By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
Based on many accounts of ongoing experiences, it is evident the once treasured Fourth Estate of The Bahamas is now an ignored entity which is shown much disrespect by its formerly eager partners - Bahamian Cabinet Ministers.
Political hopefuls in The Bahamas usually latch themselves on to members of the Fourth Estate, getting to know them by name and calling on them for many a favour. They do this to remain visible and relevant at all times in the news, making their chances of gaining the desired political seat more possible.
In this new millennium, these men and women seem to have taken a nose dive whereas communication with the media is concerned. It appears that once they have secured their seat in Parliament and they are sworn into their ministerial duties, “mum” becomes the word and haughtiness and disdain for the press sets in. Is this a newly taught and learned behaviour?
No longer are they servants of the people, but the people have become servants of theirs. The honeymoon is now over and journalists now receive scraps of information from the Cabinet or nothing at all. Are they still preaching accountability or is it now a situation where they can be accountable if they choose or when they choose to be.
No one knows more than a journalist, how frustrating it is to continuously call a Cabinet Minister or a government official for commentary and have to use the words, “to no avail” in a story because they have refused to answer their phones or return messages. They watch their phones ring without end; look at their Whats App messages to show the “blue tick” of receipt and make the conscious decision to ignore it all.
In years gone by, Cabinet Ministers were proud to relay their Ministries’ successes or clear up their downfalls in the press. Sir Lynden Pindling, Prime Minister for 25 years, could always be heard returning calls through his secretary, Helen Smith, making sure journalists were satisfied with correct information.
After him came Prime Minister, Hubert Ingraham, with ‘Governance in the Sunshine’ – a time when accountability was enforced and at any given time, a journalist could receive a call from the Prime Minister himself, or through his secretary, Denise Williams, with information bringing clarity for their stories. Mr Ingraham and his Cabinet were always accessible. He demanded it from his Cabinet.
After Mr Ingraham came Prime Minister Perry Christie who would also return calls and never fail to show respect for the press and for the most part his Cabinet did the same.
Since 2017, the current administration has had two people assigned as press secretaries in the Office of the Prime Minister, however the press never hears from them and most of the time questions go unanswered, deferred or are just ignored. Going even further, this is the first time in this writer’s 30 years of journalism that she remembers not having any access to the Prime Minister of The Bahamas, as a journalist, except at occasional press conferences when he either does not entertain questions at all or responds to hard press questions with disdain and sometimes hostility. The press is not an enemy.
No doubt in the 2022 election the press will once again find a temporary set of “friendly” Ministers who answer their phones on the first ring hoping to showcase their work in time to impress the citizenry for election.
I spoke with some senior journalists to get their views on this vexing subject. Jerome Sawyer, executive producer, OurNews at Cable Bahamas, is not only frustrated by this, but wonders if Cabinet Ministers and government officials understand the importance of having a good relationship with the Fourth Estate.
Mr Sawyer said, “In one word it is frustrating. It goes back to a fundamental lack of the understanding of the role of the media and how that role is tied to the role of Ministers and people in government. Oftentimes I think what happens is they will, from very early on, determine who they will talk to, what things they will address and what things they won’t address.
“I think it goes back sometimes to a fundamental lack of understanding because a good relationship with the media and when I said good, I don’t necessarily mean a friendship, but a relationship that is based on open communication will lead to a much better presentation for that Minister or that Ministry.”
Mr Sawyer calls for would be politicians to be trained in the “art of politics” to include media relations. He warns of having adversarial relationships with the press.
He continued, “Even if you don’t always have the answers you find a way to answer. That’s important! The press, as I have to remind people all the time, is made up of human beings, and if you create an adversarial relationship with a human being there are some things that will happen. Not answering or not returning calls or not commenting is not an option.
“When those individuals are in opposition, the doors are wide open. They are constantly communicating with the press. The minute they come into government then the relationship changes. People who present themselves for political life, need to be trained in the art of politics. Not just party politics and how to win, but the public side of being a politician – how to present yourself, how to deal with the media, how to behave in a crisis.
He said all of these things are part of a training that our politicians do not seem to have or do not seem to want, to their detriment. And, he said some of the current Cabinet Ministers’ attitude is as if, ‘I will choose when I am answerable’, but they should be answerable all the time.
The Guardian’s executive editor, Candia Dames, told me: “We have seen in the past where individuals who are in opposition, candidates seeking to get elected, are very accessible to the media. They bang down our doors to make our front page. Once they get in office, some duck and dodge and do not demonstrate a sincere commitment to transparency or accountability.
“This group in office is no different. They talked a lot, for instance, about fully enacting the Freedom of Information Act, of making that a priority. Coming to the end of their term, this has still not happened. The PM appointed a press secretary, who started off by having weekly press conferences, but that fell away and we have never gotten an explanation for why there is no longer a press secretary.
“In opposition, Minnis pledged to have quarterly press conferences, but that was clearly a joke. We still find that some ministers scoff at demands for accountability and it is difficult to get in touch with many of them when we are pursuing stories and seeking answers. There are a few exceptions, Dr Duane Sands, Peter Turnquest and Brent Symonette, were consistently accessible. They, of course, are no longer in Cabinet. I am personally always able to reach the Attorney General, Carl Bethel, or get a timely return call. Darren Henfield, the Foreign Affairs Minister, is usually always accessible. Getting in touch with Renward Wells, Romauld Ferreira or the Prime Minister himself, for me, would likely take an act of God.
“Early on, Desmond Bannister was responsive but has gone underground since our criticisms of his handling of the BPL board fiasco. Dionisio D’Aguilar, the Tourism Minister, has not been responsive in recent times. He used to be. Maybe he has taken offence to our criticisms of the botched rollout of the tourism reopening.
“It is important to note here that different reporters have different relationships with different ministers. So, some are able to reach ministers who media colleagues can never each. Another point is that accessibility does not necessarily translate to accountability, so while we may have access to certain ministers, that does not mean they are always forthcoming with information.
“Reporters tend to have some luck hanging out outside Cabinet and Parliament in reaching some ministers, but it is unfortunate that the current administration has in some respects proven to be as unaccountable and secretive as their predecessors. It’s amazing how arrogant and out of touch some politicians get when they taste power.”
Clint Watson, news director, EyeWitness News. and host of the nightly programme, “Beyond the Headlines”, says the Fourth Estate is a partner of governance and should be treated as such.
Mr Watson said: “The media is a partner in governance. They are the Fourth Estate! We have a partnership, which means you have to be accountable to us, to respond to us just how you are when you want to call on us to cover your events or highlight yourself. You ought to be doing the same thing when it comes to us asking questions to get clarity and information.
“Cabinet Ministers must always remember that they are accountable, more than anything else, most of all. They are accountable to the people of The Bahamas and the way of being accountable to the people of The Bahamas is by speaking to the media. We represent the people and we provide accountability to the people. So Cabinet Ministers ought to see the media as that vehicle and that tool to communicate accountability to the Bahamian people.”
Mr Watson says he is amazed when Ministers refuse to respond to the press.
“I’ve said it over and repeatedly, the media can make or break your political career,” said Mr Watson.
“The way you respond to us is what we will portray to the people. Your lack of response to us is what we will portray to the people. I think it’s something that government’s should put it place when Cabinet Ministers are sworn in to say - to be responsive to the media and told whatever hang ups you have about it, put it aside because it is a part of your job to be accountable to the press.
“So when media calls or media reaches out or asks questions, it always baffles me why Cabinet Ministers don’t respond or respond in such a condescending way. They are therefore, displaying how they feel about the Bahamian people, because we are only servants of the Bahamian people, providing answers for the Bahamian people or information.”
As Mr Sawyer said, not all politicians, Cabinet Ministers, in particular, follow the frustrating pattern of not communicating with the Fourth Estate. Few they are in numbers, but their accountable actions are truly appreciated.
All Cabinet officials and their support staff can take a page out of newly appointed US Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s book. No matter how hard the press questions are, she answers them to the best of her ability, never showing hostility, admits when she does not have the answer and has no problem on any day saying, “I will find that answer out and circle back to you on it.”