I know none of the people participating in the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry at a personal level. So, this is by no means a personal attack. But, I think I know something important about the proceedings. Someone was lying, has lied, and continues to lie about what went on in the events of May 2010 in Tivoli Gardens. That is the easy conclusion. The hard question is ‘Who?’ and the harder question is ‘Why?’ Everyone is swearing an oath at the commission, so to deviate from the truth should be costly. I say ‘should’, not ‘will’.
We heard testimony and cross-examination, early in the proceedings, from residents of Tivoli.
The attorneys found discrepancies in their accounts now, compared to accounts given in earlier statements and submissions. These were not reconciled. You cannot have a person believing two versions of facts about the same events. (That’s not the same as two people not having the same recall of the same events; perspective and role are important.)
We later heard testimony from some government officials: a former minister of national security and former attorney general.
Both had astonishing lapses of memory or seemed unaware of activities and events which it would be normal to expect the ‘chief executive’ of an agency to know. But, let’s put that down to loose management style.
After that, we went higher up the ladder, and heard testimony from the former prime minister at the time. He too was afflicted by poor powers of recall and lack of awareness. Those words feature much in the testimony I heard.
Most recently, we heard Commissioner Ellington also say that he did not recall. But, he also went further that not recalling. He stated that he recalled somethings quite differently than others. He said on at least two occasions that I heard live that statements from other people about his actions were “not true”.
The Tivoli Enquiry is not a truth (and reconciliation) commission. However, a column a few months ago went into many issues about seeking truth from the proceedings. The article closed with some chilling words (my emphasis): ‘The cautionary intrusion is this, that truth-telling has consequences, it is a risky business. However, the benefits to our society far outweigh the risks.’
When asked, a few months ago, ordinary citizens made clear that truth coming out from the proceedings was important, but many doubted if that would occur. It’s a reflection of the society in which they live. Truth is information. Information is not to be given lightly or freely (aka ‘Informa fi dead’).
I was more concerned by the testimony of Messrs Golding and Ellington (which is continuing). I do not absolve the other senior officials, but as the minister of national security told us, he took no files with him when he left office. Ms. Lightbourne also seemed happy to leave without information to trace, and added that she stayed away from sources of local news. (I laughed at the time, but now think she was much smarter than many realised by taking that position.)
As head of government, it’s clear that the PM sets a certain tone in how business should be conducted. That person may always be thwarted in efforts to keep that tone going consistently, but there should be elements in place to try to keep it. These seemed to be missing. Most worrying, was the lack of linkage between key ministries so that those who should know, knew. We’ve heard a lot about ‘silo government’, and this is an example. (The current PM talks a lot about ‘joined-up government’ and that reflects a clear sense in her mind, at least, that this was a missing feature of previous administrations. That it doesn’t really exist now, either, tells me a lot more about how we roll.)
I’m resisting something very tempting in the proceedings. Many seem taken by the ‘poise’ of certain officials. Form over substance has long been a way of getting people to ignore obvious failings. Ask anyone who has been conned about the con artist, and how slick and elegant he or she seemed. Snake oil is always snake oil.
I asked myself many times now, why the heads of organisations whom we have seen and heard did so little to keep tract of information that was flowing their way. In the latest testimony, we heard a lot about meetings and conversations that were not recorded or shared, let alone noted. That’s worrying, in principle, but seriously troubling in organisations whose business is supposed to include investigation and know the importance of evidence.
When I worked in organisations that had a reputation for integrity I was in the habit of taking notes of meetings that I attended alone. They were placed as ‘notes for record’ and went into the official files. Anyone could argue with my recall, but I put it there for future reference. If needed, my version could be used against other versions coming from those who were also present. My memory is good, but not infallible. I was particularly keen to record quickly notes of meetings which has been preceeded with remarks like “No note taking, please.” (We’re encouraged to do similar things when involved in accidents, or crimes, where claims may be made later.)
Those meetings which I attended with others had notes recorded, too, and the participants would agree on the summaries. In either case, there was a formal record-keeping system. That was over and above any personal files I felt were necessary, some of which was just reams of data and documents, but they were often kept as source material because they had been referred to in some record. I did not pull them out like rabbits from a hat, but they were there to give me comfort, if needed.
I just wonder why these small grains of comfort do not exist amongst those who are now testifying. We know memories fail, anyway. We know that memories are constructed, too. So, why not help yourself build memories that can withstand the test of time? It’s also amazing what seems easy to recall and things that make people seem to stumble over their memory lapses.