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Why I left that offensive press conference

Sunday, June 22, 2014    

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LAST Thursday the evening newscasts on Nationwide Radio, TVJ and CVM were all led by a story about myself and the Gleaner's Gary Spaulding walking out of a press conference called by the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVCC).

The incident seemed to be of particular interest to Nationwide whose boss Cliff Hughes seemed to revel in the fact that two 'senior' journalists, as he put it, had a testy exchange with CVCC executive director Carloyn Gomes.

"There will be casualties in this war," Hughes said, "Bodies are going to be lying on the floor."

To put things in context it should be taken into consideration that offensive and age-inappropriate sexual material were included in a handbook used in a sex educational course being taught to minors in the 12-18 cohort in privately owned children's homes in the Jamaicans For Justice's (JFJ) Healthy Sexual Growth and Development in Marginalised Youth: Rights, Responsibilities and Life Skills' programme.

The revelation that anal sex, oral sex and vaginal penetration were being foisted on the children under the guise of tolerance drew the ire of the society with the JFJ, and the Jamaica Family Planning Association (FAMPLAN) quickly dissociating the organisations from that content and pointing fingers at CVCC.

So when CVCC called a press conference to respond to recent media events and reports regarding its role and objectives, it goes without saying that questions about the offensive material would be asked by any reporter who was worth his or her salt.

From the outset it was clear that the members of the panel were cagy, as even the agenda that was handed out in the press kits did not have any segment for a question and answer session.

I quickly noticed that and pointed it out to Spaulding and other reporters who were seated close to me.

However, Gomes seemed to have smelled the rat and after each member of the panel gave their presentation she put on a brave face and said: "We will take a few questions."

Spaulding bowled the first ball and from then it was clear that Gomes and CVCC Financial and Programmes Manager Ivan Cruickshank were in a combative mood.

After Spaulding asked the first few questions I introduced myself.

Upon hearing my name, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians Gays and All-sexuals (JFLAG) Executive Director Dane Lewis and a woman beside him sat up in their chairs.

I was not surprised, as I had often been unfairly branded as an enemy of gays because of the many articles that I wrote about them capturing a house in Barbican, their removal, an exit interview with former Assistant Commissioner of Police Les Green who stated that 99 per cent of the murders committed against gays were perpetrated by gays themselves and, most recently, one headlined 'Gun-toting gays drive fear in citizens of garrison communities' and another 'Police deny homo's beat up claim'.

Having covered crime in this country for over a decade I have intimate knowledge (no pun intended) that Green's statement rings true and that many times gays kill each other only for activists to squeal to the foreign press and international lobbyists that the killing was a homophobic act.

I asked a question regarding the content of the offensive material which was immediately shot down by Gomes.

Cruickshank acknowledged me with a wry smile before saying that as someone who has written extensively on the issue in the last couple of weeks I should know that the way CVCC was represented preceded the issues coming out of the sexual education programme that I referred to.

To date, the question about the inappropriate nature of the material has not been answered.

Even though the coalition had issued a document which had the same data quoted by Professor Brendan Bain, it was understandable that members of the panel were cagy in answering too many questions, as the matter involving his dismissal was in court.

But things took a turn for the worse when the panel began to appeal to the media to frame the narrative about gays differently. Cruickshank personally blamed the media for painting the coalition as a gay lobby group.

At that point I challenged his accusation, as I personally wrote all the stories in the Jamaica Observer about the issue and not once did a headline or any of the content in any of the articles paint the coalition as a gay lobby group.

I then took the opportunity to ask if the inroads the gays had made into getting Jamaicans to be more accepting of their lifestyle had not been hampered by the rowdy behaviour of the homeless gays and the deliberate lies that were told to the British media by gay activist Gareth Henry that founding JFLAG executive director Brian Williamson was the victim of a homophobic attack when in fact police and court records had shown that his convicted killer had confessed that they were lovers.

At that point Gomes, clearly flustered by my line of questioning, began speaking to me in a condescending tone, but she erred further when she said she wished the media would listen and not speak.

Gomes clearly does not get it.

The media does not do public relations. If the coalition was not prepared to field tough questions then the smart thing to have done was issue a press release. But in the midst of the controversy, they call a press conference and expect the media to sit and listen like the vulnerable children they had targeted.

At that point I thought I was wasting my time and I began to feel as if I would have answered Gomes in a manner that may have not been a proper representation of the media house to which I am employed.

In addition, I had already achieved the goal of getting enough information to write an article.

When I was leaving the room I heard Marjan de Bruin exclaim "We do not teach that at CARIMAC".

For the record, I learnt my craft on the job and had great teachers such as the venerable Ben Brodie, Paget deFreitas, Vernon Davidson, Pete Sankey, and, most of all, the experiences on the beat.

I have never been to a press conference and be ordered to sit and listen. That is not part of my job. I do my research and ask tough questions of any panel. It does not matter that I enjoy a healthy relationship with Dr Gomes and that I strongly believe in some of the causes that she fought tirelessly for in her years at the helm of JFJ.

Ask the police who call press briefings if I mince words or fail to hold them to account when I am present at their events. It is not personal... just the nature of my job.

In fact, I was present at her send-off party at the Stella Maris Church grounds.

That was not the first press conference that I had left prematurely.

The first time I blessed eyes on former Deputy Commissioner Mark Shields was when he visited the country as part of a contingent of Scotland Yard cops who were investigating the shooting death of a Jamaican-born, six-year-old girl in London in the early 2000s.

The shooting was linked to activities in Jamaica, the cops theorised, and a press briefing was called.

At the time, an enterprising journalist who is no longer in mainstream media, Claude Mills, found the child's mother and did an exposé on how the child ended up in England. The child had been sent on a church trip and never returned.

When the press briefing was called and Mills attempted to ask a question, a Scotland Yard cop bluntly told him that he would not be allowed to ask any questions.

Although Mills worked at the Gleaner, which is direct competitor to the Observer, I rebelled immediately and told the cop that he was very much out of order, as no Jamaican police officer could go to Britain and tell a British journalist that and in such a condescending manner too.

I said: "Murders are committed in Jamaica every day. We have a lot to write about here. How dare you?"

I grabbed my notepad and recorder and walked.

Of course, it was carried by Nationwide.

— Karyl Walker is Editor of the Crime and Court Desk at the Jamaica Observer.

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