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**

Monday, November 09, 2009

Journalists Under Fire? A Day Later And The World Is The Same. Surprise!

Perhaps people have unrealistic expectations when a topic dear to their hearts gets into the public's eye. They give the impression that all of the hard issues that have been there, whether discussed before in public or not, will be resolved and are terribly disappointed when preferred topics get less than their due coverage or no commitments are made to make the world a better place. I must admit I had no expectation that a two-hour radio call-in program would change much. So it was. One of my better forecasts, I'll say, tongue in cheek.

The Nation covered the event this morning (see attached photo from their report under Journalists weigh in on Freedom Bill, a headline which is a way to focus the reader even if it was not THE focus of the discussion).

A lot of the flow of radio discussions, including call-in shows, comes from the person in charge of the studio, both the host (I do not like 'moderator', as it suggests a style that is not necessarily accurate) and the producer, who holds many keys in terms of who from outside the studio gets to speak, and what words they say get aired. In Barbados, one of the important constraints that journalists face is to skirt the waters of the defamation laws, and one sees the problem daily on Down to Brass Tacks, when callers are 'cut' or 'silenced' when saying something that may get the radio station into hot water. Inside the studio, one gets to hear the full conversation and can always second-guess any censorship (though one only gets to hear of this at the time from those listening in).

The panel I was part of was made up of:

JULIUS GITTENS - Barbados Association of Journalists (BAJ), Interim Vice-president

ADRIEL “Woody” RICHARDS, Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), Secretary/Treasurer, BAJ

SALEHA WILLIAMS, head of new media at Starcom Network,

ANTOINETTE CONNELL, Editor, Daily Nation

I was pleased to be included in the panel discussion, and tried to speak not as a spokesman for all bloggers, which was a two-edged sword, but important because they are not like one, and each should have the chance to speak for him/herself, but anonymity on the part of some bloggers puts a natural barrier up to certain types of participation. Perhaps the radio and TV stations will have to focus solely on blogs one day and get a discussion involving the practioners in that area only.

The discussions were quite lively and got a little testy at times, especially between the host, Julius Gittens (Interim Chairman, Barbados Association of Journalists), and Senator Orlando Marville (Chairman of the Advisory Board on Governance), who could not initially agree on how to proceed and then got into a little spat when the Senator uttered an acronym and the host asked for an explanation. The "You don't know what that is?" clearly indicated that the Senator had forgotten that the audience was more than just the one person to whom he was speaking. But, that's how it is sometimes and hopefully as grown ups no one will be sobbing still or playing alone this morning. But that incident touched well one of the major issues facing the media houses and politicians: how to package information so that understanding can be as broad as possible.

As I intimated above, it is unrealistic to think that we would be further ahead after two hours of Sunday radio broadcasting; that would put a lot on the shoulder of a 2 hour radio program.

I took away some key points that I think were not clear before:

  • Media house journalists feel that a major constraint on good reporting is limited personnel resources, and job cuts have not helped. We heard that CMC is working with a ’skeleton staff’.
  • New media formats are being developed by the Nation Group/One Caribbean Media, and this has boosted revenues with little need for additional resources.
  • News houses are not sending reporters to cover stories (Roosevelt King, Secretary General, Barbados Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (BANGO), and Chris Halsall, Technical Advisor, BANGO, corroborated this in the recent BL&P hearings case).
  • News media houses believe that they have rigorous standards of fact checking and accuracy and that blogs are not held to the same standard. I tried to counter that and argued that some blogs/bloggers do exercise similar standards. They should not be swept away with a generalisation that is incorrect.
  • Politicians manipulate the press and the media houses were criticised (by lawyer, former journalist and now MP, Stephen Lashley) for poor news room management, notably relying too much on press conferences and releases.
  • Media houses clearly employ self censorship, fearing and being made fearful of defamation cases. We heard of the stories of how merely filing a defamation case will kill a story and gain someone a few easy dollars as the press prefer to settle rather than get caught up in a lengthy and costly legal case.
  • Mr. Lashley said he would support Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation measures in principle and removal of defamation constraints on journalists.
  • Senator Marville explained that an 'Information Commissioner' would eventually decide what information could be made public. However, he could not understand why it was taking so long to move forward on FOI legislation.
  • Citizens do not help investigative journalism, often pulling back from getting full stories reported.
  • The question was posed whether ‘activism’ should be the role of the press or the role of citizens. The on-air discussion was not conclusive (no surprise). [This may be an interesting topic on which to get views.]
  • Media house follow-up on stories is weak, but they claim lack of resources and pressures to report new stories.
  • Jeff Cumberbatch, a lawyer and columnist who has looked a lot at defamation laws in the region, argued that there is a need for reform of how defamation cases are handled so that they can be speeded up. He felt that existing legislation, especially in Barbados, is very good. The ‘public interest’ defence and the ‘Reynolds’ case does not apply only to the UK and at least two cases have been filed in the Caribbean (Jamaica).
  • Media houses need to make information more digestible and Roosevelt King spoke to how ‘packaging’ of complex issues needs to be improved. I raised with him how BANGO could perhaps help in that process.
  • Media houses were criticised for lack of preparedness and unwillingness to be better informed by those who understood issues, getting facts wrong as a result (Chris Halsall made this point referring to recent BL&P hearings and received an on-air apology for errors not corrected).
  • Malcolm Gibbs-Taitt, Director General, Barbados Consumer Research Organisation (BarCRO), criticised the media houses for how they treat consumers.

We can argue till the cows come home about the quality of the program but I would never think that such an airing can be transformative on major issues. One only has to think about the many hours of broadcasts that go on world wide with no apparent changes in any aspect of life.

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