Depending on whether you got your information from Gary Griffith or Vasant Bharath, Friday’s rumour of a coup was either the product of an idle person who “just had nothing to do” and “probably just wanted to go home early on a Friday” or “part of an orchestrated campaign of mischief aimed at disturbing the public peace”.
If, with all the resources of the National Operations Centre at their command, two Government ministers couldn’t get it right on a matter as important as a coup, then what could be expected of hapless journalists relying on Government sources?
The problem with employing propaganda as a strategy of manipulation for control is that amateur perpetrators so easily become its victims, quickly losing track of where the lie began and the truth ended. Inside the maze of deception, the media is particularly at risk when the most senior of sources, cloaked with an authority that should normally command respect and trust, are the very ones pumping up the fog machine of misinformation. The reporter who enters this world, too trusting, too anxious for the scoop and too unskeptical about agendas and motives soon becomes an all too easy prey.
Obviously, we cannot go on like this. Every society needs its touchstones of truth as a compass for guiding action and opinion. In democratic societies, these would include the institutions of the State, the media, the judiciary and the church. For us in the Caribbean, fleshing out the institutions to gird democracy remains a zig-zag work in so-so progress. With the old colonial institutional order having collapsed before an effective transition to the new, we have been set adrift in an open ocean without a compass, forced into making it up as we go.
For us in the media it has been no different.
Today’s journalists operate in a world far different from that in which their craft was first practised in T&T. Thumb through any old volume of newspapers at the National Archives and you will see just how far removed the old media order of privileged interest was from today’s journalism of mass expression and access.
In that transition, the advent of the Express (1967) and the Chookolingo-era Bomb (1970), followed by the liberalisation of the broadcast sector in 1987 have been watershed moments in a revolutionary transformation of the media, both as industry and as institution. An important feature of the new era has been the solidifying of the media’s self-view as watchdog of the public interest which has given rise to the growth of investigative journalism. It is in this role as watchdog that the media has found its greatest strength and poses the greatest challenge to centralised power.
If the media enjoys an inordinate power in T&T, it is only because of the failure of the political system to deliver an effective parliament with the power to act as a check and balance on government. In consequence, the public, including every parliamentary Opposition since the 1980s, has been relying on the media to keep the Government in check.
Given its origins and its limitations of resources, the T&T media has, in general, been doing an incredible job. There are journalists within newsrooms who think nothing of putting themselves at great physical or psychological risk in their pursuit of information in the public interest. Camini Marajh, for one, has built a career in investigative journalism the hard way. Nothing in her schooling would have prepared her for grappling with the voluminous financial and technical data that she routinely has to work through on her way to an investigative series. She is, in every way, a self-made professional whose progress has relied on a personal integrity, tenacity, courage and a trusted network of sources and resources.
Experienced media professionals like her would know how easily journalists could be led into error if they do not retain control of their work and allow themselves to be led by the agendas of others.
Today, with the media as battleground in the war for public opinion, the pressure is intensifying on journalists, coming at them from unexpected and unprecedented angles. In the evolving scenario, we can no longer be innocent about the scope for corruption within. Whether they agree or not, media owners and managers should have heard enough by now to recognise the challenge they face in the growing public distrust. This fact can no longer be hidden under the weight of the bottom line. In the public interest, the media must resist the temptation to escape into denial and tackle the issue of trust head on.
Last Friday, we had a dry run of what could happen when our institutions of information fail us and send people panicking into the street amid rumours of a coup. This coming Friday, groups in opposition to the Government have planned a protest march through the capital. Imagine the scene if similar rumours are fed into the streets to spread like wildfire. If that happens, the media will have the usual choice: allow itself to be co-opted as part of an invisible propaganda machinery or check the facts and be the voice of truth.