Taking Stock of Our Democracy

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 16, 2010

Andy JohnsonEveryone remembers when Justice Herbert Volney bus’ it and became the victorious representative of the people of St. Joseph. One day he was a justice of the court the next day he was a UNC candidate. Although Sat Maharaj pointed out that other members of the judiciary had ties to politics and politicians the Volney bomb touched a delicate part of the nation. We made a lot of noise about Volney’s defection but everyone in Trinidad and Tobago – the country that God has especially blessed – knows everything is a one-day wonder. Folks made noise about his ethical nature of the defection but soon it was yesterday’s news.

The prime minister was ecstatic when Volney joined her party. At one of her meetings she declared: “Imagine what it took for him to leave behind his career as a judge. He will be leaving all his years of study. He may open himself to ridicule simple because he chose to put Trinidad and Tobago before his own needs. It shows the desperate need to remove Mr. Manning from office. Even members of the Judiciary are standing up for their country” (Newsday, April 29).

She was correct. Many people gave up many things to join the PP’s bandwagon to remove the PNM. Now that the PP is in power esteemed members of the press have jumped ship to demonstrate that they too “are standing up for their country.” Andy Johnson is the latest defector. He will become the chief officer of the Government Information Services and will be “an official part of the Government’s delegation” to the United Nations next week.

Johnson’s defection follows Clevon Raphael’s elevation to special adviser and “right hand man” to the Attorney General. The AG called him “a distinguished journalist and someone for whom I’ve had the greatest respect.” Just to demonstrate that he had learned his lines well Raphael uttered the identical sentiments his Prime Minister uttered when Justice Volney jumped into her party. Says Raphael: “It’s a major challenge but I see this job as my contributing to national development…but in a different way. I see everything I do, I do in the name of my country.”

Such patriotic sentiments are touching but one wonders if Andy or Clevon or Francis Joseph or Ken Ali – all distinguished members of the media – ever gave any thought to their responsibilities, nay obligations, as members of the Fourth Estate. We are told that Andy and Joseph have been working for Jack Warner’s Ministry since August and that Ali handled the press releases for the Prime Minister’s Office during the Government’s Tobago’s retreat. This leads us to ask: who is the next member of the Fourth Estate that will express their full-throttled patriotism by serving the Third Estate.

I am sure their remuneration was a consideration since they will receive bigger emoluments from the Government than they received from the previous employers. That’s all to the good. But I wonder how the public sees their massive jumping over to the government and how does it affect the public’s perception of the media in our country?

Whereas previously it was thought that press persons were neutral when they reported and interpreted the news, now we are told that they really supported the policies and programs of the present government. As full-time advocates of the government they will give full-throated praises to the wonders of Kamla and the PP which leads one to believe that when Patrick Manning and the PNM were telling the country that the press was not as neutral as they declared they were not totally off the mark.

When members of the public accused the media of bias against the PNM they were told they were simple reporting the news–no bias, just facts. In light of the recent action of these journalists I am not sure the press could be so categorical in their denial of whose interest they (or their reporters) serve. Even though the jumping of these journalists into government service does not in and of itself demonstrate media bias their massive exodus – to use the Guardian’s words – does not speak well for our media nor is it a salutary sign of things to come.

The press plays a vital role in strengthening our democracy and promoting good governance. It acts as a watchdog of the public interest. We, as a public, grant them certain rights and freedoms to insure that they ferret out wrong doing and expose the malfeasance of office holders. We also expect them to promote government’s accountability. However when we hear that the persons who said they dedicated themselves to the public good become advocates for the very persons and policies they were supposed to watching over then we have to shake our heads and ask how believable are these gentlemen.

There is evidence that where newspaper circulation is high electoral accountability is greater and wrong doing by public officials is less likely to occur. Where newspapers are thought to be neutral (or certainly less bias) the public’s belief in the democratic process is greatly enhanced. In other words, if the public believes that the newspaper is acting in their interest then they are more likely to place greater faith in their reportage, interpretations and commentaries.

Correspondingly, the more the media seem to be support or contribute to the maintenance of existing governments (or autocratic regimes) the more the public is likely to lose faith in their leavening role. So even though these journalists seem to be defecting to the government on their own free will it does not necessarily reflect well on the media as a whole. Under the circumstances it is difficult to convince the public that it is not in cahoots (or its reporters were not in cahoots) with the party they left to serve and more importantly that they, as journalists, carried out their responsibility fairly.

I do not disparage any of these reporters who have abandoned their profession and to serve the powers that be. I am not too sure that any one would ever be able to take them seriously again. But then that is the price one pays when one abandons one’s profession and gives the impression that one was never serious in the first place.

Let us hope that their actions do not diminish the strength and vitality of our democracy.

10 thoughts on “Taking Stock of Our Democracy”

  1. What can one say , I have been warning folks about that bunch for quite some time, but many choose to ignore me.
    Don’t we miss the days of Editor Shah , and his Rasta sidekick , was it Keith Shepherd, when they were in charge of de Bomb, Blast, T&T Mirror, and if I am not mistaken de decadent Punch etc? At least with dem boys , you knew exactly where their allegiances were, and so did their Machiavellian, visionary boss ,Pat Chocolingo , as 99.9 % of the articles were about alleged wrongs done to a particular unmentionable group across the length and breath of our country. Now fast forward to 2010, and tell me the dividends did not pay off, yes? As your Afro Trini folks dependent on allegedly main stream media entities?
    Well even you can fill in the blanks, whether you were still a top notch Literature Professor in ‘Norte Americana,’ or now an ,advocate for the local down trodden in the land of your birth.
    I say however, go easy on dem guys , gals , and in between agents ,of the Corporate 4th Estate ,as dey too have to put food on their family table, yes? In addition, as the wisest lady would say ‘water more than flour’ -and I would add-one must jump off the sinking ship and get on the right side of the Bocas. What’s dat ,you don’t believe me?
    Alright , then ask your Westmooring , Far Estern Asian, Eurocentric ,and Middle Eastern business entitities that told Manning and his crazy PNM political machinery to kiss dey you know what, as they instead joined corporate pals from Central, South, and selective non dominated PNM enclaves ,near to the East West corridor , to jump on the PP bandwagon when it became expedient , and obvious that Manning the , delusional , self opinionated nutcase , was about to go down faster than the Titanic , or a Trini hungry Mayaro fisherman’s scuttled boat ,near military buffoon ,Castro wannabe, socialist , pretending Yankee hating fraud Chavez ,Venezuelan waters.
    I wish you well my friend in your quest to take our country back on track , and off the barbarian runaway express!
    Let us put our heads together and form our own rival , authentic people’s media, perhaps that’s the solution, yes? I am available Professor.

    1. “I wish you well my friend in your quest to take our country back on track , and off the barbarian runaway express! Let us put our heads together and form our own rival , authentic people’s media, perhaps that’s the solution, yes? I am available Professor” Neal

      Nealos the world has change and you and prof is way behind times. Again it is my duty to bring you up to speed my tribal friend. Information is available all over the place. The media houses in T&T recognise that they are no longer the central voices in the nation. If they write an article, in less that one week that information is no longer relevant.

      Further to all of that there are many radio stations available in T&T. If someone have a particular interest there is a radio station available to fulfill that interest. So essentially the centrality of information has been lost. So if someone were the ask the average Trini what is the topic of interest in T&T, the response will be from what media outlet that person is tuned into.

      The point is this we are living the INFORMATION AGE. Information is travelling globally at the speed of light. People are tuned in Nealos to information from various sources, radio, television, internet and newspapers. The internet has revolutionized information to the point that we are overloaded with it.

      You and the prof can do your song and dance but the fact is your audience will not be as big as it was in the olden days. The government now have all kinds of sources to get it’s information out there in the public domain.

  2. It appears that the PP in government is, either through exceptional organization and/or effective governance able to attract high-profile professionals to their side and cause.

    It is without doubt the right of these professionals to advance their personal interests as they best see fit, and no one can deny them this right. The question is, what is the point of departure between pursuing their rights and fulfilling their responsibilities?

    There is both an up-side and a down-side to these developments. It might also be that attracting such professionals the PP will increase in attractiveness to gthe general public, and improve in governance.

    It might also be that culling these professionals, especially when some of them now indicate that long after they were reporting as neutral observers, commentators and defenders of the public good, they had already been working on behalf of those on whose policies they were ostensibly independent, neutral observers.

    One might think that for the PP their loss of credibility is nonetheless the PP’s gain, and this might well be so. However, by their actions joining the PP and revealing now that they had been part of the PP for some time, the question remains, who is next to confess to have been in the employ of those whose policies they were analysing and commenting on as neutrals.

    There is a negative backlash for the PP in this, for by apearing to be too clever by half, they run the risk of tainting even more than is real, anyone who eventually comes out, so to speak, of the political closet.

    This is so since the PP has not only herded media professionals into their polittical pen, but has also done so with legal professionals and others.

    Also, some of the PP’s decisions now appear to be tainted. For example, one of these, among many including the firing of Philbert by the PSC, came up as a question during debate on the budget. It was about the AG’s choice of individuals to head the probe of corruption under the PNM. It would have been wiser, in fact, less tainted if the AG had chosen from among a wider set of individuals, not only by profession as lawyers, but also by his personal relations as colleagues with them in the same legal offices as he.

    The unfortunate reaction of the PM to these accusations by name-calling the leader of the official Opposition a “merchant of mischief” must leave a public already sceptical of politicians even more suspicious about the sense of honour, or lack thereof on the part of the PM.

    The public has the right, in fact, the responsibility to think this is politics as usual.

  3. Greetings cousin Khem. I am with you on the transition to what Thomas Friedman described as a “Flat World,” and won’t argue with you if you think that our T&T has reached that level as well. There is still room for added voices my friend, so let’s keep dem eyes on the real prize.
    There is only so much the State can do, or the profit oriented private sector business class ,will be encouraged to engage in. I am for civil society filling that void. We will see moving forward, my fellow patriotic optimist.

  4. In a democracy we must honour and respect the constitution, our laws, our judiciary, our parliament and yes the freedom of the PRESS (some times called the fourth estate). While we cannot tell the PRESS who to treat fairly and who they should call out, we expect them to present us with a fair reporting of facts as they pertain to political positions. While there are many who bask in euphoria of the PPs win and subsequent formation of government and condemn what they view as PNMs incompetence and waste, there are other views of equal weight that need to be aired for reader consumption. We are not all lovers of the PP and haters of the PNM. We are not all supporters of the PNM that envy the PP in power. We are, many of us people love a good story, one that tell us who our leaders are and what they are doing. Many of us can decide for ourselves who are good for us and those who are NOT. Our three dailies Guardian, Express and Newsday whose publications and reporting can be dubbed as pro PP and anti PNM during the campaign, continues to report as though we still need to ‘listen’ (mainly) to what the PP has to say and “need not worry’ about what the PNM or independents have to say. This takes away from the value of the story and leaves the emotional euphoria of the PP suypporters to be sustained while those of us who are looking for something of value to happen are left with a kind of ‘take my word for it’ readership. WEe dont want to take anytbody’s word we want to formulate our own opinions based on the happenings in the public arena, the thgree dalies need not hold our hands to lead us to believe what theyt want us to believe. The mass migration of well-known correspondents does not give us a feeling of confidence in our newspapers and what they report. We want our newspapers to be investigative, probing, insightful, revealing, at times alarming and most importantly truthful. What we see in our dailies is a FOX-like approach to reporting which may last while the PP is popular but WILL be found out as soon as people cannot substantiate the information being fed through the media.

    1. “While we cannot tell the PRESS who to treat fairly and who they should call out, we expect them to present us with a fair reporting of facts as they pertain to political positions.”

      The issue of bias in favour off and not in favour off has been a long, long debate. The press argues that they have the freedom, meaning they can say whatever they want. That is a third world kickback to government regulations and the catalyst for anarchy.

      What exactly is “fair”. If T&T chooses the Singapore model then I think fairness will be achieve. If a Singapore newspaper publishes an article about a government minister, that minister MUST be given the right to respond in the said newspaper. Some people may say that it is fair, others say it is unfair. Too much media control.

      In developed nations the media is controlled. Governments understood a long time ago that with freedom comes responsibilty. In Canada there is the CTRC, media house are given guidelines as to what they can say and what they can’t. For instance in “call in” talk shows if a caller calls in and says something that is prejudicial or defamatory, the host of that show must immediately correct that error or the station could be sued. People’s reputation must be defended.

      In the U.S. it is quite different people are allow to say whatever they want. That makes the media especially radio stations very vulgar in it’s discourse with the public. Of course someone can sue.

      In Trinidad the former Express boss sued Panday for using the word “psuedo” and he won. What was amazing about this case was the fact that Panday was responding to articles in the newspaper, so defamation was not deliberate. However, the courts saw otherwise and the pristeen reputation of the former Express boss was salvaged.

      The fact is bias is perception and perception is reality. The media needs to work with the government and at times chastise it, expose it and rebuke it. It is a tough job but it must be done to ensure democracy is perserved. Dr Williams denied the newspapers newsprint, Mr. Chambers called a weekly “a rag”. Panday sought to introduce the “green paper’. Manning complained all the time about media bias. The song and dance with the media will continue in this love /hate relationship for quite some time into the future.

  5. In Trinidad & Tobago the line is blurred between “journalist” and “opinion-maker”. Clevon Raphael, for example, wrote both “news” items opinion pieces for his former employer, The Trinidad Guardian; others have done the same, I’m sure. One of I95.5 FM’s talk show hosts, a gentleman from St. Lucia, took pains to inform his listeners, during the run-up to the T&T election, that he had never voted in his life so as to remain relatively free of political bias. This contrasts with the position recently taken by this same station to practice what they are advertising as “opinion journalism”. I wondered and am still wondering what this all means. I prefer that journalists appear to be fair, or more precisely, political journalists, to appear so. By all accounts, the T&T public has already lost faith in the ability of some news/television/radio outlets to give unbiased news. It’s now up to the newspapers and TV/radio stations to take positive action to return the profession to its esteemed status.

  6. “If T&T chooses the Singapore model then I think fairness will be achieve.” Lord , Lord,I just could not read anymore after this, so forgive me if I miss a bigger point he was attempting to contrive, but this man khem ,never ceases to amaze me, I tell you.
    I would not doubt , if he is some paid governmental operative, or simply a fictitious, online creation, mealy bent on antagonizing those of us that really still care about the long term welfare of our country.
    Are these, and similar clowns so dense, to not know that T&T ain’t no Indonesia- where ‘benevolent dictators,’ are the order in the latter,but might instead – if left to the encroaching barbarians follies, and ,or , childish devices- could result in an inevitable break down , in the vain of Bainimarama’s Fuji, Idi Dada Amin’s Uganda ,or even heavens forbid, Rwanda, and Former Yugoslavia?

    1. The Singapore model of achieving fairness is futuristic for third world thinkers. A good friend of mine once said to me “half a story is NO story”. Nealos, you need to think as my tribal teacher used to say to me “God give you a brain use it”.

      In a court of law you are allowed to present evidence for or against any charge. If you do not present evidence then your case will not go forward. Nealos in the court of public opinion, all evidence must be presented to the public, not these half truths that are borne as whole truths. The accuse according to Western law always have a right to defend himself. According to PNM laws the accused must stay accused until “dey say so”. According to the Press the accuse must always be in an “aha” situation. Forever the victim of poor commentators and journalist who want increase pay and promotion at the end of the year.

      While I am musing here Nealos tell me if it is right to decimate an individual’s character without the right of self defence??? If your answer is yes, then the Singapore model will be the most attractive one for you. If your answer is no then the Mugabe model will be the one you embrace. It is all about choice and freedom comes with responsibilities.

      We are deem as agents of provocoturs or agents of transparency in a world where gossip can run rampant we must pursue instead the truth, which can conveniently be lost by the zeal of attackers, be it by pen, books, television or internet. I am confident my tribal friend you will see my point.

  7. In fact the opposite I believe is true, democracy is at work here. You have played on one side only in your article. What about their freedoms from the side of their previous employer. Ah, you do not wish to cover that part. Well you cannot brainwash me friend so easily. If the respective employers were treating them correctly then perhaps they would have stayed put.

Comments are closed.