complex, but I would suggest to Boyne, and the many others who have criticised journalists for their failure to establish such a body, that by pointing fingers at the PAJ, they are looking in the wrong direction.

The PAJ's communiqué did not address a complaints council, because, if one becomes a reality, it is not within the purview of journalists.

Unfortunately, Boyne was unable (or unwilling) to attend any of the events of National Journalism Week 2012 and was not privy to extensive discussions which took place about the need for a complaints council.

PAJ SUPPORT

The PAJ is on record for declaring its full support for the establishment of a body that will give the public the ability to hear complaints against the media. I take this opportunity to point Boyne and others to the words of PAJ President Jenni Campbell after she was elected recently for a second term.

"The PAJ stands firmly behind the creation of a press complaints council," declared Campbell.

"But it is not the journalists who can establish such a council; it is the media owners. Journalists have gone as far as they can possibly go in this regard. We have established and ratified a code of ethics and have developed and proposed a structure for the council to police it. This has been flatly rejected by those who must necessarily agree to its implementation," added Campbell on a point that critics of the PAJ seem to readily miss.

Media houses will make their decision individually. That opens its own can of worms, as seen from Britain, which is one of the countries persons quickly point to when they speak of a press complaints council.

It should be remembered that a series of crises of media ethics prompted the formation of The General Council in Britain in 1953 as an industry regulator.

The General Council began under a non-binding framework, tasked with shepherding the press to a more ethical performance.

However, public dissatisfaction with press performance led to the dissolution of the General Council in 1962 and the creation of a new body, the Press Council.

Fifteen years later, a Royal Commission on the press criticised the council for its ineffectiveness and called for a written code of practice for journalists.

Following more concerns about media ethics in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, a press complaints commission was established in 1991 with a remit to demonstrate that self-regulation could work.

NEW BODY REQUIRED

Now, just about 20 years later, Lord Leveson, who conducted the enquiry into the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, has sided with the critics who say a complaints commission has failed and a new body is required.

"The fundamental problem is that the [press complaints commission], despite having held itself out as a regulator, and thereby raising expectations, is not actually a regulator at all. In reality, it is a complaints-handling body.

"Scarcely any less profound are the numerous structural deficiencies which have hamstrung the organisation. It lacks independence," said Leveson.

He now proposes that: "An independent regulatory body should be established, with the dual roles of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals.

"That body should set standards, both through a code and in relation to governance and compliance ... . (The) body should: hear individual complaints against its members about breaches of its standards and order appropriate redress while encouraging individual newspapers to embrace a more rigorous process for dealing with complaints internally; take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches and impose appropriate sanctions; and provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil-law claims, based upon its members' publications."

That is a proposal which I find favourable and one I suspect could win the support of the majority of the more than 400 members of the PAJ.

But so what if we endorse it and find it favourable? The media owners would still have to accept it, abide by its rulings, and see to their implementation. However, there has been no consensus among local media owners to support this.

Ian, I suggest that you are barking up the wrong tree.

Arthur Hall is a senior news editor and second vice-president of the PAJ. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and arthur.hall@gleanerjm.com.

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