Jamaica @ 50: Reflections on Journalism and Independence

Media and the politics of polarisation 1973-1989

Claude Robinson

Sunday, July 29, 2012    

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Second in a three-part series

ADDRESSING the annual conference of the People's National Party (PNP) in October 1981, Michael Manley explained that one of the reasons for some of the reverses his Administration suffered in the 1970s was that the party's multi-class foundation had crumbled.

“The class alliance broke down completely. In the end, there was no class alliance,” he told delegates. 'In the end', of course, was a reference to the massive defeat in the 1980 general election — the most violent and socially divisive electoral contest since adult suffrage in 1944.

Mr Manley would elaborate on the theme later in a December 22, 1986 Newsweek interview with Knolly Moses, the Trinidadian journalist who now lives in Jamaica.

Asked what he would do differently if he got another turn at the wicket, the former prime minister said: “I learned that I miscalculated the society's capacity to manage the amount of change that we attempted. Some of the government intervention we tried wasn't effective. Our quarrel with the private sector was destructive.”

Michael Manley became leader of the PNP in 1969 on the retirement of his father and a founder of the PNP, Norman Washington Manley.

On his departure from the political scene, Norman Manley declared, with pride, that his generation had accomplished its mission of achieving political independence and charged the new generation of leaders with a new mandate of “reconstructing the social and economic society and life of Jamaica”.

The younger Manley was elected prime minister in 1972, ousting the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) which formed the Government during the first 10 years of Independence. Under the JLP in the 1960s, the economy grew at an average rate of six per cent per year, yet Manley and the PNP won the election on a 'Better Must Come' campaign.

The PNP victory was explained, in part, by the fact that the impressive growth did not address fundamental problems of economic dependency, poverty, and a class structure in which social status and economic influence were largely determined by race and skin colour. Hence, the social and economic life of the country had to be reconstructed.

Against that background, I gave up a potentially promising academic career teaching journalism at my alma mater, Carleton University in Canada, and joined the new Administration in August 1973 as press secretary to the prime minister because I embraced the possibility and the urgency of the transformation.

Initially, the job of getting space and sympathetic attention in the media for the major policy initiatives the Government was introducing in rapid succession was relatively easy.

For starters, Manley was, without doubt, the most effective communicator in Jamaican politics. His spellbinding speech-making set him apart; his ability to reach and hold a television audience enabled him to influence mass audiences; his ability to persuade people in small groups was honed over years at the trade union bargaining table.

Further, there was broad agreement among significant elements in all social strata that Jamaica had to change and had to expand opportunity for those who have been traditionally excluded. Dark-skinned middle-class Jamaicans found new openings in commerce and the public service.

Democratic socialism changed the game

Things began to change after the PNP announced a recommitment to its foundation principles of democratic socialism in 1974, at about the time Tanzania's 'socialist' president Julius K Nyerere was on a state visit. At the same time the PNP was rebuilding its grassroots base emphasising political mobilisation.

In addition, the PNP under Manley's leadership pursued a vigorous policy of nonalignment in international politics and pushed an agenda for a more equitable and fairer global trading system broadly described as the New International Economic Order (NIEO).

Like it or not, however, these activities linked Manley and the PNP with the socialist and “anti-imperialist” forces of the world.

Another major development in 1974 must be added to the equation. That was the year Edward Seaga succeeded Hugh Shearer as JLP leader. There has always been conjecture about the official line that Mr Shearer volunteered his resignation; another view was that he was encouraged to do so following the defeat of 1972.

In any event, Mr Seaga immediately began to play a more activist role as leader of the opposition and cast himself as the person to reverse the direction taken by Manley. And so, for the first time since the birth of the modern political movement in the 1940s, political divisions in Jamaica reflected the East-West conflict between communism and capitalism.

The rivalry was far more bitter and intense than the give-and-take between the elder Manley and JLP founder Sir Alexander Bustamante. And, of course, there was none of the warmth and camaraderie between Shearer and Michael who had both grown to national prominence as leaders of the trade union movement.

The rivalry would play out in both the international and national media. A New York Times story that described Mr Seaga as President Ronald Reagan's “closest ally” in the Caribbean and Mr Manley as his “leftist foe” captured the mood of the period.

In the relatively small national media market of the 1970s, the tense political polarisation of the period was particularly reflected in The Gleaner, on the one hand, and the state-owned Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) and (to a lesser extent) the Daily News which had been acquired by the Government after becoming insolvent.

Opposition Leader Seaga and the JLP saw the JBC as a hostile Government mouthpiece which he once described as “a political sewer pit”. Not surprisingly, the new Government — after the 1980 election — closed the Daily News and separated most of the JBC newsroom staff from their jobs.

On the other hand, The Gleaner was seen by Manley's Government as hostile to the social reforms and the increasing role of the state in the economy. So it was regarded as part of a wider 'conspiracy' to undermine the legitimacy of a Government that the Jamaican business elite and Washington did not like.

The polarisation was particularly intense after 1976 when the PNP was re-elected and appeared more radical.

Columnists like Wilmot Perkins, David D’Costa, Morris Cargill, (sometimes writing as ‘Thomas Wright’) and John Hearne were particularly tough on Manley, the PNP and democratic socialism. The battle lines were drawn.

The late Professor Carl Stone, the much respected pollster and academic, in a column titled ‘Mafia Politics’ published on September 4, 1978 explained that he had, in fact, been asked to write for The Gleaner to bring some semblance of balance.

“I started to write for The Gleaner in 1975 as a result of an agreement between Prime Minister Michael Manley and Mr Ashenheim [Gleaner chairman] in the early stages of the political fight between the PNP and The Gleaner. Pressures from the PNP led The Gleaner to open up its columns to someone with a view sympathetic to a socialist approach to public policy,” Stone wrote.

Despite that background, Professor Stone said he came under attack from “fanatics” in the PNP who disliked his independent approach to both polling and writing.

John Hearne, a close family friend of the Manleys who, in fact, worked at Jamaica House with us for a time, described himself in a March 18, 1977 column as an “unrepentant, convinced Democratic Socialist” who supports “equality of opportunity and a fair distribution of wealth”.

His worry was that the ideal of social change was open to “perversion by the unscrupulous and their foolish violent followers”. He saw Jamaica descending into chaos if “Michael Manley — a decent man — is tricked out of office by the perverters of the ideal in his party.” The 'perverters' were on both the left and the right.

How much of the 1970s was 'miscalculation' and how much was 'manipulation' for perverse reasons? That's a question to be explored.





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