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Noble: The media and public expectations; why public figures require more scrutiny

I am very grateful to both Earl Best and Cliff Bertrand for their extensive comments on my earlier piece.

Because their input raises important points, and because I am indeed a passionate democrat (as Earl described me), it is befitting that some response be provided. It is also important to allow Wired868, as a vehicle in the ‘new’ media wing, to free up the dialogue which is empowered by the comments from the readers. Opinions should not any longer be a one-way street.

Photo: A reporter on the job.

The context of my original remarks was the assertive, unwarranted behaviour of the police commissioner towards a young investigative reporter. I then sought to generalise to public figures as I had done when a certain businessman, who believes that he is an ‘untouchable’ and worthy of our unfailing obeisance, attacked a journalist who was previously his chief cheerleader (Express, 6 June 2018).

Best is right, my discussion did not separate the constituent parts of the media and therefore the nuances he presented were not discussed. I agree with Bertrand that there are public expectations and that on this hangs the credibility of the media. I will attempt to provide my thoughts on both these aspects for a more rounded view. I emphasise, however, that my views do not necessarily reflect the views of the women who now run Market Facts and Opinion (MFO); these are my personal views.

Having been in business circles for more than 40 years, arrogance is not upsetting to me. It is a feature, not a bug, in daily life among Trinidad’s elites. Many, without a scintilla of competence, strut and treat with disdain those they consider lowly folk. I am, however, moved by the clear and present danger that the present ‘war’ against crime represents. I have discussed that here and here.

I have noted: “The source of police power is the need for authority, but we must guard against abuse. The heart of criminal law is the degree of protection afforded to the accused. The innocent must be freed and the guilty punished. Guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. The Police cannot be judge, jury and executioner. We must respect our Police even if we do not love the enforcement.”

In another article, I wrote: “To rage against reasoned inquiry is not confidence-inducing. We ought not to compromise the role of the Police Complaints Authority, it preserves our confidence in the Police Service.”

Photo: Police officers arrest a UWI student during a protest at the school.

The danger may possibly be induced by arrogance, but of greater concern is the deleterious effect on our rights. Law enforcement is not a protection racket, but it is a sacred responsibility to society and our individual communities. We cannot make everything a litmus test of our commitment to fight crime.

Sadly, we do not recognise the evils of excessive state power until it turns against us since we laud it as a virtue when it is against ‘other’ people. Here, I stand with Bertrand in his view that the media should be ‘a voice for the voiceless’. In my opinion, the Skeete story was an attempt to reveal what appears to have been a ‘shakedown’ allegedly happening with a citizen.

Powerful people do not like inconvenient questions. As George Orwell said: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, everything else is public relations”.

Lasana Liburd would recall the dismissive ‘ask yuh mudda’, which hid the dirty truth that is/was FIFA’s business modus operandi. Remember when President Trump told Abby Phillip that she asks ‘too many stupid questions’ and we later found out that she was on the button when the Mueller investigation emerged? The 2019 Nobel Prize winner, Peter Handke, when questioned about his support for the genocidal Milosevic regime, retorted: “This is not the moment to answer ‘ignorant’ questions.”

Silence is the preference for powerful people. They discard legitimate queries, as La Vende’s in the Newsday, and characterise them as ‘stupid’. In this specific case, there is a possible physical danger because of the potential use of intimidating state force.

Best rightly points out re the Transformed Life Ministries’ raid, that some journalists are more important than others. In this article,  I agreed and asked: “Is embedding the media in an active crime scene acceptable? We appear so uncoordinated in conducting investigations but so slick in painting flattering pictures of our side of the story …

“The media has no responsibility to be the public relations arm for the police. It is therefore horrific and an act of bullying when a single journalist, Kejan Haynes, is singled out for ridicule in a press conference.”

Photo: Newsfeed on a smartphone. (by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels)

This is where the confluence and interaction of and between the publisher, the editor and the reporter become a major issue in the eyes of the public. Both Best and Bertrand are correct in identifying this. Where I differ from Bertrand is that this has a long history and the spectacle of Eric Williams burning a copy of the Trinidad Guardian in Woodford Square tells the tale of the Establishment using the media to set an agenda.

The currency of journalism is trust; the people always weigh in. Then they sided with Williams and twice in recent times, the Guardian has paid the price for their heavy hand in editorial and publisher errors.  We should always remember that good journalists are rebellious.

An important point to be made is the rise of ‘new media’, which enables us to escape the editorial gatekeepers. The legacy media—newspapers, radio and television—will be kept honest by the folk in the ‘new’ media. This is the essence of the discussion here.

In this lies a great danger: “The large problem for press freedom in a digital world is the ‘chilling’ of sources, who become unwilling to speak, due to the State and others’ ability to back-track communication and the widespread surveillance now possible. This compromises the ability to uncover wrongdoing and promote good governance.”

The other danger of new media not discussed in that article, but implicit in the discussion by Best and Bertrand, is the rise of analytics to determine what is important. They refer to it as ‘sensationalism’ or what will sell, but this problem is on steroids with the rise of Facebook and other new media channels.

They do not discuss a real problem that lurks in the local media: those journalists who have an eye on their next pay source coming from a government job. These journalists are easy to manipulate, and God help us if the editor is complicit or if it suits the commercial agenda of the publisher. Best is good at calling names and I can whistle.

“The powerful nature of public figures requires us to have an increased ability to scrutinise them.” (June 2018)

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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One comment

  1. Earl Best

    I came, I read, I concur…