Columns

Jamaica @ 50: Reflections on Journalism and Independence (1)

Claude Robinson

Sunday, July 22, 2012    

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(First in a three-part series)

THE journey of the development of Jamaica's news media from the first newspapers in the 1770s to today's excitingly diverse and competitive landscape has been one of steady, if sometimes uncertain, progress.

Annual reports by rating agencies like Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have consistently ranked Jamaica among the countries with the highest levels of press freedom, outperforming much older democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom. Indeed, if the economy was getting similar ratings the country would not now be again seeking a lifeline through a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

In this, the first in a three-part series of reflections on the 50 years since Independence — a period that coincides with my life as a media practitioner — my general conclusion is that media and journalism have contributed positively to Jamaican modernisation and the development of democratic institutions.

However, there are questions as to whether we have done as well as we might and how much of the blame should media institutions and practitioners take for our underachievement in so many areas of national life. Have we been sufficiently vigilant in holding governments accountable, in empowering citizens and upholding professional standards?

My life in media began at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) in April 1963 when I was hired as a trainee reporter in the newsroom, then under the direction of the legendary Hector Bernard, a man with an unshakeable commitment to freedom of the press and a journalism that was independent of partisan political interference or undue commercial influence.

Jamaica was less than a year into Independence and I was less than two years out of Calabar High School, armed with a Higher School Certificate and a readiness for the future, even with no clear idea as to what that future might be.

The president of the Calabar Old Boys' Association, consistent with what he felt was his responsibility to guide promising new school leavers into professions, had arranged for me to start at the bottom of the audit firm, Heron Thorburn and Company. Under the guidance of Philmore Ogle, a man of impeccable integrity, I made progress and had visions of gaining my professional qualifications and becoming a partner in the firm.

It was not to be. Adrian Rodway, my history teacher at Calabar — which celebrates 100 years this year — told me of the opening at JBC where he was working at the time. He felt that, temperamentally, I was more suited to journalism than auditing.

JBC Radio began in June 1959 after the People's National Party (PNP) Government led by Norman Manley established the Corporation as a public service broadcaster, modelled after the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). In fact, advisers from the CBC were involved in the formation and early operation.

In the early years, the station lived up to its broad remit of providing a wide range of local cultural and entertainment programming and pioneered the development of radio news. (TV came in August 1963.)

The late and fondly remembered journalist John Maxwell, summarised it this way in a column (June 21, 2009) in the Observer to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the JBC: "The launch of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) transformed Jamaican culture, theatre, music, politics, journalism, and the Jamaican language." He did not exaggerate.

The men and women at the Corporation were brimming with confidence and creative energy about the potential of broadcasting to contribute to a new national debate about the meaning of Independence and to offer a mirror to the society to reflect who we are; it also held out a beacon to guide us to where we can go.

Those were the days of the Lou and Ranny Show starring Jamaica's first lady of drama and the Jamaican language, the legendary Louise Bennett, and the great comedic genius, Ranny Williams. It was a period when JBC's big production studio three helped to pioneer the recording industry and helped launch the careers of many young artistes at a time when opportunities in the fledgling recording industry were not widely available.

A collision of independent journalism and partisan politics

Very soon, however, I would learn that the independent journalism championed by Bernard and practised by news professionals could not co-exist with the desire of governments and political administrations to constrain the freedom of state-owned media.

From our perspective, the JLP Government under Sir Alexander Bustamante, which led the country into Independence, wanted a tame newsroom that would not even think of barking at a politician, let alone biting him from time to time. So much for the watchdog role of the press! On the other hand, the Government saw JBC as a repository for PNP sympathisers who should be removed or sidelined.

Further, the expensive business model involved in an organisation that had departments for original drama, music and religion would soon bump up against harsh economic realities as governments were either unwilling or unable to bear the financial burden of a broadcasting service that was not designed to be dependent on advertising.

The volatile cocktail of political hostility and financial stress would soon explode into a crisis.

This came in 1964 when the JBC board dismissed two newsroom workers, Adrian Rodway (the same one who encouraged me to trade accounting for journalism) and George Lee (the current PNP mayor of the Portmore Municipality).

Lee wrote, and Rodway edited for airing, a news story about the breakdown of wage negotiations between the Corporation and the National Workers' Union (NWU) which represented a majority of workers. While the story was, admittedly, factually correct, the board insisted on dismissal because it did not have their input.

The ensuing strike was to last 14 weeks, one of the longest in our history, and would forever change relations between the Corporation and successive governments. It laid the basis for what the late Wycliffe Bennett, a former general manager, once described as the tendency of governments to see JBC as a prize of victory at the polls.

More broadly, the dispute and strike had other historical significance: The strike broke a class barrier in industrial relations as it was the first white-collar strike in the country's modern history. This would later echo in subsequent strike action over the years by professional workers such as doctors, policemen, teachers, and so on.

Another psychological barrier was crossed with the fact that sympathy for the issues behind the strike and strikers was widespread in the middle classes (for the first time). Finally, the strike — in a very tangible way — launched the political career of Michael Manley, whose persona and image had long been known to sugar and bauxite workers, but not to the middle classes.

Eventually, the strike was settled with a landmark ruling from a Commission of Enquiry that determined that Lee and Rodway were wrongfully dismissed and established the right of workers to be compensated for wrongful dismissal.

However, there was massive redundancy. I was one of the casualties (on the principle of 'last-in-first-out') but was fortunate to find journalistic work at The Gleaner because Hector Bernard, apparently wanting to see me return to accounting, made an intervention on my behalf with the legendary Gleaner editor, Theodore Sealy.

At The Gleaner, I would learn another life-long lesson about Jamaica's power structure. I reported a straight-forward story that the Ministry of Labour had appointed a tribunal to enquire into a workplace. In naming the members, I listed them in order of chairman, worker's representative, employers' representative. My supervisor, Ulric Simmonds, calmly explained that at The Gleaner, worker is never placed before employer!

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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