Friday, October 19, 2007

Living up to George’s legacy

Endpiece. Commonwealth Press Quarterly, Aug 2007

I loved my job as editor of the Kelowna Daily Courier in the glorious Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada. Skiing in the winter; boating, golfing and the 19th hole in summer; an almost crime free environment and that genteel ‘no, after you’ society Canadians do so well –what wasn’t to like?
Trouble was, nothing much ever happened. The news editor would scramble together a daily news list that barely satisfied the appetite. We’d work hard to make not a lot out of nothing and hope the readers accepted it was them, not us, who wasn’t doing much. Twelve years later and I’m in Trinidad & Tobago having the opposite problem. There’s too much going on.
Murders, kidnaps, road deaths, government corruption and acts beastly and heroic – everything you’d have in a newspaper of your dreams, and more.
Our afternoon news list often bears little resemblance to its morning counterpart as so much breaking news has broken. My skills at making the most of what we’ve go honed back in Kelowna, are almost redundant. Stories guaranteed leads in thousands of newspapers around the world struggle to make it into our first 10 pages.
As I write, this week we’ve had a businessman abducted and found dead in a cane field with a plastic bag on his head, a woman killed in a car crash after swerving to avoid a jay-walking pedestrian and four men murdered in one evening. None of these stories were on the front page.
The Readership Institute’s research on why people don’t buy newspapers listed “The paper makes me fearful” as one of the big turn-offs, and while we’re never going to sanitise the news or desensitise the reader we are mindful crime isn’t all there is to report. While I try to leave my so-called civilised world sensibilities behind it’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons about the downright unfairness of life here.
A sad tale of an 11-year-old girl who drank poison at school because she was upset by bullying turned into a sordid story of incest, neglect and abuse. She lived in a cocoa-drying house with no water and electricity and was subjected to a torrid life almost beyond comprehension, unloved not just by her family but also by any kind of health or social service provision.
Meanwhile in the capital, Port of Spain, the finishing touches are being put to the newly-renovated Prime Minister’s residence. At TT$148 million it boasts a ‘diplomatic centre’ and enough bedrooms for all the cabinet to stay the night. Thirty minutes from the cocoa-drying house construction continues on the TT$275 million Brian Lara stadium and cricket academy at Tarouba. This was supposed to be ready for the Cricket World Cup in April and still isn’t much more than a big hole in the ground.
Patients sit for days in a hospital corridor because there are no beds. Children as young as five work openly in the markets because no one cares, or dares, to do anything about it.
All this makes me think about George John, a friend to journalism here in Trinidad & Tobago, the Caribbean and the Commonwealth. For 70 years he used the columns of many newspapers – including my own – to promote the joys of freedom and responsibility, cricket and calypso and almost everything else in between.
He died in March and a book of his writings has just come out, reminding me of the part I have to play in continuing his legacy. He reminds me of the 1997 Green Paper on Media Law Reform and its Draft Code of Ethics which the government of the day intended to impose on media reporting.
It read: “Journalists and newspapers should endeavour to highlight and promote activities of the State and the public which aim at national unity and solidarity, [and] integrity of Trinidad and Tobago, and economic and social progress.”
“Humbug to that,” said the thinkers of the day and the proposal died along with the aspirations of the UNC Government that lost the next election. Like much of the Commonwealth we continue to operate without any legislative framework save for one “Freedom of the Press” line enshrined in the constitution.
So we continue to govern ourselves, act responsibly when we feel like it and take pot-shots at politicians, businessmen and other inept and corrupt individuals who don’t fall into either category.
Coupled with this legislative free-for-all and buoyant news market is an almost complete lack of journalism education and training. People come and go through the gaping holes in the fences of the fourth estate, bringing bad habits and leaving a nasty smell.
But we’re doing our best to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged, call to account those who should be protecting them while also looking to our own industry by developing a proper internship scheme producing the well-rounded, robust journalists of tomorrow. George John, I hope, would approve.

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