Judged by the standards to which it holds other institutions of public trust, one would’ve expected a clear and unambiguous media response to the Sunday Express report that a significant number of journalists and media workers were beneficiaries of public housing on the basis of personal recommendations from ministers of the People’s Partnership Government.
Obviously, the troubling issue raised by Asha Javeed’s report was not the right of media people to apply for public housing. Every citizen has the right to apply.
The salient point is whether media workers selected for highly competitive public housing had enjoyed an unfair advantage over other citizens. And if so, why?
The public interest issues surrounding the distribution of state housing are long-standing and steeped in the ills of political patronage: nepotism, electoral padding, discrimination, process abuse and corruption in the distribution of public resources.
What makes Javeed’s report newsworthy is the possibility that media workers may now constitute a favoured group for state housing.
For media workers who played by the rules and received houses, the report has been galling.
Darren Bahaw, a news editor at the Trinidad Guardian, was prompt in providing details of his case and offering to open up his personal files to public scrutiny. Others have taken to social media to pour out their hurt and, in some cases, scorn upon a colleague who had dared to make them a subject of journalistic inquiry.
From the executive media floor, however, there has been only stoic silence on a matter with the potential to strike at the heart of media integrity and independence.
While the representative body for media workers, MATT, has put in a two cents’ worth of comment, the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA), representative body for media owners and managers, has been completely missing in action.
There has been no expression of concern for the reputation of their staff or their respective media houses, no call for an inquiry to determine whether the housing allocation to media workers stands up to scrutiny or fall down on favouritism, no anxiety to investigate possible conflicts of interests among staff who report on the very public officials to whom they are beholden for a housing recommendation.
This housing expose is only the latest in a string of ethical issues involving favours to media personnel by government officials.
Before this there were the lavish Christmas hampers personally distributed to working journalists by then PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar, foreign trips for journalists underwritten by her government, money stuffed into envelopes as pocket change for media teams covering her official trip to China, and so on.
Challenged on ethical grounds, the media has demonstrated an incredible inability to investigate its own actions beyond the most perfunctory manner. Its one avenue for arm’s length investigation, the Media Complaints Council, has collapsed apparently due to lack of funding support by publishers and broadcasters.
With the MCC has gone the media’s pledge of self-regulation made 20 years ago in response to the Panday administration’s threat of regulation.
In lurching from one ethical scandal to another, a curious narrative has taken root in newsrooms across the country.
Last week, its echo could be heard in the explanation by former Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal about why he exercised ministerial discretion in favour of media workers:
“I saw it as a difficult sector as well in terms of low wage, low salary workers and it was a sector that needed help. The people were not all media reporters who got houses. There were people who were photographers, script writers, production workers but they work in a media houses…”
In three sentences, he had identified the soft underbelly of the T&T media where the price of independence is too far above the means of too many.
The media management’s passive response to potentially damaging ethical breaches raises the question of its own complicity in facilitating the culture of perks.
In an industry where the majority of employees work for under TT$10,000 a month, it is probably easier to turn a blind eye to various forms of staff “subsidies” than to upgrade salaries and working conditions.
This is not to say that the media is short on cash. A recent compensation report on executive salaries in the media reveal a shocking gap in pay between rank-and-file staff and executive managers.
And yet, it is the journalists, photographers, videographers, sub-editors, technical editors, lay-out artists, graphic designers and newsroom staffers of every category who are the ones creating value for the media and the public every day.
Almost from the beginning, the media as an institution with constitutional rights and responsibilities, has been in conflict with the media as industry organised for profit.
In our own time, we have witnessed moments of high tension which, in some cases, have deepened the independence of the media while weakening it in others.
For us in T&T, the world is no longer that simple. Social media is coming into its own just at a time when traditional media is experiencing the consequences of its failure to invest in its own development.
Already, the lines between the two are being blurred to the extent that the public can scarcely recall where they first read about or saw a news event.
Into this increasingly undefined space has entered a multitude of media identities, each serving an agenda and many fighting for the same audience. The virtual cacophony will intensify until it, too, reaches the logical end to its own illogic and begins to change shape.
The battle for journalism is about to take a new turn in which much more than housing and free trips will be at stake.