Columns

Journalism in the public interest

Claude Robinson

Sunday, December 16, 2012    

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THE observance of Journalism Week (December 2-7) by the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) provided an opportunity for journalists and other media practitioners to reflect on what they do and whether it is always in the public interest.

Drawing on standard international practice, the Code of Practice of the PAJ defines the public interest as information aimed at "detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour; protecting public health and safety; and preventing the public being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation."

While the public interest is often harmed by the actions of private individuals and corporations, "exposing crime or serious misdemeanour" — particularly in the exercise of political power and use of public funds — has been the central issue for most practitioners, because it concerns accountability, good governance, and restraint in the exercise of power.

It is generally acknowledged that Jamaicans enjoy their constitutional protection of freedom of expression, with little let or hindrance; and the country consistently ranks in the top 10 per cent of countries across the globe. But freedoms must always be nurtured and protected and, in these times, the material conditions under which journalists work could threaten what obtains now.

That issue was put on the agenda last week by Jeremy Dear, former general secretary of the United Kingdom-based National Union of Journalism and guest of the PAJ for the week's observances. He argued that present-day conditions of corruption, poverty and fear across the globe were harming the ability of journalists to effectively fulfil their obligations to society.

"From Iraq to Colombia, from Syria to The Philippines, from the UK to Jamaica, there can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear," he said at a forum Tuesday, jointly sponsored by the PAJ and National Integrity Action, the anti-corruption pressure group led by Professor Trevor Munroe.

"The poverty and precarious employment of journalists around the world — low pay, the hire-and-fire culture — means journalism is too open to corruption, too reliant on payola or other forms of unethical assistance, and its independence is challenged and compromised," he said.

In Jamaica, journalism has never been a well-paid profession. It has been common to see journalists leaving the newsroom for higher-paying jobs in private public relations or government communication. The reverse trek hardly happens; and many of us older practitioners know of many instances in which journalists end their working lives in destitution.

But it is also true that young people are entering the profession with higher levels of academic training; and pay is a bit better — certainly more competitive — than in the so-called good old days.

Nevertheless, Jeremy Dear's central point is relevant to our situation. Payola has been a problem for a long time, especially in radio, where allegations have persisted of money passing from music producers and performers to on-air personalities to play certain records and keep others off the air. This is an issue that the Broadcasting Commission began to tackle recently.

Further, anecdotal evidence indicates similar practices in mainstream newspaper and broadcast journalism where practitioners are reportedly accepting money from special interests and powerful individuals to publish or withhold publication.

More broadly, the economic, technical and societal framework in which journalism is being practised today subjects journalists to new pressures, including the need to make a profit for shareholders in a global recession.

This, combined with the technological revolution and the constant multiplication of media outlets, creates an environment of extreme competition for audiences and advertisers.

These and related material conditions of contemporary journalism, particularly "unprotected commercial practice", do not offer the space to practise independent journalism, according to Dear.

"On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists' ability to do what society wants us to — to question, analyse, scrutinise," the British journalist said. According to Dear, this environment causes "self-censorship, fear and intimidation in media".

And, as Trevor Munroe said at the forum Tuesday, journalists in Jamaica are not doing enough follow-up stories to keep corruption cases on the front burner.

He mentioned two cases: In the first, British bridge builder Mabey and Johnson pleaded guilty a long time ago to bribing several foreign officials. In the other, the Supreme Court of the Turks and Caicos Islands issued an order in April seeking to recover millions of dollars that convicted fraudster David Smith supposedly donated to the PNP and the JLP as campaign contributions. These stories just wither away.

So what is the remedy? First, low pay cannot justify corrupt practices in any occupational group — journalists, police, politicians or anyone else. Corrupt payments must be identified for what they are, namely, an inducement to secure an improper outcome.

At one level, the remedy involves adherence to the ethics of the profession. For years, the PAJ and the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) have been talking about establishing a Media Complaints Commission with an independent panel to hear complaints from the public against media for violations of their own codes.

The PAJ is on board but the owners are dragging their feet, arguing that they have internal processes and worrying about an external body having influence. The continued delay is inexcusable and the public should insist on it. The guardians cannot guard themselves.

Meanwhile, Sandrea Falconer, the minister with responsibility for information, said journalists have to broaden their scope beyond the political directorate when tackling corruption.

"The press has strongly criticised politicians of both parties over the years and no law has been enacted to stop that. But I say to you, do not stop with just politicians and public officials. What about those with 'big money' in the society; those with strength of cash who in these times of tight advertising and sponsorship budgets have the power of the purse strings?"

We also need a joined-up approach in the broader fight against the culture of corruption, because we know that where corruption flourishes with impunity the entire society is harmed, and poor people with limited means of protecting themselves suffer the most.

Here, all of us — press and public — must hold the Portia Simpson Miller Administration accountable to its pledge to have a single anti-corruption agency this legislative year. And it must have teeth.

Calabar in media

It is impossible to reflect on media without recalling the contributions of the late John Maxwell and Wilmot Perkins, two of the individuals in the forefront of the fight for press freedom in the post-Independence era.

Both were highlighted in a citation from the Press Association of Jamaica to Calabar High School in recognition of the centenary celebrations. As a Calabar old boy I am obviously pleased at the recognition of the school's contribution to media and, more broadly, to Jamaica.

The legendary OT Fairclough, founder of the People's National Party and the newspaper Public Opinion, played a leading role in the evolution of modern Jamaican politics. In similar vein was Roger Mais, short story writer, novelist and journalist who was imprisoned in the General Penitentiary for four months for his classic piece of anti-colonial political writing, 'Now We Know', published in Public Opinion on July 11, 1944.

As the citation read: The Calabar tradition of "antipathy towards injustice" was carried forward by the irrepressible John Maxwell, pioneering talk radio host, editor of Public Opinion and Observer columnist, whose fight for improved wages and working conditions for household helpers and for saving the environment is legendary.

The radio programme of another talk show host, Wilmot 'Motty' Perkins', gained a reputation as the poor people's university. Quoting Professor Rupert Lewis, himself a product of Calabar: "From different standpoints John Maxwell and Wilmot Perkins challenged the post-Independence state and its use and abuse of power, reminding us of a quotation from another journalist, American Walter Lippmann who wrote: 'Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.'"

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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