Power and the glare of public scrutiny

Not least among the challenges of holding political office is the sense of unease that is often felt by the office holder about being constantly in the public limelight and as a consequence, being almost always open to public scrutiny and to the mix of adulation and criticism that attends the occupancy of political office. Ask the British Prime Minister Theresa May who had to endure a tirade of media criticism following the Conservative Party’s loss of its parliamentary majority at general elections held in June this year; or ask US President Donald Trump, for whom sustained public criticism has become an occupational hazard…never mind the fact that President Trump’s combative nature creates the impression that criticism places him squarely in his comfort zone.

It is the way democracy works or at least ought to work. Within the confines of the law and taking the tenet of decency into account, public personages, particularly, are fair game. To make the point even more robustly, the media have a responsibility to monitor and critique the institutions and individuals that comprise government. It is part of the process of holding them accountable.

One should add that the process affords the public personages their own prerogatives, like that of defending themselves and justifying their performances through their various media minders and state-run public information agencies.

This, one might think, is a perfect recipe for the cut and thrust of democratic behaviour, an environment in which the right of free, and we insist, fair comment attended by a reciprocal right of response, obtains. Here in Guyana, today, we are a good deal closer to that mix of give and take than we used to be. There used to be a time when official intolerance of media criticism of high officials and offices was far more frequent. It was one of those propensities that was used as a yardstick to assess the extent of our commitment to democratic behaviour. Old habits die hard and from one ‘season’ to the next, official displeasure over media criticism of persons in high office has persisted.

It is as much the right of Minister Nicolette Henry- or any other Minister for that matter  –to have their respective media minders fight their corners – whenever they feel that they have come under unfair public attack or media criticism. As has already been mentioned holding the performances of public officials up to the light of public scrutiny is part of why the media exist. The other half of the equation, of course, is the right of response.

One might add, of course, that Minister Henry is by no means the only Minister in the APNU+AFC administration who has come under media scrutiny. Where there are limitations and/or shortcomings in the performances Ministries, it is, almost invariably, the performance of the political head that comes under scrutiny first. Here, it is a matter of understanding that power is attended by both privilege and responsibility.

Minister Henry has been dealt a challenging hand by President Granger. She has been plucked from the relative obscurity of Minister within the Ministry of Education with responsibility for Culture, Youth and Sport and pitchforked into the exacting cauldron of one of most demanding ministerial portfolios. Once that happened it was inevitable that both her credentials and her stamina for such an exacting office would come under the microscope.  That is what has been happening.

The APNU+AFC administration has opted to emulate its predecessor by assigning the education portfolio to a functionary whose credentials for such an undertaking are, truth be told, not exactly crystal clear. That fact, too, was bound of attract a fair measure of public bewilderment, as indeed it has, given the prevailing concerns about the state of our education system…so the energetic enquiries regarding Minister Henry’s credentials for the job ought to be regarded as neither surprising nor unfair. What too was to be expected was that once she was appointed Minister of Education some observers would hark back to what was perceived to be her underperformance in the execution of assignments associated with the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations. That too is an altogether commonplace dynamic of public discourse in our country.

Such fretfulness as appears to have surfaced over two Stabroek News editorials is consistent with the displeasure that sometimes surfaces in some quarters over the holding high officials of government up to public scrutiny, a matter to which this editorial alluded earlier. That is a propensity which professional media, mindful of their responsibility to a far wider audience, must simply grin and bear.

The Stabroek News’ abiding interest in the materialization of an education system that embarks on a focused trajectory towards laying the foundation for the creation of a pool of skills that can provide a fulsome response to Guyana’s developmental needs compels us to wish the Minister well and to support her and the Ministry of Education’s initiatives to take education in that direction. That support will continue to include affording her portfolio the same objective scrutiny that obtains in the treatment of other public personages and the state agencies that they are charged with managing.

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