“Is the legacy media still ‘independent and fearless’?” Noble looks at politicians and the media

Every politician who has tasted power, and many who counted for little, has gone to war with the media. If they didn’t, that would signal that journalists were not doing their jobs, that they were too busy prostrating to power to do their duty to country.” Raffique Shah, 30 March 2013.

The media does more than report the news of the world and local events. It influences our world view and distortions may arise if the picture presented is unrepresentative of the reality.

We see it in the coverage of the ongoing US protests, where the focus is placed on actions of the small proportion of looters amidst the mass voices against police brutality. Subtle non-verbal cues have been shown to influence voting outcomes (Anastasio et al, 1999).

Photo: A man prepares to smash a store window during riots sparked by the killing of unarmed, handcuffed black American, George Floyd, in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020.

It is important to examine the recent statement by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley about the ‘agenda’ of the local media and their firm rebuttal. Is Shah’s statement valid?

There have been two seminal historical events that can shed light on these queries. We can also look at other incidents before deciding whether or not the media is still independent.

Dr Eric Williams’ famous burning of the Guardian newspaper, as part of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins of Colonialism’ on 22 April 1960 in the fight for Chaguaramas is instructive and resonates in the light of the recent Venezuelan discussion. Palmer (2006) describes the shenanigans then of both the UK and US governments.

The 23 April Guardian editorial, in response,  described Dr Williams as a ‘Hitler’ in the making. This was the culmination of the battle waged between Dr Williams, aided by CLR James, and the Guardian.

The opposition party split with Simbhoonath Capildeo describing Lionel Seukeran, Faris Al Rawi’s grandfather, and other opposition politicians of ‘being traitors’ because of their support of Dr Williams.

It is important to note that at the time, the DLP was not a purely Indian party but was really a coalition comprising whites (nine of the 29 Executive members), Hindus and other minority groups (Ryan,1991). The battle for public opinion was at the heart of this episode.

Photo: Late former prime minister Dr Eric Williams.

Was the Roman Catholic church’s attempt to undermine Dr Williams partially the reason for the birth and rise of the Pentecostal wing, which arrived in and about 1956?  Would there have been an Express in 1967, after the Guardian’s pre-emptive purchase of the Daily Mirror (1963-66)?

The 1996 ‘constructive dismissal’ of Mr Aldwyn Chow and resignation of editors from the Guardian irrevocably changed the media landscape. Jones P Madeira in explaining his resignation cited the role of public opinion in ‘fighting a good fight in the name of freedom of the press’.

In those circumstances, the 1987 editorial policy under the new owners was publicised: “The Guardian must maintain its independence without forgetting the fact that it is part of a conglomerate; that it should not be politically aligned…that such tensions as might arise…should not result in an adversarial posture…”

Mr Basdeo Panday, ten weeks in office, had accused the PNM of plotting violence, a charge not supported by Minister Joseph Theodore. He banned Guardian’s Ms Nicole Duke-Westfield from covering a meeting with the then Venezuelan Ambassador to apply pressure. He took no calls nor gave interviews with them.

In the battle, he asked: “Does the freedom of the press include the right to publish lies, half-truths and innuendoes?”

The Guardian photograph of him with a glass in hand and the headline ‘Chutney Rising’ were deemed ‘racist’, triggering Chow’s dismissal.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)

The domino in this phase was the fight taken up by the Express’ publisher. The Express called the Guardian ‘spineless’. The fight continued over the US- promoted ‘Ship Rider Agreement’ (which allowed US Drug Officials to enter territorial waters in pursuit of drug traffickers) which Mr Panday signed, breaking from a Caricom arrangement.

Then came the slugfest over the proposed Green Paper, designed to manage the media, which ended in a 2000 court order for Mr Panday to pay TT$696,854 to Ken Gordon for calling him a ‘pseudo-racist’ on Indian Arrival Day 1997.

The context of the accusation: “… Pseudo-racists who have divided society to maintain political power and even now are doing so in the hope of political survival. The Ken Gordons who want to maintain his monopolistic advantage over his competitors in the media. My brothers and sisters, they come in many shapes and sizes.”

Douglas Mendes, in court for Ken Gordon, said: “That is what free expression is all about whether the government likes it or not. The Prime Minister is entitled to respond, but he doesn’t have the liberty to defame anyone…You are a politician, you have to take your licks…

“Can it be possible that the law would allow any government official to respond to any legitimate, constitutionally-protected criticism by defaming that person in the most vile of manners?

Photo: Former Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon.

“That is what this defence is saying: ‘If you criticise my Government then I am entitled to defame you, even though my attack on you really has no connection whatsoever to my criticism’.”

Gordon, on the stand, disclosed that the editorial policy of the Express was left largely to the editor-in-chief but made the following point:

“…the media is in the business of reporting news…When someone holding as powerful a position and as responsible an office as the prime minister makes such serious charges against a law-abiding citizen who makes it known that he tries to live within the law, that is big news.

“… If in publishing that news, the media run the risk of litigation, that is a chance [they] sometimes have to take. I know because I’ve been there… the public right to know has an almost equal importance; and this is an assessment that has to be made on a case-by-case basis.

“In this instance, my concern [is]… to send a powerful message, to not only this prime minister but all prime ministers, that they are not above the law and they must respect the rights of ordinary citizens.”

What is the role of the publisher in ensuring that the newspaper is independent? Was the decision to fire Chow and the decision to defy Panday responsible for the change in audience fortunes for these newspapers? What has been the effect of litigation on the reporting of news and voicing of opinions?

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley fields questions from the media.
(Copyright AFP)

Of a different ilk are the tirades of Mr Patrick Manning who famously warned about ‘the spirit that moves him’ relative to his relations with the media.

We should not forget those who came from the media into the various arms of the government or sat in the media in between their stints in Parliament. Neither ought we to forget the ‘houses for the media’ argument.

Remember it was Denyse Renne, then of the Guardian, who broke the 2012 Section 34 story, tumbling the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration.

Is the legacy media still ‘independent and fearless’? With the ascendancy of social media blogs, is Dr Rowley’s gaze upon the legacy media appropriate?

Is the rise of social media good for public opinion and democracy?

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