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Transformation not just up to media

Continued from last week
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
TONY FRASER [email protected]

When the members of the Union Club asked me to speak about media responsibility in this period when there is no Parliament to exercise a watchdog role on government/ executive spending and decision-making, the term media was used to mean journalists reporting, investigating and commenting.

However, the assumption of one homogenous institution called media does not exist in reality. There are corporate owners, boards and managers with their business interests to serve. Advertising departments hold powerful sway, and there are editors-in-chief/news directors and reporters. The objectives are very different from group to group. In the healthy conflict (on occasion) between editorial and other interests, the newsrooms often run a gallant second.  

Then there are the deficiencies of diminishing senior editorial staff to encourage, support and give direction to young reporters. There are other structural problems in media relating to salaries paid to journalists, recruitment processes, training and the like which limit the possibilities of fulfilling the monitoring and investigating tasks. Nonetheless, as made clear last week, editors-in-chief and journalists have done an excellent job in investigating and exposing wrongdoing and poor governance practices.

However, one of the major problems associated with media/journalists monitoring, investigating, reporting and commenting on government during this interregnum when there is no Parliament is one that has been significantly contributed to by the corporate world.

Increasingly, political parties and politicians are escaping from being interviewed, interrogated and investigated because of the wealth of funds they have to buy airtime to peddle their campaign propaganda without interruption. There was a period when television and radio stations took on the responsibility to cover and interrogate campaigning politicians—Jones Madeira’s leadership at TTT and Radio Trinidad stands out.   

Today, the parties buy out the time and do not tolerate any intervention by the editorial/journalistic departments of the media.

Why should a prime minister contemplate debating a leader of the opposition on a level playing field when her party has not only the funds to purchase unchallenged prime time but has usurped the state-owned television and radio stations to set up mock debates? That the T&T Debates Commission, wittingly or unwittingly fell into the trap over dates, provided Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar with an escape route. 

At the same time that campaign financing has become “free sheet,” the capacity and will of the electronic media to engage the politicians has disappeared. And so the few programmes that get on the air are unsponsored thus limiting the capacity of the media/journalists to adequately conduct the investigative and interrogative work on the government and the opposition parties.

Business corporations need to sponsor television and radio investigative programmes, support newspaper investigations to allow the media/journalists to fulfill the responsibility of interrogating the government in this period when the Parliament is out.

As I told the Union Club members, they may be working at cross purposes: on the one hand they desire governments to be closely monitored and investigated, but at the same time they secretly contribute hundreds of millions of dollars for parties to purchase unchallenged airtime.

But media are nevertheless limited in what they can do about corruption, entrenched poor governance practices, nepotism, etc. They report and analyse, people and institutions are stirred for the moment but then there is little societal action.   

After first exposure by media/journalists, the responsibility is then lodged with the institutions such as the criminal justice system, the Law Association, the trade unions, senior attorneys, the business community and the rank and file of the population to take action.

One major assumption of the subject under discussion is that an in-session Parliament has the power to exert strictures on a runaway government. As structured, it is the Executive, more precisely the Prime Minister, that has control over the Parliament.  

The discussion on the hopelessly flawed constitution has gone on in the media for 25 years; but the society has left it up to politicians who have no interest in changing a status quo which allows them to exercise untrammelled power.

Transformation will only occur when the national community, not just the media/journalists, takes on its responsibility. One Union Club member rightly observed: the society has stood aside and done nothing.   


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