By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” May 12, 2023)
“As a rule, the journalist must always view the official story with suspicion. It is dangerous for journalists to get close to people in power.” — Legendary American journalist George Seldes.
“The fourth estate’s duty, responsibility and obligation are to refrain from taking the words of the president and high government officials as Holy Writ.” — Iconic American journalist I.F. Stone.
“Journalists have fundamentally changed the function of the profession. There is among the great majority of mainstream reporters no longer even the pretence of independence from the powers they are supposed to cover. They openly serve now as the clerks of the political and administrative cliques they “report” upon. They give the impression they think this is their proper role.” — Independent journalist Patrick Lawrence.
By the fourth estate, we mean the mass media and the journalist who work therein. The media’s role is to gather the facts and report them as fairly as is humanely possible. Since government exercises excessive control over people’s lives, the media must ensure transparency. Increasingly though, both here and abroad, the media seems to have lost its way. Rather than move from the premise that the power elite always attempts to mislead the public, the press is increasingly guilty of prostitution, and citizens seem to go along.
For example, when I taught American government as an adjunct lecturer at Medgar Evers College in New York, year after year, most students answered incorrectly the following question: “Historically, governments were the strongest protectors and defenders of the rights and freedoms of citizens?” Painfully, they found out that the answer was false.
In media, the ideal situation is to have more voices, not less. The challenge is to encourage and ensure fair unprejudiced reportage of the facts. Unfortunately, a large section of the established media in St. Vincent, as distinct from talk radio, fails the test for objective, probing, transparent reporting. They must remember that reporting one side of the question is worse than nothing. It becomes propaganda.
If you are a genuine media personality and your weekly take on radio is derisively labelled “Yes, Mr. Prime Minister,” you ought to pause and ask yourself what you are doing. Is your intention to enlighten and educate the citizenry or dumb them down? If you aggressively quiz callers but unashamedly surrender your programme to the most powerful in the state administration, you are doing a disservice to your integrity and those who tune in for unbiased factual information.
Or take another example. You cannot build up your bona fide for accurate reporting by parroting officialdom. Your reporting cannot become so bland and predictable that it’s indistinguishable from the organ of the ruling regime. When one section of the population begins to mistake your masthead for the “Star”, the defunct paper of the Labour Party, you are developing a credibility problem. This tendency should be particularly concerning for directors concerned with circulation in a country drifting increasingly away from the ruling party.
Some media personalities, content with the daily diet of government-issued news fair, have resigned from active participation in the national discourse. They prefer to dwell on safe and uncontentious issues.
That’s the state of media in SVG today.
The media is only helpful if it is robust. The media has a critical role to play in informing, entertaining and educating the population. The press can never be sure of the truth. In fact, none of us has a monopoly on the whole truth. Therefore, we have to listen to and give voice to everybody. In the end, critical thought can only be achieved when citizens are encouraged to think for themselves. They will do this when an arena of debate is inculcated where people learn to question.
Because the hardest thing to do is to challenge authority in the home, school, church, business or state institutions, special attention has to be given to developing a culture of debate. The power elite may not want this, but the media have a special responsibility.
Beginning in the 1990s, the democratisation of media brought an end to the monopoly held by the state-run radio station. Thereafter, multiple radio stations emerged, and talk radio took hold. Long gone were the days when James Mitchell and PR Campbell turned off the “Searchlight”, an informative discussion and call-in programme on state-owned radio, in a vain attempt to control the narrative heard by Vincentians.
Because of our small economy, the government continues to have an overarching reach, but the tight grip of old has loosened. However, a deeper look may disclose that the government has maintained a tight hold on what makes news and how it is reported. Too many established media houses and their contributors reduce themselves to being stenographers of the ruling elite.
Some may scuff at the grinding cynicism of Two Cool Chris, the probing and often insightful questions of Luke Boyea and Jagger, the fun quest of Bing Joseph, the informed meanderings of Stephen Joachim, the neutral consistency of the Vincentian newspaper, the raw sensationalism of Selly Clarke’s The News and the dogged professionalism of Kenton Chance’s iWitness News. But imagine a far more intellectual wasteland we would dwell in if it were not for their voices and willingness to allow citizens to speak their truth no matter how uninformed it often is.
We have intractable problems: unemployment and underemployment of 50-plus percent, poverty approaching 40%, sexploitation of our young men and women, increasing homelessness and begging, corruption in high places, high cost of living, runaway inflation, a ramshackle civil service, a brutal police force that is increasingly alienated from the citizens it swore to protect and serve, government disrespect and disregard for court orders and declarations, galloping crime and citizen insecurity, a looming mental health crisis made worse by the dismissal of hundreds of public and private sector worker because they refused to take an experimental vaccine, and a failing health care system. Compounding these problems is the sad reality of an uncaring government that, like a heavy load, sits on and stifles the aspirations of the country.
If ever we need a crusading, thoughtful, enterprising, probing media to step forward and do its work free of fear and favour, that time is now.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].
On target Jomo. An accurate and truthful assessment our our local media. And the few who speak the truth or expose the incumbent’s misdeeds, are frowned upon as troublemakers. But let’s remain ‘troublemakers’ for justice, fairness, transparency, equality and truth.
What a world we live in eh?
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