In a newspaper column in May 2004, the late George John pronounced as follows: “Journalists and journalism are everybody’s football, to kick around at every opportunity and most of the time without reason. One does not have to be an ambassador or even a prime minister to jump into the ring and show no compassion to the unlucky journalist who may find him or herself in a situation where he or she is called upon often and at short notice to distinguish truth from fiction.”
Natalie Williams, then a reporter with CCN, once asked Basdeo Panday when he was prime minister between 1995 and 2000 whether he had taken steps to assist a friend in getting a government contract. “That’s insulting,” he shouted back at her, twice. She had been following up on an allegation to this effect, made in a statement in Parliament by then opposition leader Patrick Manning. Mr Manning had spoken about a reputed friend of Mr Panday who would be seen “in short pants” at the Office of the Prime Minister, then as now in Whitehall. A deal was finalised, favouring this friend’s proposals and presentations. Ms Williams was in pursuit of a response from the horse’s mouth.
One afternoon in late 1985, I approached the late John Donaldson, the only person to date to have held simultaneously the critical portfolios of National Security and External Affairs in the same PNM administration. There was high speculation at the time that he was among a short list of ministers who were named in the Scott Drug Report. This was a talking point hugely pervasive at the time. We had been on familiar terms. Together with the late Desmond Cartey and Hugh Francis, they were regarded as the Black Power flank in the Chambers Cabinet. The prime minister had made an announcement previously that none of his ministers would be found to be compromised in the report’s findings. The question to Donaldson was to what extent he felt uneasy by public perception on the issue. He asked whether I had heard what the prime minister said. Yes, I responded. “So what the (expletive deleted) you asking me,” he shot back, indignantly.
Standing my ground, I responded in kind, pointing out the reporter’s duty to seek to clear the air, to go to the source. A shouting match ensued, man to man, on the floor inside the Parliament chamber. The late Andrew Nello Mitchell, a mutual friend and liming partner, rushed in between us, counselling for cooler heads. He pulled me aside, offering a cooldown over drinks. Donaldson would later, also in a more sober moment, explain how the question had caught him off-guard. He didn’t expect it to come from someone like me, he said apologetically.
In Grenada in the last week, a reporter asked PM Keith Mitchell about the status of his marriage. At a post-cabinet news briefing days before, Dr Mitchell was reported to have disclosed that he had travelled overseas to visit his ailing wife. At the government’s weekly news conference days later, the reporter asked the prime minister to clarify his marital status. This was said to have been in the context of “speculation” that he had recently “obtained a divorce.” The PM was reportedly “annoyed” by the question. He bristled, without response. His press secretary then issued a statement expressing “disappointment” over what she described as the reporter’s “lack of respect and professionalism” in posing the question.
Offended and rightly so, the Grenada Media Workers’ Association demanded an apology from the press secretary, and threatened to employ “alternative measures” to deal with the issue if a suitable apology was not forthcoming.
The issue, for the press secretary, seemed to turn on her conclusion that such a question was inappropriate. Reporters needed to “show respect and act professionally in the workplace,” she declared. “We must demonstrate respect for the audience, the viewing and listening public,” she scolded, without pointing out how the question may have been inappropriate or offensive.
Prime Minister Mitchell is by and large a more than amiable public individual, now in his third term, with a second successive clean sweep at the polls in his country. In a context in which there is rumour and speculation about the status of his marriage, he should have seized this opportunity to place on the record what is the state of affairs. His press secretary ought to have had the courage and the confidence to encourage him so to do, instead of seeking to turn on the reporter’s astuteness.
To quote Megyn Kelly, Caribbean journalists must continue striving to “settle for more,” rather than less, from our public figures, especially those elected to positions of prominence and influence. This issue, meanwhile, remains unresolved.