In almost every profession –– whether it’s law or journalism, finance or medicine or academia or running a small business –– people rely on confidential communications to do their jobs. We count on the space of trust that confidentiality provides. When someone breaches that trust, we are all worse off for it.
–– Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Squaring off Hillary Clinton’s profound statement against the fact that it was coming from a politician and that it was rivalling the much vaunted “people’s right to know”, one could easily understand Joe Bloggs’ (in Hillary’s world, Joe Blow’s) dismissal of this confidentiality declaration of a government spokesman. After all, governments always have something to hide, it seems.
Not that we endorse such point-blank cold shoulders towards the political administration; we simply grasp the inclination towards suspicion by the lowly when it comes to the high-minded rhetoric of the ruling mighty –– which few politicians believe they are not.
In a more pragmatic way, “the people’s right to know” is the psalm of the media in their quest for information from the Government, particularly when the news they seek to disseminate is of a controversial nature, and believed –– and can be justified –– as ought to be known by the people at large. It is on such an occasion that “the people’s right to know” transcends the concept of the freedom of the Press to that of the privilege of the electorate to be truthfully and accurately informed.
This appropriately falls under the class of transparency in Government, which hardly any of our administrations in the past decades could earn an A+ for –– which is not to take away from the fact that we are now led by the least public-engaging administration of all.
We have to beg and challenge the leaders of the present Government to tell us what is going on, simply because the chief among equals does not read the newspapers nor listen to his critics for fear of being contaminated, and the secretary of the party and member of Cabinet is left to carry out damage control Donville-style, while an unpredictable other, clearly out of control, tries a thing, unwittingly undermining the confidentiality that resides in Cabinet by his public discordance and dissension, and nonconformism to Westminster convention.
Regrettably, one of our media members falls for the unorthodoxy of Cabinet minister Dr David Estwick, publishing a consecutive, four-day, multiple-page copy of his alternative, economic policy to save Barbados, PowerPoint presentation to Cabinet –– which by its quite lengthy public dissemination couldn’t have been properly digested, dissected and assessed, and any practicable agreement or decision reached by members, except at a most atypical and abnormal meeting.
With Dr Estwick himself and other Cabinet members being officially mum on what was discussed or even reached at the close of last Thursday’s Cabinet session, and referring the Press to chairman Freundel Stuart, it seemed obscene that just hours after parts of the goodly doctor’s presentation were in print on the very night for publication the morning after.
“The people’s right to know” will not be a justifiable cover for this breach of Westminster principle and convention of Cabinet confidentiality. Cabinet presents decisions to the public; not arguments and dissent from within.
Cabinet speaks with one voice; those who differ fundamentally and irrevocably leave it.
We accept that the move towards greater transparency and accountability of Government by the media is not without its complexities, and requires the careful balancing of competing interests, besides our own and the people’s. For both the Government (in particular the Cabinet) and the media are the values of responsibility, decency and accountability. In a democratic participation we would not like to see, on the media’s side, descent in to deep-yellow journalism.
This is no case of sour grapes over being “scooped”, a defence shot that is likely to be fired. It is merely the imploring of all of us members of the media to be wary of being used by interest groups at the expense of our own probity, and of being influenced to be in breach unwittingly of what is the convention, and what is
proper and good.
The American way of trying the accused on radio and television before the jury reaches a verdict, and leaking and publishing confidential Government executive meeting documents before consensus we would rather not have as a matter of course in this sovereign nation of Barbados. There is no good reason to imitate
the worst of the United States.
We cannot through our inattention, negligence and unawareness as media give our very own Government reasonable cause to implement stricter measures of national secrecy for confidentiality.
There is still some virtue in confidentiality; maybe as much as there is loyalty –– a reminder to the Barbados Cabinet, Dr Estwick, and especially the one who leaked his presentation.