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The freedom to be suckers

Published: 
Wednesday, December 5, 2012

As the Hunger Games gathered momentum over the last couple of weeks, one or two inconsequential things got lost in the rush, like a forum on press freedom hosted by the Human Rights Clinic of the Hugh Wooding Law School a few weeks ago.

 

Cursory reports appeared in the press, which seemed to say: “Me, me, me! Listen to me!” and “Harrumph harrumph harrumph.” (Though Andy Johnson’s remarks—at news.gov.tt in the Speeches section—on which I found no press report, are worth reading.) This was also the week when Justice Lord Leveson’s report on the culture and ethics of the British press was released. The coincidence of the report, and the revived interest in press freedom here in the last couple of weeks, is significant.

 

The British establishment was sufficiently concerned with the problems of its media to launch an inquiry—and this wasn’t the first one. In Trinidad, there isn’t even an acknowledgement of media problems—just press freedom. Criticism is usually responded to with hissy fits, like the one the TV6 fellow threw at the letter written by the “insignificant coolie from San Juan” a few weeks ago.

 

And this has been the mode of the “press freedom” discourse in Trinidad: a yelp of “Freedom!” which usually means no regulation and the divine right of the press to do whatever, without criticism or consequences. Like Crime Watch broadcasting a rape, or a hunger-suicide reality show parading as news.

 

This mode of addressing press freedom was established post-1996 when the UNC Government said the media were incompetent, biased to the PNM, and put out a green paper on media reform. A mass march was organised, and the lions of press freedom walked out of this newspaper and formed their own “free” paper, which they later sold to CCN, who euthanised it.

 

Strangely, the attitude to press freedom seemed to change with Government.

 

 

The press freedom titans were not nearly so worried about our democracy during the next decade (2002-2010), when a prime minister took armed police into a radio station to remonstrate with two journalists, gave a sitting Chief Justice an ultimatum to resign or else, jumped his supporter in line for a radio license, and had to be ordered by the Privy Council to award a license to the Maha Sabha, and sent jeeploads of police to arrest Inshan Ishmael of IBN for criticising the Government.

 

The media’s response to these and other PNM imprecations was described in a Guardian editorial on August 2, 2009, headlined “PM beats MATT with its own olive branch.” But the understanding of press freedom which enables all the above is not discussed by media workers, or those who (incredibly) find themselves on expert panels. Hence, no rigorous definition, appreciation, or empirical examination of the press-freedom praxis exists.

 

The freedom from repression the press wants here often translates to the freedom to hire young people to work as journalists, and actively discourage them from seeking further education. And there’s no consciousness of the other (related) aspect of freedom–the freedom to do things in the public interest.

 

That freedom could include prominent stories on unscrupulous business practices (which might have caught the CLICO and HCU enormities before all fell down), alternative sexuality and lifestyles, consumer rights, science, health, and things outside of Port-of-Spain.

 

But the public interest (and the implied potential of press freedom) is much wider than that. As Leveson wrote in the executive summary of his 2,000-page report: “It is not necessary or appropriate for the press to be always pursuing serious stories…Some of its most important functions are to inform, educate and entertain and, when doing so, to be irreverent, unruly, and opinionated…It explains complex concepts that matter in today’s world in language that can be understood by everyone…In short, it is very important to our national culture.”

 

Well, we’ve got the entertainment, unruliness, irreverence and opinionated bits, but as to informing and educating and explaining a complex reality, not so much. And all this leads to the major difference between Britain and Trinidad, with regard to press freedom in theory and practice—significant since the British establishment is the implied backdrop for much of the press freedom cant here.

 

In Britain, the media have, more often than not, enabled its democracy. In the coffee houses in the 18th century, newspapers shaped British political and social life by encouraging rational discussion on issues of importance to the society. In Trinidad, the media continuously (sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately, sometimes through sheer incompetence) subvert our attempted democracy.

 

This is not so simple as saying the media are congenitally predisposed to the PNM. The subversion is more insidious: the press and radio present simplistic, often inaccurate, and usually dangerously warped accounts of the society. The continuous consumption of that perspective, its visual and linguistic syntax, and implied logic, shape the society in ways no one realises, but which all experience.

 

That’s abstract. Concretely, think of talk radio, pumping the vilest racial poison day after day, for the last 15 years, into the minds of the illiterate half of the population. Is there a link between the start of talk radio and the metastasis of crime and violence? Like the media, you’re free to ignore that, and any other question.