Columns

The 'messy middle' of democracy and the need

Henry J
Lewis

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

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A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from State interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution so that it can protect our rights as citizens. — Nelson Mandela

 

ONE Monday morning in April I was driving to work and, as customary, I was reflecting on what I wanted to write about the following week. What popped in my head was the subject of investigative journalism. As I consume content from both print and electronic media I had to ask myself where are the investigative journalists in Jamaica. A possible title for the article flashed in my head; I had to pull over and write it down because I didn't want to forget it. A few days later I was at a function and the guest speaker made the point that while Jamaica should be proud of its international press freedom ranking, there is a need for more investigative journalism.

I was happy to learn some Jamaican journalists participated in a five-day workshop on investigative journalism in Kingston. The event was hosted by the Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC) and was sponsored by the US embassies in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

In his address to attendees the chargé d' affairs of the US Embassy in Jamaica Eric Khant said: “The development and growth of investigative journalism in the Caribbean serves as a vital tool for exposing societal wrongs, increasing transparency in public and private sectors, and supporting the rule of law.”

It is pretty clear to me that one of the responsibilities of journalists in the modern world is to enable the citizenry to make informed judgements on the issues of the day through fair, ethical and balanced reporting. There is probably no more important responsibility when it comes to preparing a modern democracy to thrive by having a free press investigating and reporting on the issues of corruption and other maladministrations in the society.

There is an absolute link between journalism and democracy in our national context. Journalism is central to a democracy and crucial to health, education, politics, commerce, and the general advancement of the society. Just try to imagine a society without journalists or, worse, a society where journalists are not free to tell the stories that matter.

Stories that 'make the cut' should be decided upon by their value and newsworthiness being the highest among them and nothing else. One of the things journalists must always seek to do in constructing a nation and building a democratic space is to be strong on issues, strong on values, strong on principles, but soft on people's hearts and not demonise them.

The democratic progress is a worthwhile project, but it sometimes gets messy in the middle by the absoluteness of power, corruption, unethical leadership practices, as well as the link between politician and criminals, to list a few. It is the job of the investigative journalists to get in the midst of the mess and bring to the fore the stories that the public would never have known the truth about had it not been for the tenacity of journalists. He/she must be able to sniff out the evidence from multiple sources, access and explain data to which everyone does not have access, and without fear or favour report the facts.

The task of the regular journalist is to solve puzzles and locate missing pieces of information. However, the nature of our messy democracy is more than puzzles; it's more like mysteries. These mysteries require analysis, judgements, and the hard part is not the access to too little information but too much information.

Too many journalists dwell on mere fact-gathering, fact-recitation, and puzzle fixing. However, the key to excellent investigative journalism is an analyst with an inquiring mind: All investigative journalism training should prepare the practitioner to:

• ask good questions as opposed to merely fetching answers;

• synthesise qualitative and quantitative information and of the perspectives of different disciplines;

• master tools and concepts, acknowledging their limitations;

• question assumptions by independent thinking;

• deal with ambiguity and incomplete information;

• probe the ethical values implicit in policies and decisions in government and private sectors;

• avoid the temptation to run to press with a half-baked story just for an exclusivity;

• draw actionable recommendations from analysis;

• model a process of inquiry that includes networking, comparison of findings, debate, and mutual challenge in an environment of candour and respect; and

• communicating insights derived from thoughtful analysis and consistent digging for the facts.

It is more like cheese making, which is a complex process that takes time. However, the investigative journalist must be disciplined and stick to the process or else the cheese will spoil. Don't be in a rush to publish a story as one may lose the opportunity to change history.

I would argue that in Jamaica today we need bold investigative journalists to solve some past and present mysteries in politics and government. Who is solving the mystery of the used car scandal between the Government and O'Brien's International Car Sales and Rentals Limited? To date, only 36 of the 200 cars have been delivered, despite the ministry paying out $218 million in advance. The latest I have heard is that the Ministry of National Security is moving to engage in mediation with the hope of finding a solution. Something just nuh smell right!

The public never benefited from the facts about the alleged misuse of People's National Party campaign donations by some of its candidates in the run-up to the February 25, 2016 General Election. Treasurer Norman Horne, at the time, said, “On numerous occasions, information received by the treasury from the potential donors was that contributions had already been made to senior party members for the benefit of the party. However, only a few members reported or accounted in full, or even in part, for the receipt of these donations to the treasury or the party executive. This heavily affected the party's income and short-changed the party, resulting in a negative effect on the national campaign. Financially speaking, there was not one central bank, but several banks; some of which had more resources than the treasury.” ( Jamaica Observer, August 22, 2016). The public never had an opportunity to know what really went wrong. Unless a new breed of investigative journalists are willing to stick to these stories we will be left in a cycle of nine-day wonders.

Improving the way we address mysteries is both a challenge and an opportunity for journalist. There are many stories to be told; it's time to put the training to work.

 

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

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