A press conference every three months would do, Mr PM

Sunday, December 18, 2016

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It’s not unusual for national leaders and governments globally to hold news media at a distance, with some considering journalists pesky, and best avoided.

That, unfortunately, was the distinct impression given by former Prime Minister Mrs Portia Simpson Miller. For, while she occasionally spoke to individual journalists on various issues, she shied away from full-blown press conferences at which a wide array of journalists from all media houses could seek to explore issues considered of national importance.

Popular as Mrs Simpson Miller undoubtedly was, that reluctance to be transparent with the press adversely affected public perception of her.

More importantly, that consistent failure to relate openly with the news media, deprived Jamaicans of the opportunity to hear Mrs Simpson Miller’s side of the story in an atmosphere of critical, objective probing.

The situation was very different under Mr PJ Patterson from whom Mrs Simpson Miller first took the reins as prime minister in 2006. Mr Patterson was known to have regular no-holds, barred press briefings. Also, Mr Patterson developed the practice of off-the-record consultations with those referred to as ‘senior journalists’. From a purely ethical point of view, information gleaned at such off-the-record meetings couldn’t be used for news stories. However, such background material helped journalists to better understand the issues at play from the Government’s perspective, and ultimately better allowed them to place news stories in context.

All of which is not to say Mr Patterson was always responsive to the media. In fact, there were times when he maintained total silence on the most contentious issues, reportedly on the basis that "If yu keep yu mouth shut, yu can’t be misquoted."

By our recollection, prime minister, Mr Bruce Golding — especially early in his relatively short stint (2007-2011) — was quite open to the media and public. For a short time, he even hosted his own radio call-in programme.

It’s against the backdrop of all of the above, that this newspaper views word from the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) of having written to current Prime Minister Mr Andrew Holness urging him to hold regular press conferences.

The PAJ’s release over the signature of its president, Mrs Dionne Jackson Miller, said that since assuming office in March, Mr Holness "had yet to hold a comprehensive press briefing in the capacity of prime minister, which all media representatives could attend and ask him a range of questions for the benefit of the public".

We are happy to note that Mr Holness and his staff have acknowledged receipt of the PAJ’s letter with a commitment to respond with urgency.

It seems to this newspaper that the hosting of regular press briefings must be an essential element in the overarching practice of transparency and accountability so central to good governance, to which Mr Holness has pledged.

That prime minister’s press conference need not be weekly. Such a demand would be unreasonable. It need not be monthly. A comprehensive press conference allowing for responsible probing of all relevant issues every quarter, that is every three months, would be perfectly in order, in our view.


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