When a journalist crosses the line


When a journalist crosses the line

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

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“…To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.” ― Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

Free speech, the very oxygen of journalism, is as vulnerable as it is valued, which is why it almost entirely depends on the public for its survival and sustenance, and why the central question for all journalists remains: Is it in the public interest?

No one is more vested in the defence and protection of free speech than the journalist. That puts the onus on the men and women of the news media not to act outside of the public interest, or risk squandering its goodwill.

Journalist Ms Zahra Burton, of 18 Degrees North, should have left it where The Gleaner's Mr Edmond Campbell put it when he asked Dr Christopher Tufton, the health and wellness minister: “Do you have a close affiliation with any of the directors of Market Me?”

Ms Burton, who appears to be trying to win a reputation as a 'published and be damned' type of journalist — who some mistake for a hard-hitting journalist — thought she had seen a door left open by Mr Campbell's question and carelessly rushed in.

“I think the question that Edmond, maybe, wanted to ask was, maybe, not answered thoroughly. I just want to ask directly: Did you cheat on your wife with any of the principals…?” she asked before the audio was cut.

Mr Campbell did not leave a door open; instead, he stopped at the line before crossing it. Ms Burton either did not see the line or did not care to stop. Either way, in her zeal, she put journalism in a bad light. It was not in the public interest to ask that question.

The issue in question at last week's virtual press conference was not about Dr Tufton's private life, but about whether he used public funds in a corrupt way to benefit someone at Market Me, as is alleged on social media.

What Ms Burton allowed Dr Tufton to do was sidestep Mr Campbell's question, leaving it unanswered. In a situation where public resources could have been channelled to a connected party, it is absolutely in the public interest to know.

There are other genuine questions that could have been asked, such as whether the social media allegations had affected his ability to carry out his duties as minister of health and wellness; or whether he would wish to comment on the allegations.

The People's National Party spokesman on health Dr Morais Guy was quite correct in asking whether the existence of multiple contracts between Market Me and the ministry should trigger an investigation to ascertain whether Dr Tufton “used his position as the portfolio minister to steer, or influence, in part or whole, the contracts awarded to Market Me”.

It is important to note, of course, that there are occasions when the private lives of public personalities intersect at points where media questions become appropriate. For example, if they become drunkards, thieves, gamblers, visit brothels, beat their spouses, and the like. This goes to their suitability to perform their public functions.

If a minister of religion is alleged to be cheating on his/her spouse, sleeping with his/her church members, pocketing the offering corruptly, impregnating under-age girls, or molesting little boys, they deserve the most powerful media searchlight possible, because this goes against the essence of what they are preaching.

Let this be a teachable moment.

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