Carnival, rolling out wall-to-wall, describes an inopportune moment to weigh possible meanings for the media of two apparently unrelated events this month. In the annual symphonic sequencing of movements, Panorama and Soca Monarch were still to come when, on February 4, Anthony Vieira bestrode his Independent senator platform, almost in the manner of a character actor.
Here, indeed, was The Bookman, authoritatively citing chapter and verse, in an extended discourse on campaign financing. Suddenly, there fell from his lips the expressed hope that much-sought reform and regulation would “extend to...curbing the media madness that currently obtains”.
Even more ominous than the senator’s words, however, was what might be sensed as the attitude behind them. This legislator had evidently formed a judgment (“media madness”) on the culpability of an estate, counted as number four of this republic, where his own affiliation as a senator must be first or second.
This so-called fourth estate of the media was put on notice not to count on the friendship of Independent Senator Vieira. He had come to the debate on the private member’s motion, prepared from reading national and international writings.
From him, I learned of the radicalised conclusion of former US vice-president Al Gore. Assessing campaign financing in the US where it is regulated, policed and subject to multiple oversights, Mr Gore wrote, restating Abraham Lincoln: “It is now a government of corporations, by corporations and for corporations.”
The evil of campaign financing, then, is apparently mitigated but not eliminated in an American regulatory system that convicted, among others, Jesse Jackson Jr, and, last week, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin.
Senator Vieira effectively applied the Gore animadversion to T&T media corporations. He implies that T&T media identify as unindicted co-conspirators, with the deep-pocketed people locally described as “financiers”. Nor is it just that media houses eagerly accept the cash for political ads.
Up there in the Senate, at least one Independent supposes that the ties bind even more tightly. Senator Vieira imagines that some media houses and some reporters “have allegiances with political parties and candidates”. He demands that like closeted LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender) people, they must “out” themselves:
“They should not be allowed to masquerade as being objective if they are not. The media should not become an echo chamber for politicians. Reporters should declare their personal and commercial relationships. When a media has been hijacked by special interest, by people with deep pockets or by those who may have a personal axe to grind, those conflicts of interest should be known.”
From the senator, who must be presumed to know whereof he speaks, came a mouthful of lurid bad-mouthing. Reporters, he said, could well be “used as hired guns” and “agendas can be hidden”. He called for a more rigorous scrutiny of media content, darkly suggesting: “There may be a need for regulation.”
Certainly, more scrutiny of media performance is pressingly needful in a T&T so given to fact-free discourse and declarations, in all of which, the media are helplessly swept up. Our familiar experience here is of an open season for press agentry. Media reports typically consist of what people, supposedly in the know, say what the story is. Media remain mostly self-satisfied, essentially in the roles of scribes and recorders of helpfully supplied footage.
The US media, whom Senator Vieira cites, are used to ceaseless second-guessing by assorted “watchdog” types. They include, in some media houses, “public editors”, appointed as in-house ombudsman-types, to maintain as much detachment as possible while preserving an insider/outsider’s perspective on the newsrooms.
In T&T, the Independent senator is inclined towards “regulation”, even in a context where that effectively means less and less in so many areas. Well, other options advertise themselves. On February 13, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley was reported to have won the biggest defamation purse ever.
At half-a-million 2014 dollars, Dr Rowley’s award falls short of $600,000 Ken Gordon had won in the High Court against Basdeo Panday, in the late-1997 “pseudo-racist” defamation suit. Dr Rowley targeted Senator Michael Annisette, rather than Newsday, which reported his damaging allegations, first made under parliamentary privilege and then recklessly repeated outside the House.
“Unfortunately,” said Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh in his ruling, T&T “has become one of those places where persons tend to be loose with facts and opinions about other persons.” As the shot of his award whooshed over the bow of the T&T media, Dr Rowley was pictured smugly exchanging congratulations with his Senior Counsel.
“Even judicial officers are not immune from groundless attacks,” said Justice Boodoosingh, in words possibly worth their weight in contempt-of-court dollars. As a journalist who has more than once reflected caustically on the infamous 2011 Boodoosingh ruling that refused to extradite Ish and Steve, I took note, and sighed in recollection of the APT Ambard dictum: “Justice is not a cloistered virtue.”
The Annisette case, which could have resulted in a major hit on one media house, and the Vieira recriminations hardly amount to a creeping encirclement of the media. Still, in a sober Carnival moment, they are worth a measure of meditation. Can the media help themselves, ourselves? I wish I could be sure.