11 February 2007

Wha sweet Nanny Goat

Wha sweet Nanny Goat
Common Sense

John Maxwell
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Paradoxically, journalists in the western world tend to have less freedom of expression than most of their fellow citizens. Their freedom is often circumscribed by their employment.

In Jamaica, their freedom is further restricted by the presence in the media of people masquerading as journalists whose main qualification appears to be an inability to keep their mouths shut, especially when the subject is as exotic and arcane as politics and the environment.

Most of them do not understand the first thing about human rights in general and freedom of the press in particular. Even some real journalists appear not to have informed themselves on the subject as completely as they
ought, despite decades of journalistic experience.

And relative newcomers such as the cartoonist Las May really owe it to themselves to find out what it really means, his pitiful cartoons on the subject notwithstanding. His most egregious: picturing himself as an icon for freedom of the press, having been stabbed in the back by Desmond Richards, president of the Press Association. If he regards that as a stab in the back, this column to him must count as the attempted assassination of press freedom.

Freedom of the press does not belong to the press, as many imagine. Freedom of the press is a human right derived from the freedom of expression guaranteed supposedly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and documents such as the Jamaican and Trinidad Constitution. Freedom of the press, being a human right, cannot belong to corporations.

As I said in my fourth column for this newspaper, in April 1996: "Of all the people in the English speaking world, editors have the least real freedom, the most restricted human rights. In France, and many European countries, editors and editorial boards really do run their papers, and the proprietors behave as they do in any other business, leaving the management to the managers. Their relations are governed by 'statutes' which define policy and mark out territory for both sides."

Those remarks were provoked by a controversy in Trinidad, where freedom of the press is supposedly guaranteed in the constitution. That did not prevent

Mr Anthony Sagba, the head honcho of McAl Alston, the Trinidad Guardian's parent company, telling his editorial employees some years ago to shut up and mind their business. Mr Sagba refused to allow his journalists to question the behaviour of the conglomerate which owned the paper and its dealings with the government.

In graphic language, Mr Sagba was reported to have said that in addition to employing journalists he sold things like razor blades in his supermarkets and he wasn't about to let his
Journalists damage him any more than he would allow his throat be cut by one of his razor blades. To him, the newspaper was simply another commodity.


The Jamaica Gleaner, in its comment on the matter, was upset that nearly a dozen journalists had resigned because of the dispute. Journalists, it said "should not concern themselves with management decisions which were outside of their competence. They should settle down and go back to their jobs."

At that, I quoted AJ Liebling who had sarcastically said " Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one".
As I tell my students in my Journalistic Ethics class, my rights end where yours begin. If we all enjoy equal rights, nobody can claim a right that supersedes anyone else's.

Yet, that is precisely the argument put forward by my old colleagues Ken Chaplin and Ken Jones. In defending the scurrilous cartoon authored by Las May and published by the Gleaner, Ken Jones is puzzled by the righteous anger provoked by the cartoon. Referring to Desmond Richards, Jones says that the president of the Press Association "does not take the broader view that female politicians claiming [sic] equal rights must be prepared to accept equal treatment in the rough and tumble of the political arena."

As one defender of press freedom has said "if the political kings have bled for years at the cartoonists' hands why should the emergent queens be granted special immunity."

In the first place, I challenge Jones and anyone else to show me a cartoon as viciously offensive directed at any other politician in our history. Las May's cartoon is right out of the gutter. The prime minister is depicted as a common street 'gal', exposing her behind, shoeless and with a nose ring the purpose of which is obscure but obviously pejorative.


Mr Jones is being disingenuous. Mr Chaplin, from a lofty, apparently aristocratic perch, declares that "whether in the role of prime minister or as ordinary citizen, she is expected to act with dignity and decorum at all times" and opines that the "prime minister has tried hard to do this and succeeds at times."
She tries hard and succeeds at times, does she? How NICE of Mr Chaplin to notice!!!

Las May is therefore obviously justified in 'satirising Mrs Simpson Miller as a donette in an inner-city community.'
Mr Chaplin may have more experience of 'donettes' than I, but what I saw in the cartoon was a spiteful attempt not just to take the PM down a few pegs, but to portray her as a morally deficient and violent 'sketel' from whom any sensible person would be advised to keep her/his distance.


Fortunately for the rest of us there are others with, shall we say, a more balanced viewpoint. Mrs Doreen Frankson, president of the Jamaica Manufacturer's Association (but making the point that she was speaking for herself and not for the JMA), declared the cartoon equivalent to 'editorial rape'. Mrs Frankson said the cartoon demeaned all women, not simply the prime minister, an opinion with which I agree.

Mrs Frankson says the cartoon "assumes categorically that women will resort to debased behaviour to deal with issues in the public forum." How can any editor support this? Mrs Frankson asks:
It is a question that I also ask; especially since Mrs Frankson's letter was published in the Gleaner omitting the remarks noted in this column. Perhaps she wrote different letters to each newspaper?
And one wonders what the other members of the JMA think, since Mrs Frankson was obviously out there on her own.

Agostinho Pinnock in a letter to the editor of the Gleaner, suggested that the "levels of disrespect and contempt displayed by this cartoon are worrying signs, as they clearly communicate that "criticising the press is not a well-supported goal in this two-way press freedom relationship."

Mr Sameer Younis makes the excellent point that fair comment should be based on facts and that the cartoon failed this test. Of course it does and the law on defamation makes this very point. Ken Jones, in justifying this outrageous assault, which even he calls 'merciless' argues that the prime minister brought it upon herself by giving a flippant and facetious reply to serious questions about her use of public funds. Wow!

And the problem with rape, no doubt, is that many women bring it upon themselves by flippant and facetious behaviours that provoke the rapist.


What is even more bizarre about this journalistic disaster is that both Ken Jones and Ken Chaplin contend that cartoonists have special licence, not granted to other journalists. Mr Jones calls it 'lampooners' licence and says, in an aside, that "persons outside the profession may be excused for describing Mr May's work as vulgar."

The law, I am afraid, is not on the side of 'special licence' and I believe most people in or out of journalism regard the cartoon as vulgar in the extreme, vicious and in the worst possible taste.
One problem that all May's supporters ignore is the implicit reference in the cartoon to the prime minister's working class antecedents, and though they themselves may not endorse the belief, there are many men and women in Jamaica who feel the proper place for a poor black girl is a job as a domestic helper. If Mr May's journalistic antecedents were similarly explored, his defenders might not feel as comfortable backing him against the PM.

There are people who take a very strong line on freedom of the press when the threat is perceived to come from the left. When Michael Manley led a march to the Gleaner in the 1970s and intoned "Next time, Next Time" some people interpreted it as an attack on freedom of the press.

Their memories are too short. A few weeks before Independence in 1962 the Prime Minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante accompanied by the minister of development, one Edward Seaga, went to the offices of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation to demand that a commentator, one John Maxwell, be fired because he had said words amounting to the following: "After 300 years of exploiting Jamaica the British have presented us with a less than munificent going away present. They have given us enough money to pay the civil service for 11 days and have generously presented us with Up Park Camp which they can't take back to Britain."

On Bustamante's and Seaga's instructions I was fired by the chairman of the JBC. I was reinstated by the rest of the board, which was in turn fired by Mr Seaga after which I was again sent packing by the new board. Two years after Independence the government attempted to edit the JBC news, and fired George Lee, now Mayor of Portmore and Adrian Rodway, both news editors of the JBC, because they didn't agree.

That led to a strike which led eventually to the total destruction of the JBC's reputation and eventually, of the JBC itself.


In 1964 when I had been editor of Public Opinion for two years, government ministers increased the ferocity of their public threats about what they were going to do to me and to one of my contributors, Bill Carr, an English lecturer at the University. The Work Permit law was introduced hopefully to deal with such as Bill Carr but failed, because of the objections of our partners in the UWI. There was even a debate about Public Opinion in Parliament, where I presented a special difficulty to the government, because though they could deport Carr other ways had to be found to shut me up.

What was my offence? Saying that Bustamante, as everybody knew, was too old for the job and should resign and allow Donald Sangster to be prime minister in name as well as in fact. My criticisms of the PM were denounced with fanciful epithets such as 'rude and indecent'.

Then came the bombshell. The government decided that civil servants would be fired if found with a copy of Public Opinion and in a circular issued by the financial secretary,
G Arthur Brown decreed that the paper should get no advertising from the government, while entities in receipt of any public funds were forbidden to enter into any contract with the City Printery which owned Public Opinion. Since we had just bought a press to fulfil a long-term printing contract with the UWI that was tantamount to cutting our throats.

The editor of the Gleaner and the president of the Jamaica Press Association Theodore Sealy in each case agreed that the government had the right to decide how it spent its funds. There was no reason to intervene, and anyway it was "All So Complex" according to an editorial in the Gleaner.

The Inter American Press Association, the celebrated IAPA, then meeting in Montego Bay, declined to intervene because they could see NO THREAT to press freedom.

The Jamaica Press Association immediately drew up a code of conduct to deal with people like Maxwell. The code of conduct is one of the most unusual journalists' codes in the world; its main emphasis is on protecting public figures from the assaults of journalists.

Ken Chaplin was secretary of the Press Association then, and on December 5, 2003, he published in his Observer column reminiscences of the PAJ. "Unfortunately, the code of ethics is not widely adhered to and very few journalists especially the younger ones, are aware of the provisions".

And he warned the PAJ to try and correct this because "today's journalists are more aggressive than those in the distant past."
Apparently not more aggressive than John Maxwell, whose behaviour provoked, among other strictures in the code prohibitions against "writing or publishing vulgarity aimed at individuals, institutions or groups as well as unwarranted attacks on their dignity, honour and prestige. Writing or publishing matter which may be subversive or harmful to the unity of the people or likely to lead to violence or to a breach of the peace" (Bustmante himself had publicly threatened to have me shot but 'only in the leg, because you have a pretty wife!')

My attacks on that prime minister, that is, my references to his age and competence, fell foul of these rules.
Mr Las May's vulgar abuse of this prime minister apparently does not.

One wonders what Messrs Chaplin and Jones said at that time. Unfortunately, we don't have to wonder what they say now.

Copyright©2007 John Maxwell

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