Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The price of communication failure

This newspaper has no reason to doubt that the health of Government minister Maxie Cuffie is improving following the stroke he suffered five months ago. We contacted him directly via whatsapp and, unless we are being dealt with in extreme bad faith, we have no basis for doubting that the reply we received came from him.

We continue to wish him well and hope that he will soon get the medical clearance needed to travel home as indicated in the whatsapp exchange with us.

That being said, we find it hard to understand both the Government’s silence on Minister Cuffie’s condition as well as the vicious nature of some of the social media commentary on Mr Cuffie’s prolonged absence from office on medical grounds.

It is very possible that these two things are linked in a toxic dynamic whereby the lack of information is feeding the ugliness which is, in turn, is stiffening the resolve to maintain silence. Neither of these is productive.

This is a very straightforward matter that warrants neither intriguing silence nor conspiracy theories.
As a Government minister and Member of the House of Representatives, the line between public and private is not the same for Maxie Cuffie as it is for the average private citizen. As the parliamentary representative for the people of the La Horquetta/Talparo constituency, the state of Mr Cuffie’s health and his ability to provide representation is a matter of valid public interest.

Equally valid are public queries regarding the financial issues arising out of his medical treatment and care, given that public funds are involved.

From the moment Minister Cuffie fell ill, the Government has seemed unclear about how to walk the line between public and private in fulfilling its responsibility for public accountability while respecting the Cuffie family’s right to privacy.

This confusion led the Government into the first silly error of informing the country that Mr Cuffie had suffered a “medical episode” which the public at large immediately recognised as an evasive euphemism for the life-threatening stroke that was serious enough to require a lengthy attempt to stabilise his condition before he could be sent for treatment and therapy abroad.

Since then, the Government has got no better at the task of public accountability in the Cuffie case and has continued to fail at the very elementary responsibility of providing meaningful information on the medical condition of this senior public office-holder and the cost to taxpayers of his medical care.

The consequence of this ineptitude has been to provide fertile ground for the political mischief that lies behind the repeated rumours of Minister Cuffie’s “death”.

While we recognise it will take time for social media expression to rise to the standard of responsible reporting and commentary as outlined in the judgment issued by Justice Frank Seepersad this week, there is no excuse for the viciousness that has accompanied some of the discussion.

Ultimately, however, it is the Government that must bear the responsibility for the ugly fallout from its failure to communicate to the country on the matter involving, of all people, the Minister of Communication.