The recent series of changes at CNMG have sparked a series of evolving discussions. I was one of the three people ‘let go’ from CNMG and that was reported briefly on my blog.
I am starting to reflect on some aspects of all this recent interest, but no, this not an anti-PP column or one about how wicked politicians are and so on.
What kind of talk is that?
The first thing that occurred to me is how the media conversation has blown up in sheer size and how that has had an effect on the quality of our national conversation.
In the so-called ‘good old days’, before the shift I am about to describe, the only people who really had a voice in our society were those who were approved, such as government ministers and their spokespersons, established journalists, the ‘great and good‘ and of course the brave and imaginative ones who were our activists. In fact, the last-named group were the voice of the voiceless, who fought to uplift our society. Of course in that group you would have to include the leading calypsonians and ‘troublemakers’ of their era.
From its beginnings about 20 years ago, we have moved far from the post-independence period in which the voices heard on the national media of Radio and TV were very limited. The NAR regime 1986-1991 decisively brought that to an end with the grant of more broadcast licences and the real birth of ‘talk radio’. TV call-ins soon followed and of course, the internet/email broke onto the scene in the mid-1990s. The final stage in this progression is the growth of new-wave social media – such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc. – to the point where they have now eclipsed the older formats like web-pages.
As a result of all that, we now have many people, who never had a voice as individuals, being able to project their ideas onto a huge stage. That is literally unprecedented. The new conversation has opened up serious new challenges and opportunities.
One of the most detrimental of our habits is mauvais langue – just plain bad-talking people behind their back, but not showing it when you meet those same people. As young people would say – Pure hate, just acting normal.
I hold the view that mauvais langue is the biggest cultural obstacle to our development as a nation. I say that because it is my view that without an open exchange of ideas, the possibility of change is very limited. In this new situation, someone can add a mischievous or irrelevant comment to the discussion, without ever identifying themselves or backing-up what they are saying. As a result of those possibilities and its combination with our habits, we now have most of our blog commentators and callers-in choosing to remain anonymous.
But what are we saying to each other? The essential message of a large number of the comments on these T&T blogs boil down to ‘Shut Up…I don’t agree with you and don’t want to hear what you have to say…Go away!‘ Our new national conversation is on a huge scale and on a range of issues which is extremely fertile, but the dominant habits of that conversation are perturbing.
To be fair, there is a solid body of research to show that anonymous conversations of this type are extremely effective at finding-out the views of the public, workers or customers. Indeed, this social media is now a very important part of how progressive states and corporations take their bearings as to where things stand.
One important difference I have seen is that the blogs for newspapers and news-sites in the advanced world have almost no anonymous content – people actually write as themselves.
More to the point, we have a situation where we have embraced the new situation and its possibilities, while our leaders and organisations lag far behind. Just as an example, the website for the Prime Minister is http://www.opm.gov.tt/ – the last officeholder had no publicly-available email address and that website is now temporarily offline, being under re-construction.
There is also the secondary aspect of all this, the essence of our commitment to a free press. Of course, I am talking about the silence of Newsday – ‘The People’s Newspaper which offers daily news from Trinidad & Tobago’. There was a huge response to the news on Monday 8th November, that Fazeer Mohammed was removed from CNMG’s morning line-up. I think that article in the Express of the next day had over 825 comments – which must be some kind of local record. It is staggering to me that Newsday had nothing to say about this, until the Thursday after, even as a pure item of news. Just unbelievable.
It is easy to criticise the politicians and their mistakes, but this silence by Newsday is just another level of irresponsibility which would make any right-thinking person pause. Newsday have their own patchy track-record in that they forced-out Kevin Baldeosingh over his challenge to Fr. Henry Charles for plagiarism. The parliament discussions on Friday 12th and the news releases from both the Media Association of Trinidad & Tobago (MATT) and the Congress of the People (CoP) formed the basis of articles on the issue from Thursday 11th. Given that behaviour it is interesting to watch them, as The People’s Newspaper, minimizing a matter of such great concern to so many people. A matter concerning an apparent threat to freedom of the press.
We have to be honest and admit that a significant part of the national conversation is the impatient snarl to ‘shut-up’ the person we do not agree with. That tendency has borne some strange fruit in the case of Newsday and Fazeer.
Yes, I think Fazeer was forced-out too – given his popularity, it all seems very wrong-headed to me. At several levels, but the pregnant question here is how come the State owns companies which are in competition with private ones. The notion of the State Enterprise was originally one which performed some specialist task which the private sector did not provide, but the discussion is an involved one.
One of the criticisms of our State Enterprises is that in significant cases, they they are in competition with private business interests. For example, First Citizen’s Bank, Udecott, HDC, EFCL and so on. Of course the closest example of this is CNMG. Ironically enough, the Special Purpose Entities/State-owned sector were the topic of my last show on CNMG and we did discuss this issue of competition.
So, exactly why does the State own CNMG? How fair is it for the other media houses to have to compete with a State-funded entity? In my view, CNMG had established a solid reputation as a topical and fearless current affairs and news source. Of course, all of this is going to damage the brand, so its private sector rivals would be smiling to themselves.
Returning to one of my earlier discussions on the ‘Two Tendencies‘ – published in this space on 16th May 2010 – it seems clear that these are a big part of this story. The first tendency is to say that our State Enterprises are too important to be run by anyone but the best people. The second tendency says that, having won an election, all these bodies are ours to command and that is all. The second tendency can distort good sense and professional standards to the bizarre extent we saw in the Udecott case. This case of the Fazeer Mohammed ‘re-assignment’ is definitely one in which both tendencies have battled it out on the blogs and the airwaves.
It is unlikely to be settled anytime soon.
The big questions for me are –
- Which of the Two Tendencies is in control?
- How committed are we to a conversation with people who hold different views?