Having consistently argued that it is up to the members of organisations to keep their leaders in check, and having repeatedly advocated open discussion and debate as core to developing a culture of democratic engagement, I must declare my own position today in a matter arising out of the contentious issue of Newsday’s Page One photo of Inez Lewis.
Simply put, I do not support the response of the executive of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), to which I belong.
I question the nature of the response to public criticism of the photo, as well as the content of the statement itself.
The executive’s decision to issue a statement may well reflect the sentiments of the majority of MATT’s members, but it does not represent the views of this member.
In publicising my position, as the executive has publicised its own, even in the absence of consultation with the general membership, I can be confident that MATT is strong enough to handle dissent and wise enough to understand this is how organisations grow. I believe I make MATT stronger by speaking up and not hiding out. I have no need to fear expulsion or the wrath of an insecure leadership, unable to handle scrutiny and unwilling to be accountable. The men and women on the MATT executive are decent professionals, committed to the best interest of the media and deserve my support until I have reason to believe otherwise.
My difference with them in this case is not fatal.
For the record, however, I subscribe to the international standard that news photos should not be tampered with and that if they are altered in any way, it should be so declared. The more heated issue of Newsday’s uncensored image of the distraught grandmother’s exposure raises the subjective issues of newsworthiness and good taste.
In general, the media draw these values from the societies in which they operate. In some cases, a society’s values are anchored in law, such as in the laws against the publication of the identity of victims of sexual abuse or the publication or sale of material deemed “profane, indecent or obscene”.
More commonly, however, newsworthiness and good taste are left up to editorial judgment. Presumably, in the judgment of Newsday’s editors, the image of 81-year-old Inez Lewis with her upraised dress was both newsworthy and met the newspaper’s standard of good taste.
Perhaps the editors believe their judgment is in step with the public’s.
In this, they might rely more on sales figures than on outraged opinion. If their calculation is wrong, public opinion, as expressed through newspaper sales and public expression, should set them right and guide future judgment.
This is the interplay between opinion and action.
For me, the photo failed on the counts of both newsworthiness and good taste, but I concede the Newsday editors’ right to publish and be damned as I claim my right to reject it outright. Perhaps, in its rather clumsy way, this is what the MATT executive might have been trying to convey under pressure to “say something” and “take a position”.
As purveyors of the culture, the media is not immune from the national obsession with statements and positions, when what is really needed is to open up room for conversation and dialogue as part of the society’s organic learning and growth. In pre-empting the process of dialogue, however, we court the risk of disaster, such as occurred in Beetham last week.
Despite the mountain of opinion on either side of that divide, there were no winners in that battle. Both sides retreated hurt with Beetham residents mourning the loss of a neighbour at the hands of the police, and police officers in turn pained by the lack of support for them from some members of the public.
In the contentious climate, what was lost was the chance to open up a conversation about how we had managed to so easily slip toward crisis.
In a functioning republic, effective public policy and competent management would have kicked in Sunday evening to pre-empt Monday’s breakdown.
With his men locked in confrontation with Beetham residents on Monday morning, it was almost surreal watching the acting Commissioner of Police talking about getting tough with lawless elements at a routine equipment-handover ceremony.
What acting CoP Stephen Williams needed to explain, to the country as well as the men and women under him, was why, especially after the Sea Lots protest, he has not developed and implemented a protocol for responding to situations that contain a high risk of social volatility.
The rights of the travelling public that he so vehemently defended would not have been abrogated if the acting CoP had been proactive on Sunday evening when tempers began to flare after Christopher Greaves was killed.
Monday’s escalation in which lives could so easily have been lost, might not have occurred at all, if the authorities had done on Sunday what Gillian Lucky, director of the Police Complaints Authority, did on Tuesday when she went into Beetham Estate and brokered peace by assuring the community of an investigation into the killing.
If Mr Williams does not believe that he enjoys the trust and confidence of the community to intervene in this manner, he needs to identify such an official and build him/her into a fully articulated protocol for handling similar situations in the future.
Such a protocol should state clearly the steps to be followed by the police in every fatal shooting involving police officers as well as the process and timeline for engaging the community and informing the public in a manner sufficiently timely to eliminate and/or reduce the risk of social eruption.
The protocol itself should be shared with the public so that everyone involved understands the process and knows what standard to expect.
For the edification of the new Minister of Communication, this is what real communication should look like.
The MATT executive, too, might consider developing some protocols of its own.
Especially regarding media releases.