“It is often the case though that persons in leadership positions disclaim accountability and responsibility: the school Principal claims she can’t lead her school because it is ‘really the Ministry’ who is in charge; the Public Service Commission claims it can’t do anything, because it is ‘really the Director of Personnel Administration’; the President claims that he is not responsible for his housing allowance, because it is ‘really the Chief Personnel Officer’.
“So it is not surprising that Trinidadians and Tobagonians do not trust their institutions: the President, the Government, the Parliament, the Judiciary… and the Media!
“The 2016 Solution by Simulation survey commissioned and published by the Express revealed that 21% of respondents had confidence in the Media, down from 41% in 2015. The Media came in higher than only the Judicial System (14%) and below Parliament (25%) and even the Police (22%)!”
The following is the World Press Freedom Day address by Dr Terrence W Farrell, economist and author, at the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) annual dinner and awards on 3 May 2017, which was broken into two parts by Wired868:
In our society, in virtually every sphere, all around, there is underachievement and indeed in some cases, failure. WASA fails to supply water adequately to the population. WASA digs up the road to repair a burst main and fails to resurface it, leaving an unmarked, gaping hole in the road dangerous to motorists and pedestrians.
The Public Service Commission doesn’t know how many employees there are in the Public Service. The Police Service Commission can’t appoint a Police Commissioner.
The Judicial and Legal Services Commission appoints a judge who then tenders her resignation two weeks later for material non-disclosure and is then reappointed/restored to her former position as Chief Magistrate.
The President appoints a retired judge to the Integrity Commission who accepts the instrument of appointment and then promptly resigns because he didn’t get the position promised to him.
There is yet another oil spill at Petrotrin. The Tobago ferry, just back from repairs, breaks down. State enterprises rack up huge debts and don’t perform, except to keep people employed.
Heritage buildings are torn down in Sangre Grande. Residents of Ohioho protest impassable roads.
It’s not that there isn’t failure in other countries. There certainly is. But for us, these items of news recur year after year.
It is possible to write the headlines for next year’s Carnival today: “Bacchanal with Panorama competition”, “Bacchanal with Calypso Monarch”, “X takes Y to court to protest his or her exclusion from something or the other.”
But I can do no better than Paolo Kernahan who, only in [last] weekend’s Guardian newspaper, wrote:
When I began my working life as a journalist nearly 27 years ago, the stories I covered then were much the same as they are now. Rampant crime, unchallenged corruption, political bacchanal and intrigue, brap, brap, brap… We repeat the same failures, promulgate the same political ideologies and continue to cavort in an orgy of laziness, entitlement syndrome and banality. (Guardian April 29th 2017)
Why? Why this seeming incapacity to fix things or to get things right the first time?
Why for example, after a Task Force determined that the London route was unprofitable for BWIA and caused CAL to withdraw from that route, a new board under a new government reintroduces the route and proceeds to lose money all over again?
Why is it that things that can be avoided with planning, foresight, diligence and timely decision-making seem invariably to result in a crisis—e.g. natural gas shortfall for critical industries in Point Lisas, arrangements for a ferry for Tobago cargo, selection of a high court judge?
The standard explanations for these behaviours seemed to me to be convenient and inadequate. One common response is that it is usually ‘political’—that is, if one examines these fracases, one is likely to find the hand or agenda of some politician in Government, or in Opposition.
Another reaction is that we are a ‘banana republic’ where there are no standards, there is authoritarian leadership, and anything goes!
Some suggest that we are all just selfish and corrupt and everyone seeks his own interest at the expense of the rest of the society. “All ah we tief!”
It is certainly true everywhere that people are selfish. But serious societies regulate individual selfishness and punish corruption where the public interest may be adversely affected by selfish behaviour.
Why then do we just shrug our shoulders at the corrupt Licensing Officer or Customs Officer or Police Officer, or indeed the malingering worker?
“Boy! Dem fellas not easy nah!” And we move on.
It is certainly not that people are stupid. Some have attended the best schools here and abroad—which is not to say that they may not be ignorant. But I will come to that.
Sometimes persons are placed in positions which are beyond their knowledge and capabilities; they may be given ministerial office or chairmanship of a state enterprise. In some cases these persons do not know that they do not know—I call that ‘two-storey ignorance’—and proceed to make terrible mistakes.
In other cases, they accept the position because of the status it confers but they know in their hearts that they will accomplish little or nothing during their tenure and set about to enjoy the perks.
I think the explanation of these failures, our chronic underachievement, is cultural. It is too pervasive, too chronic to be otherwise.
In my book: “We Like It So? The Cultural Roots of Economic Underachievement in Trinidad and Tobago”, I identified eight (8) attributes:
- Amusement and Feteing
- Status, Respect and Respectability
- Rules Authority and Contingent Rule Following
- Risk Taking and Non Possession
- Conflict and Conflict Avoidance
- Intergenerational Thinking
- Corruption and Trickery
I am particularly interested in the values, attitudes and behaviours of our society’s elite because it is the elite who by and large are responsible or ought to be responsible for the place. It is—or must be—the elite who set the moral tone, the work ethic, the quality of decision-making and who recognise the importance of establishing and realising a vision for the society.
The failures alluded to earlier are ultimately failures of leadership. By leaders, I mean those in positions of power, authority or influence who are entrusted to run our institutions, to plan, and to make decisions.
These are our society’s elite, persons in positions of responsibility and who are accountable or ought to be accountable for their actions and decisions.
It is often the case though that persons in leadership positions disclaim accountability and responsibility: the school Principal claims she can’t lead her school because it is ‘really the Ministry’ who is in charge; the Public Service Commission claims it can’t do anything, because it is ‘really the Director of Personnel Administration’; the President claims that he is not responsible for his housing allowance, because it is ‘really the Chief Personnel Officer’.
Many are willing to accept and occupy office. Few are prepared to fall on their swords when things go wrong! Occasionally, some are thrown under the bus!
So it is not surprising that Trinidadians and Tobagonians do not trust their institutions: the President, the Government, the Parliament, the Judiciary… and the Media!
The 2016 Solution by Simulation survey commissioned and published by the Express revealed that 21% of respondents had confidence in the Media, down from 41% in 2015.
The Media came in higher than only the Judicial System (14%) and below Parliament (25%) and even the Police (22%)!
I have linked poor leadership in various institutions to underachievement and in some cases failure. Has the Media too underachieved? Has the Media failed?
Or is the Media an exception, an industry where its leaders—publishers and editors and heads of news—and media workers operate counter-culturally?
Culture—values, attitudes and behaviours—operates in particular contexts. We know that the industry has changed markedly since the 1990s. Before then, the two daily newspapers were private but there was one television station and two radio outlets.
What is the context of the Media like today?
First, media outlets are privately owned and need to produce a return in a hyper-competitive industry in a very small market and high entry costs for newspapers and broadcasters and with some degree of regulation.
Advertising revenues from Government and state enterprises are critical to viability. Costs must be kept down, limiting payment of good salaries, the training of journalists, and the use of up to date technology.
There is high turnover of journalists, some of whom move into PR as ‘Communications Advisors’ and then may return to media.
Second, media owners and editors are part of the business elite in a society where status is conferred by relationship to persons in power whether in Government or Opposition. Access to information gives media owners a degree of power and influence within the validating elite who may assume that they have inside information because of their positions in the Media.
Third, acknowledging that the Media does not attract upper and upper middle class recruits because of the low levels of remuneration, media workers are drawn from the major ethnic groups of the society and therefore come with their prejudices and preconceptions. Education levels are inadequate to the functions that need to be performed.
Journalists are managed not any differently from manual workers/labourers elsewhere. The work ethic of the newspapers, given the low salaries, permits low productivity and diligence, which is reflected in over-reliance on PR material, failure to question or challenge sources, and moonlighting.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read the second and final part of Dr Terrence Farrell’s address to the TTPBA, which deals with evaluating the media, the ‘we like it so syndrome’ in the media, and ‘improving the media’.