Monday, October 8, 2012

Ministers, MPs and the Media - Commentary by Peter O'Connor

The function of a watchdog is to warn persons of possible intrusions or dangers. Watchdogs are not kept on premises to attack, or maul people. However, there are dogs, which are trained to attack. But attack dogs may be very different from watch dogs.

In all free and democratic societies—and we are comfortably in that category—the societies’ media performs a critical function of watching over the rights of the people, to prevent intrusion or trespass by government, state agencies, or indeed by the wealthy, or other groups which can seize some advantage for themselves at the society’s expense.

The media is an industry in most countries, including Trinidad & Tobago. And it is a very protected industry, being the only business group with specific guarantees under the Constitution as to their rights to freedom of expression and right to publish their opinions, limited only by laws of libel, slander, and the like.

Now, let me digress for a moment to head off those who will respond to this by claiming “O’Connor say the media is dorg”, because I used the metaphor of “watchdog”. 

I totally believe in a free and vibrant media, and my participation in this column is testimony to that. I enjoy the diversity of opinion in the columns and editorials I read and I write. But I do not bestow upon the media the sense of, or claim to Divinity which they clamour is theirs. Nor do I believe that every criticism is “an attack on the media”, which entitles the media and their supporters at the moment (this “support” swings depending upon which Party is in power) to shriek that their rights are being abused, or worse.

The media in this country and elsewhere is subject to the whims of the reporters, columnists, editors, owners and even advertisers in terms of what they publish. 

We all know this: this is what led to the creation of “The Independent” (and its failure!) in the 1990’s. And I am pleased to have noted that other columnists have recently been pointing out the dangers of the whims, prejudices, and political agendas which the media publishes under the guise of being “news”. 

Not that they are not entitled to hold these views, and express them as opinions, mind you, but when they present their prejudices as “news” they often transgress the responsibility with which they have been endowed in our Constitution.

They do this by publishing opinion or prejudice as factual news, by skewing their headlines to distort stories (many people just read the headlines), and by giving, or worse, selling space to politics and special interests under the guise of this being news. They also have one point of view for what affects them, and another if the same issue affects others.

When a state employee was promoted to a position way beyond her capabilities and qualifications, the media quite rightly condemned the issue, but also mounted a continuing attack upon the person. The person, a young woman, resigned from the agency and withdrew from public life. 

However, almost a year later the media discovered her residential address, and published it, along with photographs of her apartment, and the only pictures they ever published of her—taken at a party, with drink in hand, and looking as though she may have had too much to drink.

However, when a politician exposes the address of a reporter who consistently attacks him and his Party, that is a danger to the freedom of the press. But what if, and I do not know this, that reporter’s address is the home of an opposition politician, and that fact suggests to us why the reporter attacks the government? Can that not be considered as fair a comment as the exposure of the address of the lady who lost her job?

And what was the purpose behind banner headlines describing housing investments made by the Attorney General when he came into office? What did that newspaper mean to imply or suggest in that front page, banner headline? If they knew something sinister, I accept that the purchases would be news. But it is hard not to conclude that the headline and the article were published only to create mischief.

Or the banner headline “44% GAS HIKE”? That was not the whole truth, but the offending publication will say that it was not “untrue”, because apparently 6% of gasoline sales had increased by that amount.

And finally, as they stand on integrity, the media, which quite rightly investigates wasteful government expenditure in several areas, will never speak about one of the greatest ongoing wastes by all governments in power: The excessive self-congratulatory propaganda published in the media as “Advertising”. And we all know why. Everybody has to eat ah food.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai