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Saturday, December 04, 2010

OPINION: The Deafening Silence of the Lambs

Full disclosure: this may be viewed as somewhat self-serving. It may well be.

I feel I have some idea of what it must feel like to be Andrew Mason. A lot of people like him for what he does and a helluva lot of people hate him for it. A lot more people don't like what he does and plenty more people hate him for it. I, too, will admit to having inhabited all of the above camps over the years, going back to 1983 when as a gangly youngster I would record his CBC Player of the Day programmes on Saturday afternoons at CBC Radio.

Andrew can be as acerbic as he can be saccharine, witty as well as woefully cliché-ridden, energetic and enervating all at once. I have lived to hear him wish for the day when an elite panel of expert regional cricket commentators would be created, then hear him criticise the very idea of a panel when CANARadio (later CMC) created CricketPlus, which I produced from its inception until 2001. He was on that panel, too. The word 'mercurial' is for thermometers, not for the likes of Andrew Mason; a better word to describe this complex individual is yet to be invented.

Andrew is a rare talent behind the microphone - loved in Kingston and likely loathed in Kensington New Road. Such is the life of any man or woman who dares to practise journalism or offer commentary in these small islands. My own hero, the great Barbadian journalist, Clennell Wickham, once said that one must be wary of a journalist who is popular. A man whom everybody likes can't be much good, Wickham suggested, because he is too keen to please and too averse to challenging the powers that be.

And Wickham would know what he was talking about - reviled as he was by the ruling planter class and its sycophants during the bad old days of the 1920s and 1930s when he was busy helping to shape the Barbados we take for granted today.

Our job in the media is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to speak truth to power, to stand up and declare the emperor to be naked (should the facts warrant it, of course). From time to time, like all good humans, Mason might veer off course from the stern call of duty but I have never once doubted his sincerity.

So to challenge the organisation in the Pine that first gave us our starts in broadcasting and journalism fills me with as much gloom as it does with righteous indignation. Gloom, for it comes just as CBC is about to celebrate its 47th anniversary on December 15th. The indignation is second nature to many for it is easy, oh so easy, to tear the bark off CBC - it so often deserves a peeling. No matter the party in power, no matter the cast of characters in the board and management, no matter the pawn in the newsroom or the studio or the commentary booth, the same zero-sum game is played, the same game for longer than Barbados has been independent. And the loser is always the same, all of us.

The curious thing about the Mason Affair is the inertia that it so often produces in a nation that was founded in 1966 on the premises of equality before the law, and freedom of speech, thought and assembly and the notion of a nation of laws rather than a nation of men. The citizens quench their thirst for these basic human freedoms from a not-terribly-deep well but couldn't give a damn who didn't get a drink today. I felt as much back in 2005 when the same CBC unceremoniously killed The Press Club, a weekly news review I chaired shortly after I had dared to question the actions of the police as they related to - or at the time failed to relate to - the media.

That The Press Club was the third most-watched programme on CBC TV at the time, according to the survey they sanctioned, mattered not a jot. That Best and Mason's popularity extends far beyond these shores to other Caribbean islands means nothing to the mandarins of CBC. For only at CBC are high ratings punishable by death. This alone screams out at the right-thinking person: more in the mortar than in the pestle. Someone, somewhere in the bowels of the Corporation, wakes up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, fearing that some political maguffy in Bay Street and its environs would be none-too-pleased at all this free and unfettered speech on the airwaves the night before and vowing not to close another eyelid unless the offending party is shown the door.

In my own experience and all through the long years of a Corporation that means so much to so many and is so often so mean to so many, the oft-claimed "political interference" is not the result of some minister deciding to take bread from Mr X's mouth. No. From the lists of banned guests and people not to be interviewed in the 1980s to the journalists and presenters who were not so much fired as never hired in the 1990s to the latest atrocities, one thing is clear. You don't need to be an angry politician to interfere at CBC when there are so many within who will do the silencing for you before you even know what to be angry about.

Yet, people go along with the muzzling of media people. I have lived long enough to see them cheer the conceited politician for concealing the truth and jeer the hapless reporter who dares to question the artful dodger. Barbadians, my people, who say "we want investigative journalism in Barbados". Yes, by all means investigate, they say, just don't investigate me.

It is all the more ironic given the proximity of CBC's action to that of the Trinidadian state media, CNMG, which last month pulled the plug on Andrew's fellow commentator, Fazeer Mohammed, for daring to speak truth to power in a political interview. Yet, unlike the Trinidadian case, the sheep-like silence of Barbadians in the face of this latest assault on their speech/press freedoms is, as usual, deafening.

Even so, the warning bells were clanging away weeks before, when a former government minister in the Arthur administration was denied access to the same show on the same station. CBC trotted out some ancient and vague rule and suggested that protocol was breached.

As an ex-CBC journalist, I am aware of the rule, created in the late 1980s by an obeisant general manager, Sam Taitt. It suggested that invitations to interview ministers and candidates in a general election be cleared by senior management. But in a crass abuse of an old rule, CBC now seeks to stretch the barriers to include former cabinet ministers who are nothing more than ordinary citizens talking about cricket, for heaven's sake.

I say, a pox on all your houses. Both political parties have bred an environment in which the state broadcaster, which actually has a greater legal and moral mandate to let all ideas contend than any commercial broadcaster, behaves like the House of Five Years of Fat or Lean. It is now time for the people to demand an end to exclusions and the official lies that follow.

CBC does not belong to the Democratic Labour Party nor the Barbados Labour Party. It belongs to the people of Barbados who pay its bills. It was created not by an act of partisanship but by an Act of Parliament. Its guide is not the latest manifesto but the Constitution of Barbados. It is at section 11 of the supreme law of the land that every citizen - including every journalist and every programme-maker - is granted the right of free speech, thought and assembly. That CBC is an arm of the state should give Andrew Mason sanctuary not become the last place of refuge.

For once, just once, my fellow citizens, especially those who, for whatever reason, can't stand the best bone in Andrew Mason's jawbones, should stand up and say, I disagree with everything you could possibly say but I will fight to the death your right to say it.

Either we are building a democracy or we are tearing it down, brick by brick.

For in protecting the Masons and the other pawns in the free speech game in this country, we save our own sorry skins. To continue to look the other way is to continue to slide down the slippery slope.

It is time for Barbadians, for once, to put up or shut up. And since we seem so keen to do the latter, I pray that we remain silent when one day we realise how so easily hard-won freedoms were frittered away. If we don't think that's possible, then our collective hubris is far greater than Andrew Mason's most outlandish pronouncement, and infinitely more ugly.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Nation's Death by Fire

By Julius Gittens

Derek Walcott's poem, "A city's death by fire", is a poignant and memorable recollection of the Great Fire of 1948 in Central Castries that razed three-quarters of the town. It left 2,000 people homeless, many of them with nothing left but the clothes on their backs.

Accounts from newspapers of the time speak of the gutting of much of St Lucia's history dating back to Amerindian settlement - the destruction of government offices, including the Education Department to the public library, said to contain one of the best reference sections in the West Indies, to private collections of Carib artefacts and papers since settlement.

Walcott, a gangly 18-yea-old on the cusp of literary greatness after meeting the great Frank Collymore that very year, was a stunned witness who all day "walked abroad among the rubbled tales, shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar". His chronicle by candlelight of Castries's death by fire "after that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky" and of "faiths that were snapped like wire" became an early signpost of modern West Indies literature.

Beyond a poem, the fire was to have a profound effect on St Lucian politics, too. The United Worker's Party would rise from the ashes of central Castries to dominate the political scene, and own the central Castries riding until 1997. Public housing came to central Castries, leaving a unique signature of an inhabited central business district. Not too many people leave their homes and get to the market by crossing the street. They do in Castries.

Now, a silent plague, a dormant infection within the organism that is central Castries, still creeps throughout all our cities and towns. From time to time, it rages and takes a life or two, then dies down amid the nine-day tumult of media and mouthing-off, only to rise again.

In inner Bridgetown, on Friday, September 3, the contagion killed five women - shoppers and staff - and a toddler in a store on Tudor Street, walled in by fire at the front and concrete at the back.

It is so easy to proclaim the contagion - a mix of crime and lawlessness and anomie - so hard to do anything concrete about it. Our societies are yet to recover from the economic liberalisation poison, administered as medicine by the International Monetary Fund. That and the onset of consumerism, materialism and plain old-fashioned greed, have blinded us. So now, we see people not as human beings but as markets, targets, numbers.

So the contagion spreads. More shops, more stores, more goods, more sales. Regulation is a dirty word - seen as the killjoy of economic growth and prosperity. Conservative politics plays the tune of government in the key of small 'g' and all our politicians now sing from the same hymn sheet. Result: a blind eye is turned to our needs - the public's interest - while all eyes are trained on our wants. Our interest in feeling safe and secure in our persons, in moving about our fair land without fear and in reasonable comfort, safety and, yes, enjoyment, interests few but the odd meddling journalist or troublesome 'activist', both preaching to none but the converted.

All this is lost in the modern Caribbean city, in the cacaphony of route taxi horns, bus conductors as transport hawkers, chancers and game-players, robbers and pickpockets, merchants selling cheap, inferior goods and human beings prostituting their souls if not their bodies. The hustle is all we are expected to know, and it leaves me to wonder if market day during the time of Slavery was any different from a Saturday morning in Frederick Street or Halfway Tree or Swan Street. For in those choked and choking thoroughfares, who can spare a dime's worth of thought for the welfare of thousands? We are not citizens, less still human beings; just buyers and sellers, eager to make a buck or save several.

Getting and spending, then, to borrow from Wordsworth, we lay waste our powers. The world is too much with us.

In a society so obsessed with commerce and so unconcerned with our humanity, notions of safety and security are relegated to protect that which we own. The detectors and the cameras and the security guards are to protect the merchants from their quarry. So when two masked men grab cash from a store on the weekend before school starts, and leave a couple firebombs as calling cards, we have two scapegoats, our two reasons for more 'security'.

The robbers become a talisman of all our troubles - the mad, bad and dangerous to know that roam our city streets like vermin and whom we need to exterminate. Then we go back to being, existing, surviving. Our cities remain squalid odes to Capitalism - big C - their lungs of parkland and trees and rest stops so long ago ripped out.

Fire escapes that would have led to backyards - for many of our city storefronts still have them - were also long ago sealed. We used to call them backdoors. And just as every Bajan home has one, every store in the Bajan capital had one.

I know this because I grew up on Tudor Street, right across the street from the scene of the outrage. Where appliances and cheap made-in-China plastic toys and polyester clothes now abound, there were provision merchants - Perkins, Olton, M.E.R. Bourne. As a small boy, I roamed in the other-world of the city, labyrinthine yards that, for example, connect the backdoor of Hunter's Bar on James Street to the Hunter's Bar in Milkmarket. I skipped amid the barrels of imported food and feed in these backyards. Suttle Street was not the quite so unsubtle place it now is. And on Marhill Street, several blocks away, I would get my haircut in what was left of the rambling old Trafalgar Hotel, and the huge yard that connected it with the pharmacy and the bank on the other block was a youngster's perfect universe.

But so as simple a thing as a backdoor eludes our modern minds, as we wall up and well up for cash.

This is not an exercise in nostalgia-seeking; it is a warning from history, from a city that has known fire since it dawned nearly 400 years ago. What we learn from the past should not merely be tokenism of artefacts. It should be about adapting from past experience for future use. Call it development.

Whether we call it the criminal justice system or disaster preparedness or safety regulation or transport management or consumer protection, it is all the same thing - learning from human beings' eternal pursuit of happiness about how to protect human beings not from other, wealthier, 'superior' human beings but even from themselves. It is about planning for development, not letting it happen to us, as happens in our Caribbean societies now. These are not Victorian times; it is the second decade of the 21st Century. Lives need not be lost so needlessly if we prepare against disaster, of any kind. Rather than invest money in 24-hour private security armies - a growth industry in Caribbean cities - let's plan to make our societies, and the cities that are their nucleus, more liveable for all.

Let's catch the bastards of September 3rd, by all means. Let us also reorder our priorities. Let's change the thinking that would lead a building owner to seal a back wall - for security purposes, no doubt. If there was a spontaneous combustion we wouldn't have two bogeymen to blame, only ourselves. Let's urge the business community, our schools and public institutions to develop and test serious plans for dealing with hazards, from fires to earthquakes to civil unrest.

In the meantime, we need to rewire our politicians' brains to pursue not mere economic growth and productivity targets, but goals for a just and well-ordered society. Let's build futures while we build malls. Let's import useful concepts as much as we import consumer goods. There are no fire marshals in any of our teeming metropolises, no one with real teeth to enforce regulations. Why must this continue?

But if we continue our materialistic and numbed existence, all that remains, then, is a nation's death by fire. The fire next time we cannot predict. But come it will, and leave us with nothing but the clothes on our back, and precious little else.

For we've sealed the backdoor.

ERRATUM: Since this posting, it has emerged that six women, three staff and three customers perished in the flames; no children.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Lead your people, PM: level with them

This is tough to write because a sick man is a sick man, whoever he is. We have been trained by our parents not to kick a man when he is down. We do not make light of illness. We are told not to disregard the impact of illness on a man or woman and their family.

So, this is tough to write, also because in following age-old manners, I might be seen to be breaking another tradition.

That tradition is to go away and curl up in a corner, away from public attention, when we are ill - that your illness is nobody's business but your own. It is a tradition rooted in some hypocrisy; witness the enormous traffic at visiting hours in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, by families, friends, acquaintances, fellow churchgoers, work mates, play mates, even the odd enemy. Serious illness tends to bring out the best in our humanity. I've witnessed, and participated in, the laying on of hands, the soulful touch, the kind and steady eye contact, the soft word, the cheerful smile, the disarming chuckle, as if by our mere presence we seek to heal - or to say goodbye without even betraying the slightest notion of a farewell.

That is our humanity in this part of the world. It becomes all the more striking that in the case of our seriously ill prime minister, the impulse that tends to kindness, from friends, supporters and strangers - and especially from detractors, foes, critics and enemies - is somewhat truncated by this cloak of near-secrecy that envelopes David John Howard Thompson.

I think that while the PM might be getting great medical advice he might not be getting - or taking - the best communication advice. He is the prime minister and the public have a right to know as much as they possibly can, both for his own benefit and for ours. Summoning the media to the issuing of a 15-minute statement of achievements, ended by an "oh, I'm off for two months for more tests" does neither himself, his party nor his country any good. We should continue to pray for his well-being but it is time to stop skirting around this matter. With great respect, sir, take your people into your confidence - or send them an email.

A full, frank disclosure is what we expect from a fellow we once knew or never really knew from a QEH sickbed. And yet, for the sake of the leader of our country, his advisors, supporters and relatives feel inclined to keep it all quiet.

One benefit of dialogue is the usually positive impact that health discussions tend to have on public health - the rest of us. It takes the protracted illness of a loved one, an acquaintance or even a celebrity to bring into sharp focus the disease or condition that afflicts the stricken. In the early 1980s, my first encounter with the word 'polyp' in a meaning other than the coral polyps whose deaths make our coral island possible was when polyps were removed from Ronald Reagan's colon. Indeed, my own knowledge of some forms of cancer should be enough to produce a radio or television show single-handedly based on my parents' own struggles with this wily disease.

And there's that C-word, the Great Unmentionable of old. Happily, more and more Barbadians are coming to mature terms with the disease and its many iterations, no doubt thanks to the work of the Cancer Society and to the simple Law of Averages that results in our knowing more cancer survivors.

Of course, Cancer is the Great Unmentionable in the case of the prime minister simply because it has not been identified as a cause of his illness. We simply do not know and he wants us to believe that he does not either. This is where the psychologists come in, I suppose, to talk about Cognitive Dissonance - the holding of completely contradictory notions in our puny heads. How is it - we ask ourselves silently - that we middle-aged people have seen enough of illness to ask whether our PM has cancer and yet we are being encouraged not to even think about it? What harm is this doing to the rest of us who now have or may yet have to deal with cancer and other serious illnesses and yet have Mr. Thompson's example of how to deal with it?

I believe a great opportunity for helping - and perhaps healing - can happen even now. Yet, the opportunity is being squandered because not even the most speculative article by any leading surgeon or oncologist is being written for our benefit. Not one of the great and good of the medical fraternity is coming on camera or radio to educate us about what the hell to do if you come down with severe stomach pains. Are patients and relatives not encouraged to educate themselves so they can ask educated questions of their doctors?

What is particularly galling about this affair is how another, less desirable aspect of the Barbadian social code is being invoked: when in doubt, make it up and gossip. As one ruling party insider put it, the rumour mill is more active in George Street than in Roebuck Street.

This does zero for the first patient among equals. Doctors often speak of the role that a positive outlook plays on patient outcome. Rough translation: if you are being told - verbally and non-verbally - that you will die, you tend not to live to 100.

So this is a big and tough ask of our leader; after all - as you, dear reader, will no doubt remind me - he is a human being after all. But we cannot ask of our leaders any less than we ask of ourselves, or of Mr So-and-So on Ward X at the QEH.

The people do have a right to know about our leaders' health. We also have a right to know about the medical check-up routines of our leaders generally, and with good reason, death having already robbed us of two sitting prime ministers and three governors general.

Leading 270,000-odd Barbadians - including this one - must doubtless be a source of unspeakable, sickness-inducing stress, but if we put aside our partisan blinders, man-up and woman-up, and remember that we are Barbadians first, we must demand more of our leaders, even when illness gives them fewer resources to give back.

Yet, at the very least there is a teachable moment here, and one that could heal both troubled spirit and ailing body, not the least of which is that of the Prime Minister of Barbados.

And get well, soon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

COMMENT: Blogging in Barbados, or Making It Up As You Go Along

When Samuel Morse perfected the electric telegraph in 1844, he sent a message using his brand new code of dots and dashes: "What God Hath Wrought". So began the whirlwind of modern telecommunications that has swept continent and island so remorselessly ever since.

Too often in these heady days of technological change and complexity I am left staggering with the same plaintive cry, "what God hath wrought". I am not in awe but in woe.

I cannot know precisely what Morse's motives were in sending those words. He did not attach a footnote. We can surmise somewhat safely that it was the humble oblation of a God-fearing man to his original inventor, the Man Upstairs.

I do wonder, though, if Morse, finger ready at the single key, became at once struck by the likely implications and impact of his machines and the wires that connected them. Just maybe, he peered into the crystal ball and saw an abyss - more messages to stir up a phony war than those to catch a murderer? Did he envisage instant communication to global audiences from the mind of a brilliant scholar or a deranged ideologue? What, ultimately, did he, or Bell or Marconi or DeForest or Baird some day expect? High theatre or hardcore porn?

A recent 'encounter' with a blogger in which a precis of a 30-second soundbite on television is used to make even longer attacks with such elegant turns of language as "spin", "bullshit" and "rubbish", has left me wondering again, "What God hath wrought?"

Now, I know that I am treading on dangerous ground here already. For in today's hypercritical, hyperbolic, hyper-hype world of instant communication, the thoughtless carries no less cache than the thoughtful. And like politicians, journalists are the last people to curse The People - they are both your cook and your driver. But just as we ought to be so discerning about the various flavours of mass media (books, magazines, television, radio, cinema), ought we not to cast a critical eye on the new forms of the so-called New Media, some of which are now keen to call themselves "social media"?

Too much of what I have come across from bloggers is derivative, carping, sniping, cheap, illogical, and fast. Too fast. It takes me so long to compose a piece, to agonise over splitting infinitives, to anchor my logic in facts and ideas that are themselves the product of thought, research and yes, checking! The story of Morse was embedded long ago in my brain during my kid-scientist phase but I still had to check, lest I fool myself and attempt to fool others.

In Barbados especially, at least two blogs have emerged with a self-proclaimed mission to do a better job of being the free press than the Press. But surely, do they really expect to do a better job at anything by not actually doing the legwork?

One blogger recently seared me on plans by Caribbean media workers (not media owners and managers) to assist in post-earthquake Haiti by doing some important reporting while actually helping our colleagues there with what they really need. Within days, a brief item on the television news was blogged, and bludgeoned by one author, as "spin", "bullshit", "rubbish". Not a quest for fact, not even a transcript of what was actually said to buttress the specious argument.

Sure, much of the smug self-satisfaction of a few bloggers is all the media's fault. We are a long way away from turning our local rags into the New York Times and our hometown tube into CNN and the BBC and... wait for it... we may never do so. It really is - to quote the former Barbadian journalist and Canadian public intellectual, Professor Cecil Foster - very hard to practice journalism in a small place. And indeed, the critique of the Caribbean media as being absent from the creation of our nation state can be much longer than the many stories of success and achievement, however modest. Yes, a pox on all our houses.

Yet, for all our warts, our media have not descended into the anarchic hate-machines that talk radio was in Rwanda or partisan media are to America's political inertia. Yes, there is now more commercial media than perhaps we need, media that see themselves less as sacred trusts and more as sacred cash cows; that criticism is more than valid.

But now, in today's catch-all, catch-nothing blogosphere, everyone is hunted down, has motives questioned and is summarily executed. It is harder to quarrel with a man who trots out text from a bottomless electronic pit than with the man who imports ink by the barrel.

So far, there is way too little in the way of original information, insight (do not read knee-jerk reaction) and investigation beyond the chirpy ranting of a few who might do modestly better with a pneumatic that they do with a keyboard.

When I read some of the great debates played out in the newspapers of the 1930s between the great Barbadian journalist Clennel Wickham and Grantley Adams on Socialism or even between the same Adams and the Jesuit priest Father Besant on Divorce, I am staggered by the incredibly high art of argument between a product of the Great War and elementary school and the Oxford graduate. Then, I am so easily deflated when I imagine how that argument would have been distorted, contorted and confused by appending a 'comments' space to the bottom, or, indeed, if left to some latter-day bloggers.

And bloggers are cannibals. Not only do they regurgitate someone else's intellectual effort (usually a journalist's) but as they jockey for preeminence in the blogging food chain, they pick off their own, especially the few bloggers who actually put their real names and their credentials in the public domain. Too many hide behind the keyboard and make pronouncements without first talking, I mean, really talking, to another living soul, let alone gather actual facts. Why should readers attach greater credence to a blogger, largely anonymous, whose only credentials are a familiarity with HTML?

It is our duty as citizens to demand more, much more from the media we pay for. It is our solemn duty as journalists to do more. Yet increasingly the media's work is often ripped off and ripped up by bloggers who offer nothing but pablum and platitude in return. It is time bloggers put out or shut up.

What we need, then, perhaps is not so much "social media" but more honest citizen journalism. That form of communication, despite what the new elite of the chattering classes of cyberspace may say, has not yet been wrought in the Caribbean.

Julius Gittens is a Caribbean journalist and broadcaster.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Caribbbean Earthquake Education Portal - but who's watching?

A comprehensive public education programme was produced for the Caribbean on earthquakes, and unveiled two months before the horrific 2010 Haiti earthquake. But the Caribbean media wanted to get paid to run the public service announcements and educational programmes - a mix of music videos, animation and tips for everyone from policymakers to media to general public. So check for yourself at www.weready.org.

The message: Drop, Cover and Hold On.