The arrogant Jamaican public servant

Yesterday, we saw clearly what Barbarians call pompassetting. First, former Public Defender, Earl Witter, publicly apologized for having proposed his deputy to fill the interim after he resigned. Next, we had the Jamaican a Film Commissioner, Carole Beckford, state that communications with her office that were ungrammatical were not treated immediately.

According to a Jamaica Gleaner report, Mr. Witter ‘reportedly wrote to the Governor General and the Speaker of the House of Representatives on December 1, apologizing for his recommendation for Matondo Mukulu to act in the position on Witter’s retirement earlier this year….In that letter, Witter reportedly said Mukulu was too young and inexperienced for the post….Witter also alleged that Mukulu had been waging an ‘unbecoming campaign’ to be appointed to the post.’

From what I saw, many people have reacted negatively to this news. Notably, Young Jamaica, the youth arm of the opposition Jamaica Labour Part, is questioning the motives behind Witter’s letter. According to the JLP’s youth arm, it is worth questioning whether envy of Mukulu’s achievements as Acting Public Defender played a part in the move by the former Public Defender.

Last week, news came that former Jamaican Bar Association President, Arlene Harrison Henry, was to be appointed as the post of Public Defender.

Age is not a formal criterion for selection for the post. Experience would seem to be relevant, but also a nonissue given that Mr. Mukulu was deputy and therefore formally set to act as PD, so was deemed to have the experience needed.

I’m not going to tackle the envy motive, but many have noted that Mr. Witter had moved slowly on many key issues, including the long-delayed report on the (previous) Tivoli Enquiry. Mr. Mukulu had show energy and a willingness for public engagement that many found refreshing and helpful.

Some would find issue with due process and undue influence. It’s sad that Mr. Witter regretted his decision, but that’s life. Presumably, the State was happy with it up to the point of appointing a formal replacement.

What would possess a former holder of a post to come out and be critical of the current holder, especially having nominated him? It seems like thinking a little too much of oneself, to me. I imagine that the reply from the GG and House of Representative, if any, were full of polite thanks. Did the letter influence the decision of the Public Services Commission?

My only real experience of Mr. Witter was to hear him bluster a defence of his delayed report to Dionne Jackson-Miller on her ‘Beyond the headlines’ current affairs program. He wanted to blame the media, mainly, I recall, for focusing on his having set deadlines and missed them, repeatedly. See my views on that, from March this year. He stoutly defended his refusal to explain to the media reasons for the delay. He was a public defender to the end, it seems, and thinks he still is.

The use of an age bar will incense many, seeing it as one of the reason Jamaica fails to be dynamic and progress. It would be worth some looking at how youthful leaders have been catalytic in change. Certainly, older people cannot use the circuitous argument that they hold posts because they can make good decisions. Anyone, who wants to challenge the rights of the aged need not go much further than a slew of private companies who’s youthful leader forged the way for things many now cherish. Did I hear the names Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? We don’t need to think about John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama as relatively young US presidents. We can look at our own youthful leaders in the shape of Edward Seaga, Michael Manley, and P.J. Patterson.

Jamaica has a problem making the most of what it has. Just a few days ago, I touched on that regarding how we acknowledge greatness in our athletes. It seems the national psyche has it deeply ingrained that to trash and bash is the way and that age is equal to sage.

Now, to Ms. Beckford. Unsolicited, as far as I could see, she decided to tell the world via Twitter (numbering added to show the sequence, and the last two were replies to me):
1. When you write to me in my official capacity as Film Commissioner and you have bad grammar, do not expect me to reply immediately.
2. Bad grammar = #BackgroundCheck in the business I am in
3. So I am to dumb down as the Film Commissioner? The Business of Film is worth something – I will maintain those standards
4. If you are approaching my office about the Business of Film, be prepared to be serious is all I ask

Now, what I know about film production or direction is little. Like most, I consume films. I’ve acted, in my time.

Having looked at the role of the Film Commissioner, I see nothing about its need to correct the nation’s grammatical failings. I take that to fall to the Minister of Education. It’s to promote the film industry. I can’t vouch for all, but I have seen many a film littered with what some would deem bad grammar.

I’m not going to split hairs over what that means, but for some it could be use of split infinitives.

I’m not going to get disgruntled if it doesn’t include the use of possessives before a gerund. Did you miss that class?

Should I be particular about the articulation of the participle, present, future, or past?

Why don’t you tell me about the film you’d like promoted? Is it any good?

We could get a situation that harks back to the days when scribes were plentiful. Those who were not literate had others write for them. Many Jamaicans still perform that role, at least informally. How many have been asked by someone to help them complete a form?

We’ve seen played out graphically in recent weeks the chasm that is the English language gap in Jamaica. Some academics have studied this and referred to it as a ‘language identity crisis’. So, with the benefit of having mastered English to some degree, you, as film commissioner, are going to penalise those who haven’t, for reasons you don’t care to know? I feel a script coming on. Well, that’s not how I want to see the funding to JAMPRO used.

Let me think back to the Jamaican films I’ve watched and enjoyed over the past year….Don’t rush me. I’m thinking. The truth is that I haven’t seen any. I’ve heard of some titles, including ‘Jamaican Mafia’, which seemed to get snarled up in a series of delays in its release. The harder they soon come? Are films being properly promoted or is ‘remedial English’ being offered?

I’m no lover of The Oscars, and all the red carpet hype, or disregard for certain genres or types of actors. But, plenty of Jamaicans are. Do they wish to, or hope to, see a Jamaican film nominated for an Oscar? It would be nice to see one of fiwi bredrin up inna di peeple dem bizniz. If we’re clever, we could do a remake of ‘My Fair Lady’, having Eliza Doolittle be a Jamaican from Wait A Bit, who learns to change how she speaks and writes (Patois) and becomes the flower of uptown Kingston society, after mastering the Queen’s English.

We could thrill as she learns that ‘rubble’ is debris and ‘rebel’ is a fighter. We could get goose pimples as we hear her elide from saying “chubblesum pickney” to “recalcitrant children”. She would learn that the plural of horse is horses, not horse-dem. She could move from sweeping the school classrooms at night, while her children sleep, to becoming the Principal of the school. Like the plot? Pity I wrote it out in my ‘bad’ or ‘broken’ English.

Some will wonder how many good ideas are languishing in a pending tray because an Oxford comma was missed. Sentences that did not start with a capital letter? What is the world coming to? What do you mean you wrote the script as if it were a series of text messages? How did I know that was a cinematographical ploy? IDK U YNG PPL.

I watched some films with my youngest daughter and her cousins the other afternoon–that’s Christmas family time. They can all read well, now. The youngest is four and oldest is eleven. They have great ideas, as befits the mind of children, but composing long or clear sentences is not their forte. I’ve tod them to write , just for the experience of trying to see an image in their heads and trying to share it with someone else without speaking. It’s hard. I listened to a man give his oral testimonial. I’ve no idea if he can write, but, in keeping with the Caribbean oral tradition, he can talk a good story. The essence of their stories is powerful. I wonder how many would-be (hyphen important) writers have their powerful ideas stuck in the ‘read not immediately’ pile?

Public service is about serving the public, whether elected or appointed to an office. It’s not about waging war on citizens over personal preferences. Standards aren’t the pet peeves you have to sift through the grit that is your real work. Do your job! Stick to the remit or demit!

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)