Press into submission

Relations between politicians and the media are often stormy. In so-called democratic countries, the public have an expectation that elected officials will be willing and available to provide information on a regular basis, and even frequently. The media are often the vehicle through which that information flows. Most people do not want to hear about and see what politicians are doing based on government information services. Justified or not, the feeling is that such presentations tend to be sanitized or simply favourable to the politician. The public know that part of the task of the media should be to probe and assess what politicians are doing, and even ask very awkward questions and press for good answers. We may not agree with the tone of questioning or we may not like the slant of particular reporters or interviewers, but we generally see that the questioning is part of what we would like to call good governance.

Yesterday, Jamaica’s prime minister, Mrs. Portia Simpson Miller, became part of a little fire storm with a member of the media. Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 10.55.34 AMA young reporter from RJR was present at the the PM’s dedication of a water and sewer project in Rose Town, St. Andrew. He posed questions to her about the project, then moved on to pose questions about what is accepted as a sensitive issue–the reinstatement of a minister of state, Richard Azan, following his resignation over involvement in the so-called “Spalding market affair”. The Contractor General’s report claimed that Mr. Azan played a key role in the decision to construct the shops and that he also helped to facilitate the collection of rental fees for the shops by his constituency secretary at his constituency office. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) subsequently ruled that no criminal charges be laid against him. The PM’s initial reaction was to resist answering questions on Mr. Azan, because she felt that that would be what the media would focus on rather than the project. However, she answered a question on Mr. Azan simply by citing the DPP ruling. The journalist persisted with his line of questioning, and it was clear that the PM did not want to go further on the matter, and was getting angry. One of her security detail stepped in to bar the journalist, and things got messy. It looks like the guard pushed the reporter and the reporter tried to continue posing his questions, putting his microphone toward the PM. That action can be interpreted many ways. Simply, the sound recording needs the microphone to go close to the speaker. Given that the PM indicated she did not want to answer any more questions, the reporter’s continued pressing could be seen as provocative. The PM called him “rude”. He could claim he was just trying to do his job. The guard could claim the same. No doubt, a confrontation took place. Why? That’s not clear.

Several issues arise from this incident. The PM has long been criticized by the media for her unwillingness to engage them formally on any regular basis. Many in the media see this latest fracas as an aspect of that unwillingness. With journalists starved of opportunities to get the PM’s views, are they over-eager to press her on any occasion where she presents herself? From what I have observed, she has not been willing to hold press conferences or briefings with local media for a very long time. She famously stated that she does not listen to radio or watch television, suggesting that she has no time for what the media are doing.

Is that a reasonable position for the nation’s political leader? She also indicated that when she’s not talking, talking, she’s working, working. Again, suggesting that communicating with the public is not what she sees as necessary. That’s my interpretation.

So, the nation is starved of her voice on many issues that the population find important. She is known to be an eloquent speaker, so her reticence does not seem in-character. She’s indicated that her preference is for her ministers to do their jobs and for her to ‘not interfere’ by commenting on their areas. That sounds good, but generally, people like their leaders to lead by more than just their title, showing clearly by public statements that the person is in charge and on top of issues. People like their leaders to give clear direction. Can such direction be clear without public expression?

What does she feel she needs to do to keep the nation abreast of how she sees things? Is Jamaica Information Service the only public presence that the PM and her office want to offer the people? An intelligent nation can handle much more than that. Jamaica has a good press and limiting its diet of news by not communicating is likely to lead to friction and unavoidable misunderstanding.

Many media practioners see her attitude as disrespectful to them and to the nation. Reports indicate that the PM has generally refused requests from the media for interviews. That’s a recipe for a bad relationship.

Politicians are somewhat schizophrenic. They usually like to get good press. They like to control messages. If the media are not present, we are back to the politicians and their handlers deciding what is issued.

The PM has put herself into a difficult position. After returning from her many visits abroad, her office does not routinely issue statements about what happened during the visit. That, naturally, leads to speculation about what happened. Media will try to find out somehow so that they can run a story.

Her office now demands that questions be submitted to her beforehand for “on-location” interviews; however, the Press Association of Jamaica never accepted that position. That seems like the PM and her office wanting a lot of control over the process. Maybe, that is the problem. But, if you want to control the media, that runs counter to what many people in a democracy want to see. Speak your mind. Hear other views. Is there a problem with dealing with divergent views?

A bad relationship is now in the process of turning very sour. It need not be that way.