What’s the role of the news media in contemporary Barbados, specifically in relation to reporting and commenting on Government activities? If you heard and analysed what a certain spokesman for the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) had to say over the weekend, you would be in no doubt.
Applying the amusing logic of this particular politician, the media should always put a positive spin on things. Seen from this perspective, it means telling Barbadians how wonderful things are and what a great job the Freundel Stuart administration is doing, even though public opinion overwhelmingly suggests otherwise.
Providing positive coverage of Government is not the media’s role in the liberal democratic tradition to which Barbados adheres. That’s the job of whoever is managing the DLP’s public relations at a political level, the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) at a governmental level and the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) over which successive Governments have maintained tight control.
The job of free and independent media in a liberal democracy is essentially two-fold: firstly, to hold a mirror in front of the society and report whatever it sees, both good and ugly. If a situation exists where there’s more ugly than good, then that’s exactly what you will find on the pages of newspapers, radio and television newscasts, and increasingly popular online media.
The media’s second role is to serve as a watchdog of Government: to keep the Government on its toes by highlighting abuses of power and other serious shortcomings, offering critical comment and analysis, ensuring Governments are held accountable on behalf of the people who elect them. Hence, the description of the media as the fourth estate.
Viewed against this historic backdrop, the relationship between Government and the media is inherently adversarial. It does not mean, however, that the media, or specifically journalists, are always looking to make life difficult for governments. Far from it! By and large, journalists are reasonable and recognize that politicians who sit in Government are also human beings, prone to making mistakes like everyone else.
Journalists, therefore, are generally inclined to exercise restraint. It’s in every politician’s interest to cultivate a good working relationship with journalists based on mutual respect for each other. The late David Thompson took this approach both in Opposition, when politicians tend to be exceptionally friendly with the media, and also during his brief tenure as Prime Minister. By so doing, he endeared himself to the media.
By being friendly and accessible, Thompson was able to add his perspective on issues, thereby contributing to moulding a generally favourable perception of himself and his Government. Enter Freundel Stuart as Prime Minister following Thompson’s untimely death and the DLP almost immediately makes a sharp 180 degree turn. From being refreshingly media-friendly, the DLP became distant, hostile, and contemptuous.
Instead of repeatedly accusing the media of having an anti-DLP agenda and practising a policy of non-engagement, it would have been more beneficial had the DLP maintained the Thompson policy of constructive media engagement through holding quarterly Press conferences, promptly returning calls from journalists with answers to queries, and so forth. The current policy of hostility has done the DLP more harm than good.
Refusing to engage the media does not mean they will stop reporting on you. With or without you, the show always goes on.
The DLP should have discovered by now that relying almost exclusively on CBC has not helped its cause. Let’s be frank and realistic. CBC has a credibility issue. What it puts out as news is generally perceived as Government propaganda, regardless of which party is in power. Yet there are Government ministers who mistakenly believe that once they make the television news every night, they’ve got it made. Having served three frustrating years as news director there, I can write a bestseller on the subject.
In my three-decade-long association with the media, I have experienced first-hand the turbulent relationship between politicians and journalists –– from being detained in a hotel room and threatened by a Caribbean leader who had invited me for an interview but chose instead to give me a boring lecture on his dislike of journalists, and expected me to listen patiently, to being relentlessly hounded by a prime minister who, apparently influenced by an unfortunate case of name-carrying by a party yardfowl, thought I was hell-bent on bringing down his government.
I’ve survived these bruising battles, with no animosity, to tell the tale. I understand the political game very well. I have sat on both sides of the fence, and have worn the shoes of journalist and political adviser at different times. The beautiful thing about journalism, though, is that it provides a front row seat to witness and chronicle the rise and fall of politicians.
On their way up, most are generally pleasant and friendly. At the top, some become pompous and obnoxious because of the intoxication of power. On their way down, especially after being forced to swallow democracy’s humiliating pill of electoral defeat, they rediscover their politeness and humanity.
Needless to say, journalists always have the last laugh. Politicians come and go, but the journalist stays put, if he or she so chooses. Any wise politician who understands that the essence of politics is communication and that its effective management is key to moulding favourable perception, which is crucial for his or her success, would appreciate the value of cultivating a wholesome working relationship with the media.
As hard as it may be for politicians to admit, the media can make or break them, especially in the present Information Age. The media are super-influential because they are the source of most of the information citizens receive daily and use to form opinions and make decisions about people, places and things.
Whenever I sat as final decision maker in the editor’s chair, I was always conscious of the immense power in my hands and the distinct advantage I held over any politician. Wasn’t it the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who said that knowledge is power? He or she who sits in the editor’s chair and manages the daily production of information, which is the basis of knowledge, wields considerable power.
Few politicians have taken on the media and won. Even when they won, there wasn’t much to celebrate because it often turned out to be a pyrrhic victory with which this Government is most familiar. At any rate, it’s always the people who deliver the final verdict.
In Barbados, that verdict sometimes can be brutally harsh. When it comes to passing judgement on politicians in particular, Barbadian society is notorious for transforming a powerful somebody today into an insignificant nobody tomorrow, and then treating that person sometimes with utter contempt.
Those who have eyes to read and ears to hear should humbly take note.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: [email protected])