The Prime Minister’s intemperate and uninformed statement on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is yet another unforced error that holds him, his office and the country to ridicule.
Whatever one’s opinion about the BBC’s world view, it is simply not accurate to describe the broadcaster as an agency of the British government. Its role as a public broadcaster is constitutionally grounded by Royal Charter and unlike Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT), it is not subject to the whims and fancies of successive governments. One assumes that holders of high public office know these distinctions and would understand that sending a letter of complaint to the British government is pointless.
Unlike TTT, where ministerial authority and interference has been a fact of life from inception in 1962, the BBC’s independence in editorial and creative decision-making is constitutionally guaranteed. If Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley wishes to challenge the BBC’s report on Venezuelan migrants in T&T, he has options for filing a complaint directly with the BBC or the regulator. However, while we accept his right to do so, we expect a complaint by the head of the government to have a sound basis and not emanate from mere peeve and to be handled in a manner that does credit to this country.
Unfortunately, in this case, we cannot agree with either the substance of Dr Rowley’s objections or his approach.
This newspaper has repeatedly taken issue with the Government’s statistics on Venezuelan migrants on the ground that its figure of 16,500 represents only those who came forward to be registered. It is unlikely to include those with criminal records who were warned of deportation and others fearful of the implication of documentation following the one-year grace period. In any case, registration has not halted the flow of illegal migrants.
However, we do acknowledge that the figure of 40,000 refugees which originated from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Port of Spain is open to question. Whether due to diplomatic or other considerations, the UNHCR has chosen not to defend the figure in the face of governmental denials. However, as an agency that has been dealing with Venezuelan refugees long before the Government was forced to acknowledge their existence, the UNHCR may have more information than the Government. The problem of conflicting statistics could have been resolved but the Government’s initial hostility to suggestions that it had international obligations to refugees would not have helped. Inevitably, people are accepting data from whichever source they trust more.
None of this, however, explains the Prime Minister’s unnecessarily extreme response to the BBC report. What the report has shown up is the Government’s flat-footedness in recognising that the Venezuelan refugee crisis has made Trinidad and Tobago part of an international news story necessitating a communications strategy from the Government. Clearly, it has none and, judging from the conflicting messages sent out on Tuesday by Communications Minister Donna Cox and the Prime Minister, it still does not.
Caught unprepared, the Prime Minister’s misdirected anger and uninformed position have done an injustice to this country and its proud record of respect for press freedom.