Before he entered elective politics and was chosen to represent the urban constituency of St Michael Central in the 2008 general election, Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett spent some time working in the media in two different roles.
He served as a television news anchor at the state-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and then as an on-air announcer on Starcom Network’s VOB radio station, where he gained some popularity among a more mature audience for playing oldie goldies.
With this background, one naturally would expect that Mr Blackett would demonstrate a better understanding than most of his Democratic Labour Party (DLP) colleagues, except for two others, of the role of the media in a free and democratic society where the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, is constitutionally enshrined.
The two exceptions referred to are Minister of Culture Steven Lashley who served in his younger years as a news reporter at CBC and Senator Irene Sandiford-Garner, Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, who worked in journalism at the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) and the Nation.
Last Sunday evening, at the second conference in the DLP’s current FACTS campaign in the build-up to the next general election less than one year away, a fired-up Mr Blackett ripped into the media, including Barbados TODAY, labelling them “another tier of opposition in this country” besides the parliamentary Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
“We love you all,” he told the applauding partisan audience, referring to journalists covering the event, “but you have to call a spade a spade. We have been struggling . . . since we came to office in 2008, from the time we walked into the doors of Government Headquarters on Bay Street, we have had to contend with the majority of the media.”
The suggestion is that the majority of the media are hostile to the present DLP administration while a few are friendly. Anytime a Barbadian politician refers to the media in such terms, it means that he or she is not happy with the kind of coverage they are receiving, which is a usual complaint from ruling parties.
But portraying the government of the day in a positive light is not the role of media; that is the role of the Government Information Service and CBC, which happens to be state-controlled and is expected to tow the line. The independent media’s role, in the Western democratic tradition, is to serve as a watchdog holding the government of the day accountable and ensuring that it does not abuse the power entrusted to it by the citizens.
It is an inherently adversarial role and relationship which will bring the media into conflict with the government from time to time. It therefore should never be the aspiration of any media house, certainly those which understand the history of the Fourth Estate, to become the mouthpiece of any administration. When a government is critical of the media, it means the media are doing their job.
What the media owes every government, as it owes every other stakeholder, is a commitment to be fair and balanced. However, doing so requires the cooperation of the particular stakeholder. The DLP initially had a good working relationship with the media based on mutual respect under the late Prime Minister David Thompson.
He ensured that lines of communication were always open both through his practice of holding quarterly televised news conferences and also by being easily accessible to reporters. Unfortunately, all of this came to a screeching halt when Mr Thompson died in October 2010 and was succeeded by current Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
It would have been better if Mr Blackett, at least, had convinced his leader about the importance of engaging the media on a regular basis to ensure that Government’s story was effectively told. Never once did Mr Blackett say, at least not publicly, that pursuing a policy of deafening silence which is what the media have had to contend with since 2010 was self-defeating. We live in the media and information age where openness is expected.
Despite his media bashing, at least Mr Blackett was unexpectedly complimentary of Barbados TODAY. “A lovely paper, a lovely paper,” he described us. “I call it the night time Nation.” We are naturally pleased that he too has discovered the wisdom of reading at night instead of waiting until the next day to read stale news.
We couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement.