15 February 2009

Reading the Papers

John Maxwell

Journalists are taught to read everything. Other people's unvalued facts may make important stories.

In 1962 just before Independence I was not in very good odour with the Government. One Monday in June, I think, the Minister in charge of Broadcasting, one Edward Seaga, appeared at the [Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation] JBC towing behind him the Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante. Both dressed in funereal black, they had come to demand my head.

In a radio commentary on Saturday night, rebroadcast on Sunday morning, I had mocked the British for announcing an Independence birthday farewell present to Jamaica after 300 years of exploitation. In their gracious benevolence they would give us Up Park Camp, which I pointed out they could hardly take away with them, and one million pounds, enough to pay Jamaica's administrative costs for 11 days and rather less than Jamaicans had voluntarily raised for Britain when they were on the bones of their exchequer in the Battle of Britain.

To make a long story less boring, the Chairman of JBC's board agreed that I should be fired. When the Board heard what he had done they forced him to resign and declared that I had not been sacked. Later, Mr Seaga fired the entire JBC Board, and after some months and a post-dated letter of dismissal signed by JBC's general manager, then in London, I was finally, successfully fired, the second of four sackings from the JBC, the only place I've ever been fired from in my life.

All this is simply to entertain you and to explain my interest in the Royal visit attending the Independence celebrations.

Anyway, having survived my first encounter with the politicians I was still the de facto head of the newsroom. When I received the first printed agenda for the Royal visit I was struck by one curious set of entries.

Whenever the Prime Minister was mentioned the style was "Sir Alexander Bustamante and Another"

I took the thing to Hector Bernard, then head of News and Public Affairs. I pointed out to him that in the past, in these agendas, it had always been "Sir Alexander Bustamante and his Private Secretary" We thought about it and, like the good detectives we were, decided that a fundamental change was afoot – the Prime Minister and his Private Secretary were about to be married. A little more work and phone-calls and we were sure. As a result I was the only reporter at the wedding, and despite Busta's hard words about me a few weeks earlier he invited me to the reception at Tucker Avenue where I had a long talk with Donald Sangster about the unruliness of his ministers and was commanded by the Prime Minister to kiss his bride – against her will, though she later forgave me. Neither Seaga nor D.C. Tavares was present either at the ceremony or the champagne breakfast.

Arrogant ignorance

Reading the world's papers this week has been something of a chore. Reading the Gleaner provoked uncharitable thoughts about ignoramuses showing off their ignorance. I cannot imagine what could have provoked any editor to publish a letter which began:

'Believe it or not, there is more than a spurious link between the existence of a Minimum Wage Act and the recent calls from some quarters to validate, constitutionally, the 'right to strike'. Neither is of benefit to the Jamaican worker in the context of a globalised economic system characterised by the free movement of capital and labour.'

Where in this globalised world is there the free movement of labour?
What on earth is a spurious link?

It would seem to me that any editor, faced with such an outrageous fantasy would have sent the letter to the religious editor or the guy who gives tips on the lottery.

The letter enraged me anyway, by its immoderate oxymoronic pretensions and because of my personal involvement in the creation of a National Minimum Wage and my connection to the right of Jamaicans to be represented by trade unions and to strike.

In 1956 a few of us came together to found the Jamaica Union of Journalists and begin a one sided struggle against the Gleaner. After proclaiming the duties its 'solus' position imposed in relation to the Public Interest, the company decreed that no union such as ours, affiliated no matter how tenuously to a 'politically affiliated union'(the NWU) should be allowed to represent its editorial workers.

The company's chairman, Neville Ashenheim, saw nothing wrong being leader of Opposition business in the legislative council and chairman of the JLP. It was this piece of imperialist impertinence which drove NW Manley to pledge, and Michael Manley to implement two decades later a law for the compulsory recognition of trade unions – among other things. That law is called the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act.

I agree with Dwight Nelson of the BITU that the right to strike should be constitutionally protected. Reagan and Thatcher in their first faltering steps to globalised fascism were strategically correct in striking at the unions, in pauperising them preliminary to pauperising the working classes they represented.

The Songs of the Shirtless

In 1973 I had been back in Jamaica for a couple of years after five years of involuntary exile in Britain. Hector Bernard asked me to design a public affairs programme for the middle of the day. At that time of the day JBC's audience ranged between undetectable and negligible.

The station had nothing to lose

I designed a programme which for idiosyncratic reasons, I named Public Eye. I would be the eyes, ears and voice of the poor although I didnt tell anyone that that was my intention . It soon became obvious. I'd met Rosalind Wiltshire and Gillian Monroe who had been doing some university research about domestic helpers and persuaded them to come on the show and discuss their work.

Their interview revealed some real horror stories about the treatment of the largest single segment of Jamaica's labour force. I asked helpers to phone me and either confirm or contradict the stories.

For the next year and more Public Eye was deluged by some of the most wrenching tales of injustice, oppression and brutality done to the women of Jamaica.

The programme took off and in about three months became the single most popular programme on the air, although RJR sniffily objected that the local soap, Dulcimina, had at one time been more popular.

Public Eye at midday was pulling in the sort of audiences editors only dream of. It became so popular and so subversive that a brand new phenomenon blossomed. In those days of dial phones there were locks available to disable dialing. Public Eye created a hot-cakes business out of telephone locks.

A woman in a Mercedes spat at me as I walked on South Odeon Avenue one day and some middle-class elements began to suggest that I was planning to lead some helpers' insurrection. The entire society was caught up in the argument and Public Eye became the arena for the new revolution of conscience which threatened to sweep Jamaica.

Public Eye transformed 'servants' and 'maids' into helpers and transformed the way working women saw themselves and how they were treated.

With the momentum built by the helpers other women's issues took the headlines, equal pay, maternity leave for all workers . One day, when I was off the air, Michael Manley called me to Jamaica House. He was desperate, almost miserable.

What could we do about the helpers? No union could represent them but their need was great. I suggested a National Minimum wage, first suggested by Marcus Garvey half a century before.

But they say it won't work, said Michael.

But on the programme, women had already given me the answer. It was simple. Regulate wage and hours and set up an office to which people could turn for enforcement and redress.

There were all sorts of objections, some of them regurgitated last week by my friend Pearnell Charles.

Michael knew that the idea would be fought down by experts of every kind, including those in the party executive and the Cabinet. so he told no one but Beverly and me what he intended to do and one fine day in his next budget speech he informed Parliament of his intentions, for the first time, at last!

Pandemonium. Even Opposition MPs congratulated and thanked him.

A few months later I was fired from the JBC for the third time.

Falmouth and Roselle.

We keep on doing the same crazy things we have always done and call it development.

We are living in a dreamworld. Outside of Jamaica interest rates have almost disappeared. In Jamaica we believe that increasing rates can defend the Jamaican dollar against the selfishness of those with great wealth and the urge to use it purely for their own purposes. As one British lawmaker said recently, around the world people are looking forward to some public hangings and leading bankers obliged to a certain extent a few days ago with abject public apologies for the havoc their behaviour has caused to the public interest. Many still expect to get away with their misfeasances and malfeasances.

The Gleaner produced an extraordinary editorial on Tuesday, endorsing Hernando de Soto's idea of collaterising the poor. The Gleaner got hold of the wrong end of the stick, however, apparently seeing the idea as a way of justifying the squandering of public property (a la PJ) with the excuse that it was all done in good faith.

If the poor are to be given property, clearly the property they deserve should be the lands they have sweated and died on for five hundred years, not the government owned forests and portfolio property that will soon find its way into the hands of speculators.

In reinventing Jamaica we need to realise that Jamaica is our property, not the property of whoever asserts the first claim. Whoever's name is on the title the purpose should be production and use in the public interest. The World Bank reported 50 years ago that 'in Jamaica, absolute ownership of land, meant in principle the absolute right of the owner to ruin the land in his own way.'

In Falmouth we are seeing some of the result of the attitude spotlighted by the World bank. Now that the UDC is 'into the environment' the Port Authority has picked up the universal destruction baton and is ready to destroy Falmouth in the interest of cruise shipping.

What these geniuses don't understand is that cruise shipping is busy positioning itself to destroy conventional tourism and that the Oasis of the Seas, for which we are destroying Falmouth, is the pilot in this enterprise.

When Falmouth becomes the excremental or PortaPottie capital of the world, one hopes that some of the PAJ and NRCA geniuses will still be around to experience at first hand, the glories of foreign defecation.

At Roselle in St Thomas, we are repeating our mistakes. Half a century ago, Roselle was protected from erosion by permeable groynes, piers of concrete in the sea which slowed down the littoral (longshore) drift of the local currents to get the water to deposit a few grains of sand on its way westward.

These days the destruction of the river training works in the watersheds of the Yallahs, Johnson and other rivers in St Thomas means millions of acres of 'free sand' to be mined by so called private enttrepreneurs.

The problem of course is that the Water Commission in diverting most of the water from St Thomas left no incentive for protecing the farmland which now ends up in the hoppers of gigantic tipper trucks which destroy the road at Roselle and destroys the Palisadoes peninsula, since the sand which formerly nourished the strip is now shipped all over Jamaica to support 'development'

Nobody seems to believe that it is worth finding sustainable solutions to any of these problems. So, no matter what we do, we will lose Falmouth, we will lose Roselle and most of the St Thomas road and we certainly will lose the Norman Manley International Airport.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Copyright ©2009 John Maxwell


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