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**

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Facing The Nation: Why The Reluctance To Talk To The People?

On Sundays, I like to get a sense of what has been happening in the country. I admit to being spoilt by the American diet of Sunday commentaries on TV--Meet the Press (NBC) being my favourite, but also, State of the Union (on CNN Live), and occasionally This week with George Stephanopolous (ABC). It's been a while since I lived in the UK so I cannot relate so readily to the offerings there. When I am in Jamaica, there is a daily and weekend diet of analysis programs on radio and TV. I even found it on radio on a short visit to Dominica. So, I know that what I do not get in Barbados is not a matter of a different regional perspective but more about how a country sees news and information and discussion. If not on the sound or visual media, then give me some deep assessments in the press. I used to spend my mornings reading commentaries in The Sunday Times, then The Washington Post and New York Times. I would listen to the BBC's range of programs. I get to know more about what is going on in the minds of politicians anywhere else in the world than I do here. What do I get in Barbados? Sweet F.A.!

My views may be best expressed in a range of questions.

Why cannot the PM or a Cabinet Minister come to the people every week and give an account on one or several issues? Why do we have to see or hear some staged event with a few journalists and with or without a studio audience?

Why cannot talking to the people be a constant? I listened today to President Obama's top advisers and Cabinet members on a range of programs talking about a range of key policy issues (Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, in particular). They are trusted to be able to speak for the administration and for the president, and just to speak well and coherently. Is it that the PM has to be the spokes person?

Are politicians afraid of these regular contacts because it means you have to stick with a story line? It may mean also that they have to get close for reasons that have nothing to do with electoral cycles. Show me the social and lighter side of a Cabinet Minister. Show me what a day is like in the life of one of the political leaders. Help me understand what are the issues and pressures and pleasure and pain, and gains and losses. Let their wives and husbands tell us something too. Get off the hill and come down to the valley.

So many policy initiatives that I have tried to follow in Barbados over the past two to three years have been a mix of utter confusion and missteps. They have had their biggest moments at a 'press conference', but what strange events they were. Looking back recently. In Georgetown: the PM goes abroad and gave advance warning--to talk about the major domestic issue of immigration! Is that not showing a degree of disrespect for your constituents? Your leader wants to invite the region's journalists to hear these important words and leave your citizens to track it on radio and TV? No. That statement and press conference should have been held on Bajan soil. PR score: high negative. Beyond the stylised debates that go on in Parliament, when do we get politicians to lock horns? They do it in an asynchronized manner: A speaks...B rebuts hours or days later. Stand up to each other in the public gaze and give us your best. Maybe by the time of the next elections we may see head-to-head debates. I'm not holding my breath.

There should not be a want for PR and how to deal with issues. This is an industry that is so well developed that we may well have to hold back to not get swamped by the major machinery that can be rolled out.

Barbados is supposed to be highly literate. (I go to this again as much because I attended an event for the Barbados Statistical Service and heard a renowned local professor say that to his knowledge no literacy survey had ever been conducted in the past 50 years.) Assuming this high level of intelligence and mental competence, the people should be clamouring for explanations. Maybe they are and politicians are just down right hard headed and refuse to give them what they want.

But the problems do not stop at the door of politicians. Captains of industry should be in the same boat. I see executives from top companies being grilled week in, week out, day in, day out. Why not here? I do not know COW or Bizzy but I would like to see and hear them tell me more than about polo or a housing development. I would like to hear their views on things economic, financial, social, and political. If they so wish, they can get personal. I would be more convinced that enterprises had an interest in the country's welfare rather than their narrow bottom lines if I heard more about what problems they faced and how they are dealing with them, other than seeking an ease in this or that levy or telling people how another cost is to be passed on. Explain why cost reductions never seem to lead to price falls. Tell us what the exchange rate is doing to your business and why you're happy or sad about that.

Of course, Barbados is a small place and comments may touch people and political and business interests in a way that is more obvious than in a large country. But so what? If there really are no secrets then why do we act as if life is nothing but one set of secrets?

I am trying to live a life free from contradictions, so I press points like this. I do not have a vote but have a keen interest in politics. I do not give advice to any party or politician or institution but am keenly aware of the economic developments that appear to be happening. I fear that this fear of commentary is a sort of disease. I have no name for it.

Francis Bacon is credited with the words 'knowledge is power'. Some debate exists over what that really means. The phrase may imply that with knowledge or a good education one's potential or abilities in life will increase. But, having and sharing knowledge is recognised as the basis for improving one's reputation and influence, thus power. The phrase also identifies a reluctance to share information when a person believes that withholding it can deliver to that person some form of advantage. Bacon could also have been paraphrasing Proverbs 24:5: "A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength."

I think that many local politicians are afflicted by a mixture of these meanings, including a sense that being better educated than average means that they are the ones best placed to understand the information that exists, so why bother to share it. Businessmen, with their more varied backgrounds, including through heritage, are less pompous on that count. But, leaders here are not demonstrating one inch of leadership ability. Leading is more than standing in front. It means standing for something and it means standing up to account for yourself.


Veritas said...

You asked me to join you on your issues here. And I take up your offer. You have become a virtual complainer! Do you read back what you write?

I watch The Peoples Business regularly and I have seen Cabinet Ministers week after week explaining issues: Byer-Suckoo, Sinckler, John and Darcy Boyce, Maxine McClean, Donville Inniss and Steve Blackett for sure.

The PM announced that he would
be having a quarterly Press Conference and has been keeping to his schedule. Before that, press conferences were a rarity.

As to the press conference in Guyana on the immigration issue, didn't that follow a statement to the House and a press conference here? Come on, don't distort just to hold up USA which has thousands of news channels. There is only so much that we can take on CBC.

Dennis Jones said...

@ Veritas,

Happy to have the issues raised here.

Maybe we read things differently. How would categories the content of the following blogs: BU, BFP, Bajan Reporter? I read them all as taking issue, some would call that complaining if you will. But I would be interested in your view.

I do not take a PM offering to hold 4 press conferences a year as much of an offer. Yes, it may seem like a lot relative to his predecessor but it's not much. Issues do not carve themselves so neatly into 4 slots a year. That's fine for some formal reporting but as issues develop I would expect that you can address them.

There were statements in Barbados but the PM went considerably further in the Georgetown press confernce. I find that curious. Maybe the CARICOM setting made that special in the minds of some. I just think that the local electorate should have had that fullsome presentation first.

I'll try to look back over the People's Business schedule. Again, our impressions may have to rest at odds.

Veritas said...

Strange that you have that interpretation ... I don't. The PM clearly has many more than four per year. I assume that the four are "any-issue-no-holds-barred" Press/people encounters. This is definitely new to Barbados.

I just heard him on TV two weeks ago at the Airport dealing with a range of issues; then there was an open forum at the CARICOM meeting which Starcom carried.

There are post-Cabinet press conferences by Ministers all the time. So what are you really talking about? You want a Breakfast Club? Or all-talk show channel? Is that what you are talking about in Jamaica?

Dennis Jones said...

@Veritas, I have just returned from travel so let me reflect on your comment. In the meantime, can you point me to somewhere where I can find reporting of the post Cabinet meetings?

I'm still waiting for some information from CBC about the People's Business and I have had a conversation with one of its presenters, and I promised to go back to the issue once I'd heard from CBC.