Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, August 29, 2009

One Needs To Avoid The Minefield

We do indeed live in interesting times. Last weekend, we had the front page story in the Sunday Sun/Nation that the PM's senior political advisor, Mr. Hartley Henry, had allegedly threatened an Editor of the newspaper (see We Live In Interesting Times: Threats To The Media). My view at the time was "There is either naivete, foolhardiness, or worse at play. Surely, everyone knows that the media usually tape record calls?... But, I wont speculate more." Well, we got a little clarity later in the week. Mr. Henry has a weekly column in The Advocate, entitled 'Under The Microscope'. This week he went to his own story with Under the Microscope: No threat to press freedom, it is all about the ‘connection’. Well, it's always good to hear both sides of a story, especially one that the police are due to investigate. The following extracts show my stresses (in bold). Mr. Henry sets the record straight with:

"There was no threat to anyone! There was an appeal for fairness and professionalism. There was the assurance that if such was absent on this particular occasion, the world would be sensitized to a chronology of events that point to the ‘connection’ being the source and the cause of unprofessionalism.

The exact words were “the whole of Barbados will come to understand how it is that”, a particular individual “can have unfettered access to” a known publication."

Now, I am no lawyer so I interpret with care. It seems that in seeking fairness and professionalism Mr. Hartley was holding above the Editor a sword of Damocles--a constant fear was now in place. He made clear that it would be let known (I use the passive voice because his words did not indicate who would do the letting know) that a connection was giving someone unfettered access to the Nation newspapers (that is a presumption from the words used, but it seems the right one). That reads like a threat to me: 'You do this or something not nice would happen to you' is what he writes he did, but using other words.

He goes on "This writer is not a madman." The article's main thrust is that the paper is being biased and that is unfair: "You cannot be biased and at the same time plead innocence and objectivity." However, last time I looked most if not all papers and media showed bias by definition: they select what they report and how they report it. It is not possible to report everything. The bias is often systematic. We can argue about the degree and direction of bias, but not about its existence. What readers, listeners, and viewers need to do is take the bias and view the reporting in that context. Critics can point to the bias and question it. If you wish the slant to be different it is usually good practice to ask politely that this be modified, or seek to point another way with counter reporting, including the submission of letters--but the bias may not help you; but also using other organs at one's disposal. But to call the Editor and issue a threat--veiled or open--does not seem correct.

But, now the plot has gotten thicker. One of the local blogs, Barbados Underground (BU), has come to Mr. Henry's aid or maybe it is better to say 'side'. He publishes routinely and almost simultaneously the same story seen in The Advocate on that blog. But, this week, the version published was marked with inserts that purport to show how the newspaper version was heavily edited ('butchered', BU wrote); see Under the Microscope: No threat to press freedom, it is all about the 'connection'.

From here on, I tread very carefully. We do not have the word of The Advocate concerning what original text they worked from and if that was the same as now published on the blog.

The highlighting (bold on the blog) points clearly to the 'connection' as involving a personal relationship between the Editor and at least one other person supposedly of senior ranking in a company, and one other person (name, gender, race, age, marital status unstated for the persons other than the Editor who got the call). The relatioship allegedly involved violence and abuse. No other names given, but names are already flying around, as are allusions to sexual practices. That is dangerous, so I take caution as my watch word and mention no one else but the author of a piece. I suggest you read the words yourself. I have real concerns about where this may go legally so will not repeat certain words here either.

Mr. Henry writes "There is nothing personal about this intervention. But I detest hypocrisy and self righteousness." But it must be personal if he is himself protesting hypocrisy and self righteousness. He did not point to issues and then say 'People go and do what you need to do'. He took action himself. I just apply simple logic. Emboldened, Mr. Henry concludes "The National Enquirer would love the details. Call the police! Lay the charges! Let’s all go on the witness stand and be cross examined about character, integrity, professionalism and ‘the connection’. I dare you!!"

The other prominent news-oriented Barbadian blog, Barbados Free Press (BFP), which has a sort of feud running with BU--which it views as a racist blog, broke a long-standing policy and linked directly to the BU story. Senior Advisor To Prime Minister David Thompson Follows Through With Threats Against Barbados Journalist. They write "Friends, when one of the the(sic) most powerful and connected men in Barbados threatens to destroy a journalist’s reputation, that is a threat not only to the victim: it is a threat to the very heart of our democracy." and for good effect, 'Hartley Henry Sets Off an Atomic Bomb at Barbados Underground Blog'. BFP goes on to claim that BU must have high level support:

"Since the Democratic Labour Party abandoned its own blog after winning the January 2008 election, Barbados Underground Blog has become the defacto DLP government blog frequented by DLP supporters and government insiders alike."...

"Hartley Henry would not have published his reputation-ruining article at Barbados Underground unless two conditions were assured: 1/ Prime Minister Thompson had knowledge of this article and agreed to the strategy, and 2/ Barbados Underground was safe and secure in the knowledge that the DLP government would protect them from any repercussions of publishing Henry’s hit piece."

BFP goes on to speculate about whether the PM could be seen as complicit, if he had pre-knowledge. If he was in the dark then who is in control of his advisor?

That's their view and clearly expressed.

It is hard to see where the good will come from with this whole episode.

If we were in the US or UK, for sure other journalists would be waving the reports around and seeking 'comments' from Mr. Henry. He is now fair game for clarification. He is likely to refuse to say more as the matter is under police investigation. At the very least, however, the media would be asking more questions and probing. Will that happen here, or will it slip away? I follow the UK news quite closely: having lived there 30 years, there's a lot to interest me.

This spring a major story broke about how attempts by Gordon Brown's senior advisor Damian McBride to smear David Cameron and other Tories over their personal lives (see Guardian report). In a flurry of news reports lasting days, Mr. McBride was forced to quit (see Huffington Post). For the Labour Party government, it was yet another misstep that had it looking like it would topple. The parallels are clear to me. But are they clear to Mr. Henry? I suspect not. He wrote his regular piece a few weeks after the Labour Party incidents, and I took him to task for not seeming at all in touch with what was obviously happening in the UK (see Losing The Plot?). I wrote about Mr. Hartley's observations that seem to have not observed much:

'Then, two weeks ago, after a visit to the UK, he wrote an article that bothered me on a different level (see Barbados Advocate, May 7). ... But what bothered me by seeking to draw parallels with PM Brown and the UK, was whether there was thoroughness underlying the arguments. Certainly, the piece displayed some discomforting ignorance, and was just downright misleading. He wrote:

"[PM Gordon Brown], from all reports, has failed to inspire voters. Indeed, he has failed to inspire members of his own British Labour Party...No one can point to any major commission or omission on his part, but yet the arrows of anger and vengeance are pointed in his direction."

Now, I no longer live in the UK but visit occasionally and keep abreast of developments via the BBC and newspapers and journals online. It has been no secret that Gordon Brown has been mired in unpopularity ever since he took over from Tony Blair as PM in June 2007. He and his party have weathered accusations about improper party donations; they both saw a dramatic fall in poll approval ratings. The weight of the economic downturn made his government unpopular and it suffered heavy defeats in by-elections. His unpopularity was only stemmed briefly by some high profile suggestions on how to deal with the current world financial crisis. Now PM Brown and his colleagues are mired in a scandal about bogus expenses claims (see Times report for the latest saga).

None of this was easy to ignore or be ignorant of; even through a quick search on the Internet. So, how could the columnist erect the straw man with "No one can point to..." when almost ANYONE can point to? What is the real beef? Is it a pre-emptive defence that says something like, the current government, if its popularity is waning, is suffering for reasons that no one can understand?'

To us in Barbados this story looms large and we think it does in the world too. But even if it has gone viral by being plastered on the Internet will anyone take much note? Part depends on belief of spread and influence of blogs. Sure, the story has taken on new legs that will walk where it will. But with news of homicide concerning Michael Jackson and the death of Senator Edward Kennedy where will this story lie. Wherever it does, I would recommend reading Rudyard Kipling's 'If...'. Its opening lines are:

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs..."

They have often been quoted, they have also been amended, and my favourite has been amusingly amended to 'Perhaps you have misunderstood the problem'.

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