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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.