In 2005 I resigned as acting editor of the T&T Guardian on a matter of principle.It was a decision that took me perhaps 30 minutes to make, and I was sure it was the right thing to do.During the course of the last week, I spent several days considering leaving the Guardian again. But at no point was I certain that leaving would be the right decision.Before returning to the Guardian last March, I had spent two years talking to the managing director, Gabriel Faria, and other executives, about the prospect of going back.
When I eventually decided to accept the paper's offer to lead the editorial department, I felt comfortable that things were different. The company now recognised that change was needed and the quality of the paper had to be lifted in a number of ways.During the last 15 months I have been supported by our MD and the board in building a very good team that I feel has the potential to be the best in the business.
We have worked to support and develop the talents of journalists already in the newsroom. We brought in and are still bringing in others–editors, columnists, reporters and photographers–who include Irving Ward, Denyse Renne, Franka Philip and Darren Bahaw.
We have worked very hard, and the country and our competitors have recognised that in that short time we have made a difference. We have been responsible for major stories on topics that include Section 34, the $6.8 million firetruck, the revived Flying Squad, Dr Hafizool Mohammed and the botched Sea Lots probe.The process of transforming the Guardian is far from complete, and we still need to raise our standards further.
During this period, the board has expressed concerns about political bias and accuracy. Both have been the subjects of lengthy and sometimes heated discussions with management.Last week I was asked to expand and complete a document outlining editorial policy and guidelines. Not an unreasonable proposal–but in order to do so, I was mandated to "go offline"–a phrase open to alarming interpretations.
In any media house there is always tension between the newsroom and the boardroom. Journalists are focused on reporting the news in the interest of the public; directors are concerned with the interests of shareholders. In 2013 we are working in a country with a politically overheated climate. Conspiracy theories abound, and paranoia is widespread. Press freedom must be especially zealously guarded in such circumstances.
There were reports of the dismissal of our MD and our sector head and about political interference at the board level. There were conflicting versions of what was happening and why. Feelings inside and outside the newsroom ran high.
On Wednesday, I met with a group of senior editors to decide on a joint course of action, but the situation was still unclear. We agreed to wait for 24 hours. Reporters Denyse Renne and Anika Gumbs and public affairs editor Dr Sheila Rampersad, however, chose to tender their resignations immediately.
In fairness to the Guardian, throughout the week the company was open to talks and we had several meetings, including one painfully frank but mutually enlightening discussion with senior management last Thursday.At that meeting I listed the conditions under which I would agree to stay, and the company agreed to meet them.An important statistic was cited in that meeting: that the ANSA McAL group derives only two per cent of its revenue from government contracts.
This puts a completely different complexion on the belief that the group is vulnerable to political pressure.It also became apparent during that meeting that there had been a number of appalling misunderstandings and hasty judgments on both sides, some fuelled by misinformation and active mischief fed into the newsroom from external sources.
At that point, given the widespread belief that what was going on was a battle for press freedom, it would still have been easier for me to claim what appeared to be the moral high ground and leave. In the knowledge of the real circumstances, however, although it would have saved me much embarrassment and criticism, I don't believe it would have been the right thing to do.
Journalism is not just a job. It goes beyond the contract one has with one's employer. It also entails a commitment and obligation to the ethics of the profession, and to the public.I also have obligations to the newsroom team that I have the privilege to lead.If I left, other members of that team would also leave, and the work that we have been doing over the past year would come to an abrupt and premature end.I don't believe anyone's interests–not the newsroom's, not the Guardian's, not the country's–would be best served by that.
The journalists who opted to tender their resignations last week did so at a time when a great deal of misinformation was circulating and I very much regret the position in which they found themselves.Dr Sheila Rampersad and I have known each other for over 20 years. I have the greatest respect for her principles, her intelligence and her professional skills. But I genuinely believe that she is mistaken in continuing to insist that there was a surrender to political pressure and that press freedom is under threat at the Guardian.
As Sheila knows, I asked for and received a guarantee from the company that we must be free to practise journalism as we have done in this newsroom for the past 15 months, on exactly the same terms. The company accepted that. Both sides have made a renewed commitment to accuracy, balance and responsible reporting.
As a journalist and as an executive member of the Media Association–a post from which I have now resigned–I have worked to promote press freedom and I am not going to betray that principle now.If I believed for a moment that there had been or would be any infringement of that freedom at the Guardian, or that my role as EIC were being curtailed, I would not have chosen to stay.