During a lunch time lecture at the Tom Adams Financial Centre in March, veteran journalist and Editor Emeritus of the Nation newspaper, Harold Hoyte, was very critical of a number of the practices of journalists and media organisations in Barbados.
In essence, he concluded that the standards of today’s practitioners and the organisations for which they work too often fall well below those of past stalwarts of the profession.
Generally, we agreed with him then, and we still do; but we also again make the point that the environment within which the craft of journalism is practised is not at all enabling. The end result is that the country is not as well served as it could be when it comes to the dissemination of information relevant to the strengthening of our democracy.
We continue to hold strongly to the view that by their very conduct, our political leaders are not only afraid to engage the public and by extension the Press, but they deliberately set out on a path to, at best, withhold information, and at worst, mislead.
Barbados’ journalists are expected by their audiences to function like, and produce comparable results to, their United States counterparts, while operating against the backdrop of an outdated and inadequate Defamation Act, and the total absence of any freedom of information legislation.
For the enterprising journalist, you probe at your own risk!
Add to the mix the fact that we have a growing class of business people, particularly the more wealthy, who are all for probing journalism if it does not mash their corns — real or imagined. They welcome your questions when they are about a competitor or social enemy, but hint at anything involving their sacred cows and see how quickly they can threaten to withdraw advertising.
All across Barbados this aversion to engage the media in anything but naked public relations has become so ridiculous that we now have the Barbados Government Information Service sending out press releases referring to “exclusive interviews” with ministers and public servants.
What is the source of this apparent fear of being questioned by professional journalists?
Here’s another example. Last Friday the National Union of Public Workers raised the issue of workers from the Drainage Division not being paid, and threatened industrial action. On Tuesday the union announced that it would have marched on Government Headquarters today if it did not get word that the workers would be paid.
In the midst of all this, the environment was saturated with “rumours”, including the very frightening possibility that the Government had no money to pay the workers. In the current climate one could easily understand how such a rumour could gain currency.
So how did the line minister respond? With a lengthy public relations “story” issued via the BGIS. No leeway for questioning by the media.
Now contrast that with the routine in Trinidad and Tobago, where there is modern defamation and freedom of information legislation and a history of robust press engagement by the government. Just yesterday Trinidad’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar engaged the press to answer questions that her government was using state advertising to reward and/or punish media houses.
That would never have happened in Barbados. We would have gotten a well sanitised PR statement via BGIS or absolutely no response — with the latter being far more likely.
It is true that in Barbados we have not yet produced any journalists who would qualify for sainthood, and that over the last three decades we have had far too many practitioners who wore their political colours on their sleeves, but there can be no denying our profession has provided a valuable service to the country.
Our journalists and media organisations must do better, yes, but those in power who have control over the mechanisms that facilitate the media need to do the right thing as well.