An independent state media

If it is true that Mr. Nigel Williams, the editor in chief of the Guyana Chronicle, was ‘taken aback’ by the level of public concern that met his decision to discontinue the weekly columns of Dr. David Hinds and Mr. Lincoln Lewis, he clearly is unable to adequately judge the socio/political setting of his employment, and this cannot be good for a journalist, much less an editor in chief. Given the history of the paper he manages, and living in the political cauldron that is Guyana, how could he possibly not have known that his dismissal of these columnists/activists would give rise to much questioning?

Almost everywhere that there is a state media, politicians have attempted to influence it, so why we expected that APNU+AFC would be any different is anyone’s guess.  It ceaselessly criticised its predecessor for similar infractions and we were clearly naïve in our belief that it would keep its manifesto promises to guarantee the independence of the media, remove barriers to access to the state media and appointments to it, etc. But as with other promises, since its accession to office the government has repeatedly had to be chided by both national and international agencies to the point where ‘The GPA (Guyana Press Association) called on the Government of Guyana to desist from carrying out certain actions that are inimical to press freedom and instead to subscribe to its promise of breaking with the past’ (SN: 3/5/17).

Mr. Williams would have us believe that it was the repositioning and prioritising of his organisation to better reflect ‘oil and gas, … national security and specifically border security areas’ that led him to decide to drop the two columns. It is becoming fashionable in government circles to shelter all manner of controversial decisions under the rubric of their having to do with national security and if this persists the level of national consensus that surrounds this concern will eventually diminish! That said, this impasse presents an opportunity for us to establish in clear and precise terms the degree of independence that there ought to be between the state media, the Chronicle in particular, and other actors, including the state itself.

Mr. Williams claimed that the decision to stop publishing the columns was taken by editorial management after ‘discussions at the highest level of the company in keeping with policy directions.’ The chairperson of the board of directors, Ms. Geeta Chandan-Edmond, has said that ‘the highest body of the company is the board and to say the highest body was consulted is a misrepresentation. The Board was never approached.’ However, Mr. Williams ‘stressed to Stabroek News that “following discussions at the highest level” was not the same as a board decision or directive.’ It appears to me that Mr. Williams has taken on the role of initiator to cover for some overzealous political operative, but whether this is so or not is not important here. At the very least, it is quite clear that he did not act without a discourse with those whom he believed could have authorised his action, and in some interpretation of the relationship between the company and the government (representatives of its owners) such relationship can exist beyond the board.

As I understand it, company or not, in our tradition once institutions are within the portfolio of a minister, bearing in mind the general objectives of the organisation, the minister is usually responsible to give the lead authority (a board in this case) general policy directions.  This is best done in writing but in practice may be verbally transmitted by way of the chairperson, secretary, or chief executive. It is then the duty of these persons to transmit the policy to the board for a final decision. Unless he thought the board a rubber stamp, it was not for the editor in chief to implement the decision without in one way or another getting the confirmation of the board. If indeed the editor was ‘taken aback’ by the negative response to his action, it suggests that he was in no position to properly advise those ‘higher’ policy persons of the possible consequences of their action, and the collective input of the board would have been helpful.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is viewed by many as a good example of the impartiality of the state media and if our approach above allows politicians a degree of direct policy interventions, conceptually the one adopted by the (BBC) does not. Of course, as indicated above, given the opportunity, politicians everywhere seek to meddle in the state media and in Britain they have over the years been accused of interfering. For example, it is said that during her historic quarrel with the trade union movement and the miners’ union in particular, conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discontinued the tradition of having one trade union leader on the board and appointed a succession of governors to bring the BBC ‘into line’ with government policy.  In ‘The BBC is neither independent or impartial’ Tom Mills presents a more holistic picture of this relationship.

Many elements go into making an effective and independent state media and two of the most important must be the general legal direction and how the board is constituted. Its charter (the latest is 2016) sets the tone by stating: ‘The BBC must be independent in all matters concerning the fulfillment of its Mission and the promotion of the Public Purposes, particularly as regards editorial and creative decisions, the times and manner in which its output and services are supplied, and in the management of its affairs.’ It goes on to say, ‘In accordance with article 3 (independence of the BBC), each member of the Board must at all times uphold and protect the independence of the BBC including by acting in the public interest, exercising independent judgment and neither seeking nor taking instructions from Government Ministers or any other person.’

The BBC is governed by a fourteen-member  Board  of which  the chairperson is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of government, four non-executive members are appointed by the relevant ministry to represent each of the four nations of the  country, the BBC appoints a further five non-executive members and four BBC executives including the BBC Director-General. The BBC’s non-executive appointments were made after an open national advertisement and interviews by a panel consisting of the chairperson and two others, one being an independent persons.

The question for government, Ms. Chandan-Edmond, her board, and other stakeholders in the coming days is which of these basic models of state media management (or admixture of them) best fit our condition? It appears to me that in this deeply divided society, where consensus needs to be specifically created around every important social intervention, the latter is preferable. Although the BBC’s appointment process will most certainly be too rich for our politicians to stomach, the entire process will only be optimally applied if board positions are broadly and equitably distributed to include all stakeholders and enable the gradual growth of a culture of independence.

henryjeffrey@yahoo.com

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