Gecom’s Media Monitoring Unit (MMU) performed an important service before, during and after the 2006 elections, and has been resuscitated again for the purpose of the 2011 elections. The Unit’s first report covering the month of September was released recently, and it is clear from this that the monitors have been as conscientious and careful as they were on the previous occasion. If there are one or two minor reservations, these relate not to the application of the guidelines which informed their efforts, for as already noted that was exemplary, but to the applicability of the guidelines to every category which they listed for monitoring.

The most problematical area by far is the letters column.  In outlining its methodology in the preliminary section of the report, the Unit listed “balance, accuracy, fairness and equity” as its criteria for assessing media content. Where the letters are concerned, it must be assumed that for the most part they are not applying these principles to individual letters, so much as to the letters section taken as a whole, since one clearly cannot apply quite the same standards to a member of the public seeking to express a view as to a newspaper.

Where balance in particular is concerned, the point should be made that newspapers which are operating in good faith have no control over the letters which are sent to them for publication, and if they receive more which are critical than complimentary of a party or government project, or vice versa, some of these cannot be withheld in the hope that others will appear in time for publication in order to achieve a ‘balance’ in the viewpoints expressed. To evaluate purely in terms of balance, is also to make assumptions − among other things − about the genuineness or otherwise of the letters (a subject which will be elaborated on below), and/or about the deliberate suppression of some perfectly bona fide correspondence to the editor. It is in addition to ignore some of the guidelines for publication which a given paper might have in place, for example, such as whether a letter has appeared elsewhere already, and whether it constitutes  commentary on a column which is normally published in another section of the media.

Of course, the MMU can look at individual letters in the light of ethical violations, which it lists as including “ethnic/racial incitement, inflammatory language, unsubstantiated political allegations and distortion.” There is a caveat, however; as mentioned already, the public cannot be held to the same standard of accuracy and lack of distortion which would apply to a news report, and while obvious errors and egregious distortions should be edited, not every ‘factual’ statement is amenable to checking, and in certain cases this newspaper has recourse to sending the letter for comment to the person or agency named in it.
It also would challenge conventional notions of freedom of expression for an editor to excise or even in some circumstances to try and mitigate a very biased view, however unpalatable that view per se might appear to be. The borderline between freedom of speech and unacceptable copy where letters are concerned, is nowhere near as clearly defined as either monitors or editors would like it to be. Having said that, however, the Unit would be absolutely in order to hold the editors of a newspaper responsible for allowing language that was inciteful or inflammatory to appear in a letter to the editor.

There is another more fundamental problem. As the MMU will be aware, the 2011 Media Code of Conduct contains a segment which was not reflected in the 2006 Code, namely, that newspaper editors should avoid publishing letters from phantom correspondents by checking the identities of signatories. This continues to be a problem in some sections of the print media, and unless, therefore, the Unit is in a position to determine which letters are genuine and which are not, and whether some newspapers are more prone to publishing correspondence which they know to emanate from letter-writing factories, for example, then it cannot undertake the kind of comparison which was produced in the September report. In other words, it would be difficult for the MMU to discharge its mandate as far as this aspect of the Media Code is concerned, although in some instances it may be in a position to draw obvious inferences.

The guidelines as they apply to the other sections are the same as the ones in 2006, although under the report’s ‘General Observations’ in respect of news stories, it might be remarked in passing that the Unit’s conclusion that the overuse of  “clichés” such as “sources within,”  “sources close to,” “political observers” and “experts in the field” functioned as a means of introducing personal opinions into news or as news itself cannot be sustained as a blanket statement, although it may be true in some cases. The MMU, of course, is right to deplore the contamination of news with comment; however, it perhaps should operate with a little caution before condemning the use of unnamed sources, however frequent, in all instances. In the current context even ordinary people are reluctant to go on the record owing to a public perception, be it right or wrong, that they could be victimised.

More significant is the fact that public servants operate under the constraint of Rule F16 of the Public Service Rules debarring any official from speaking to the media without the permission of the minister. Circulated first under the Hoyte presidency, it has never been withdrawn, and unless a minister empowers a PS or some other official to speak, any civil servant, including an employee of a state agency, does so at his or her peril. For the most part, therefore, the press is dependent on ministers for comment, and quite often they will not speak. Elucidating what is really going on in relation to a given project, for instance, often depends on the willingness of an official source to comment unattributed, so as things stand it is simply not possible to get anywhere near the truth without recourse to anonymous sources.

It should be observed that the Unit has included government in its surveys along with the political parties, and since government looms so large in the political and national landscape, it receives a great deal of attention from the leaders. One cannot help feeling, however, that balance as calculated on the basis of for or against, is not the best method for assessing editorials in all circumstances.  Leaders should be fair (this is a criterion used by the MMU), and the arguments they put forward should be reasoned and rational; however, in a thirty-day period fifteen editorials for the government, say, and fifteen against will be no guarantee of fairness, reasoning or  rationality. On the contrary, it may, for example, simply mean that they have nothing to say and have said nothing, which defeats the purpose of an editorial.

Ultimately, of course, if, for the sake of argument, a government transgresses all kinds of rules, it would be to introduce an altogether artificial balance to expect that an equal amount of positive commentary about it should be carried; apart from anything else that could produce a result which might not reflect the truth in a larger sense. And a paper must always be honest in its views, otherwise it is not operating in good faith. It is legitimate and expected for newspapers to have a point of view; it is certainly not legitimate for that point of view to infect their news reports, as the MMU rightly recognizes.

Having said all that, however, since the Unit will no longer be covering government after nomination day, then its criterion of balance where editorials are concerned will become more appropriate than it is now, since it will be limited to comparing the commentary on the political parties per se.

As with editorials, so with columnists. The retaining of these by a credible newspaper relates to the quality of their commentary, rather than whether the paper has, say, three of the one and three of the other, in terms of perceived political persuasion. However, again, once the campaign gets fully under way, and all the newspapers in particular (in addition to the one which does so already), start giving space in one form or another directly to the political parties, then the Unit’s ‘balance’ criterion will be eminently relevant in assessing how this is done.

The personnel of the Unit are only responsible for the implementation of the guidelines, not for their creation, and for the most part, those guidelines have proved their worth. With the wisdom of hindsight, perhaps the possibility of some discussion with the media concerning the letters-to-the-editor column in particular could have been entertained, given that there is a new requirement in relation to these in the Media Code of Conduct. Even so, the guidelines are at best in need of tweaking, not of serious reform, since the principles which inspired them are still as meaningful as ever.

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