Broadcasting: Let’s go see the Lord!

 By Nobel P. Loser

In between television and radio broadcasters on the one hand, and the general public, on the other, we have the Independent Broadcasting Authority whose mission is to ensure that licensees abide as they are required by a broad set of rules, including balanced and fair reporting. In other words, and in as much as news reporting is concerned, to oversee that journalism is practised responsibly and without causing prejudice to anyone.

The latest IBA report, released end of last week, puts broadcasting in the forefront of public scrutiny. The report makes good reading and gives an inside account of what happened in a case that recently occupied the headlines. In the case concerned, where the complainant was a Minister and the respondent a private radio broadcaster, the Complaints Committee of the IBA finds that the complaint is “well-founded” and suggests that the respondent “be issued with a directive that it should present news in a fair and balanced manner without material omission and/or undue summarization”.

Because the Complaints Committee’s report is not at all considered a “baratin” by respondent, the latter, in its own wisdom and legitimate right, considers that seeking a judicial review of the report is now necessary. Good, let’s go see the Lord!

We wish this be so for several reasons. The main one: our independent and learned bench will render immense public service if they help us distinguish between news, “baratin”, fairness, balanced reporting, material omission or undue summarization, and, hopefully by extension, responsible journalism. In fact, and in times of doubt, we always seek redress or advice from the bench.

As far as private broadcasters are concerned, it seems that the radio has invaded much of the public domain and therefore this case seems most proper to be revisited before a bench. We gather that there will be lots of news breaking when it sits for public hearing.

Flash back. As far back as 2003, within the ranks of the then government, lots of voices were heard and all were directed against the IBA, privately and publicly, vehemently accusing it of being a dull institution. As per the charge sheet then, it was suggested that the IBA was not doing its job properly though empowered by law to act as an independent enforcement agency. The IBA was seen and felt to allow private broadcasters to go unchecked even when, according to the then government, private broadcasters were excessively overdoing what they were not intended to. We won’t dwell on the spurious comments made in private.

Heavy scrutiny

Even now, private broadcasters do not always have a field day, as they are not under government or public scrutiny but heavy socio-political scrutiny. The Ilot affair has forced private broadcasters to come again in the limelight but this time under public scrutiny, through the IBA in the first instance, and hopefully before the bench in the near future.

Now a few general remarks of public interest may be in order. In his public lecture to a group of wise Mauritians, excerpts of which were published in l’express, the group’s jouranalyst/chairman rightly pointed out that training is what is most needed. Unless they are well trained, newsrooms run the risk of being manned by a group of inexperienced youngsters, when the few seniors still in service would, in his opinion, be gone within the next couple of years. Perfectly right!

What about now? The part-time lecturer has not been too outspoken. But it looks like things are very bad. Just judge from what is privately being said among private and public bureaucrats, professionals, industrialists, respected and experienced politicians (not those who talk “baratin”) who in their daily duties of running institutions and business enterprises come across our media persons. They are almost unanimous to decry the lack of humility, the visible emptiness of arguments and questions, the lack of knowledge (due to an absence of thorough homework), the lack of character to handle a hot potato, and so on and so forth, within the ranks of the profession. And these observations are even shared among senior journalists. We choose to keep you away from what big conglomerates and multinationals think and do directly or indirectly when it comes to the management of big issues in which they are involved or have direct interests.

Coming to private broadcasters, it seems that “Explik ou ka” or “Enquête en direct” are good public interaction programmes and both serve the common good. It allows pertinent issues affecting the day to day lives of the common man to surface out, and in many cases those issues are dealt with expeditiously when the relevant institutions are called upon to look into complaints heard.

Real problem

Setting aside entertainment programmes, where then does the real problem lies, if at all it exists? We are left with news gathering, news coverage, news hierarchy, news analysis, debates involving controversial issues, and finally, we are left with two last items – the capacity and quality of guests to promote high value added arguments and opinions in the interest of society at large and not only the organisations they represent; and then of course, the capacity and quality of our “journalistes-animateurs” to conduct debates of the highest standards.

Up to now, and according to facts, we still have a long way to go. We are not on the wrong track; we are simply on the wrong side of the good track.

Just one example and it will help enlighten a lot of things. Following the recent and very serious case of larceny in connection with arms and ammunitions, the whole media ran into the issue forcefully, including private broadcasters.

A member of an enforcement agency was invited to speak and debate on the subject and to answer to questions of the “journaliste-animateur”. Unbelievable! At one point in time, the officer, to use a jargon of their own, charged vehemently that the Fire Arms Act had to be revisited and amended so that such cases do not repeat again.

According to his argument, any reasonable person can deduce two things – (1) the law, as is, has actually permitted this case of larceny, and (2) had it been otherwise, this case would never have occurred. So he pleaded for the law to be amended.

Following the officer’s submission, and in the face of what the “journaliste-animateur” felt as unchallengeable basic facts, the latter chooses to silently acquiesce and bought the submission.

But the facts are different. And the truth is that both failed in their duty. The officer was wrong in his submission and the animateur was wrong not to challenge his guest’s submission, but could only have done so if he himself had a thorough knowledge of the Fire Arms Act. Which it seems, he did not.

Under the Fire Arms Act, as is, the Public Authority is fully empowered to act and take preventive measures, including conditions under which arms and ammunitions are safeguarded at all material times and, for public safety and security, surrendering of same to the Public Authority if conditions of safeguard by licensee are unsafe.

Devil’s advocate

For one second, let’s try to be the devil’s advocate. And let’s assume both were right, the first one in his submission and the second one to accept same as true and unchallengeable.

This then will lead any reasonable person to this reasonable conclusion.

If, between the day this serious larceny was registered and now, no action has been taken by Public Authorities to plug the hole in the Fire Arms Act to avoid any further case of larceny involving arms and ammunitions in this country, why then the media has kept silent on the issue for so long? Second question – does any reasonable person think that the Opposition would have stayed quiet on the issue and not pressed for immediate amendment of the Act? And lastly, if the officer’s submission is correct, then he deserves more than what he has as a hard working officer. And we take it that since the Silvergate affair, all successive governments have been guilty of putting at risk the lives of the population for their short-sightedness and reckless omission.

You see, the jouranalyst/chairman was right – it’s all about training and training includes lot of homework!

As regards the UoM and courses offered, we sincerely think that all editor-in-chiefs of all media organisations should be invited and should get a chance to confront students in experience sharing, interaction and debates. This would eliminate the risk of instituting a state of “la pensée unique”. For funds, and if at all necessary, we don’t think Dr Rajesh Jeetah would plead austerity. In the business of news, experience sharing is the biggest asset for students, as is travelling and reading. Academic lectures on economy, law, history, and what not, are necessary but most insufficient to make a journalist.

On the other hand, if one thing the IBA should seriously think of doing is to come up with a good and well rehearsed plan to start a sensitization campaign. As private broadcasters are invading the public domain in news gathering and news reporting, the public needs to be informed about their rights and the safeguards contained in the IBA Act to protect them from any paparazzi syndrome, including the legal parameters within which broadcasters are allowed to operate.

Jody Powell

Not everybody is a minister in this country and not everybody is able to read the law and understand it. And not everybody knows how to seek redress if his/her rights seemed to suffer from undue prejudices.

In all humility, we highly recommend to newscasters, the political establishment, ministers and ministers in waiting, and everybody interested in the subject of democracy and the media, including the IBA and the bench, to read Jody Powell’s book ‘The Other Side of The Story’. It’s compelling reading, essential for really understanding the issues we are confronted with these days.

At war is the clash of turfdoms, where the executive and the media are the main actors; and enforcement agencies ready to jump in whenever called upon to act as the main public scrutiny body to establish the facts when the war between truths and lies brings together the mighty pen and the mighty executive.

And in the end, the Lords are here to make sure that both the facts and the provisions of the law prevail and that prejudices caused are dealt with accordingly. In Mauritius, and in most cases, prejudiced parties do commonly accept the excuses of media organisations.

* Published in print edition on 23 December 2010

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