This past Sunday a conversation that started with one of the three participants commenting on the possible ill effects of VAT on the business community turned abruptly to journalism in Saint Lucia today. Before long I was being interrogated about my reasons for diligently pursuing certain stories, why I had waited weeks, sometimes years, before publishing others.
“What attracts you to a story?” I was asked, with the naked straightforwardness that only true friends and confirmed enemies dare to demonstrate. “How many matters of interest to the public have you chosen not to write about simply because they weren’t sexy? Or that you didn’t write because they involved a personal friend?”
It was hardly the first time I’d been subtly accused of bias by the obviously biased.
“Let me try to understand what precisely you mean by ‘matters of interest to the public,” I said. “If by that you refer to stories that serve little purpose other than to titillate public curiosity, that’s one thing. At this point in my journalistic career I am not especially interested in the genre. On the other hand, whenever a matter is such as to affect people at large, so that they may be legitimately interested in, or concerned about, what is going on, or what may happen to them and others, now that’s altogether something different.”
To my most pleasant surprise, there arose no need to inform my audience that the lapidary difference between “public curiosity” and “public concern” had been spelt out a long time ago by none other than the legendary Lord Denning.
My friends quickly moved on to the controversy du jour: “What’s your take on Alva Baptiste’s reaction to the United Workers Party’s press release?”
The referenced communiqué from the office of the prime minister’s press secretary Jadia Jn Pierre had been “circulated on behalf
of Peter I. Foster &
Associates . . .” and read as follows: “The acting prime minister dismisses as political mischief the press release issued by the United Workers Party on 22 November 2012. The press release maliciously and unfairly seeks to defame the Honorable Acting Prime Minister. Instructions have been issued to his attorneys to institute appropriate action. The Acting Prime Minister states categorically that he adequately maintains and supports his child. The legal issues associated with that matter before the court are unresolved and are sub judice and scheduled for hearing shortly. The unfair and inaccurate publication of this private legal matter has caused the Acting Prime Minister substantial damage to his reputation and injury to his feelings.” Did the press secretary receive her orders to disseminate the law firm’s correspondence directly from the acting prime minister himself?
The press secretary’s release invited readers to “kindly contact Ms Renee St Rose at 453-1100 for further comments.”
My personal take on the matter: Alva Baptiste is, first and foremost, a citizen with all the constitutional rights guaranteed the rest of us, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. On the other hand, let us not forget that how Saint Lucia’s acting prime minister—or our foreign affairs minister, for that matter—is perceived at home and abroad is very much the business of we the people.
The court matter concerning the MP’s wife and child has been around for as long as this government has been in office—with no press coverage whatsoever. In all that time the government that has always prided itself on its transparency and accountability had never seen good reason to explain what was by no means a secret. Indeed, the subject of the foreign affairs minister’s hardly amicable divorce, accompanied by all kinds of exaggerations depending on storyteller and audience, has for months been prime fare at certain well known watering holes!
It is also hardly classified information, the enormity of the problem of child and spousal neglect in Saint Lucia. It is so commonplace, despite the family court’s laudable efforts, that the government, notwithstanding the scarcity of tax dollars, last April saw the need to invest some $1.20 million in a program that bears the somewhat ironic acronym SMILES—Single Mothers In Life-Enhancing Skills!
This was how the prime minister justified his related allocation at Budget time: “Single mothers form one of the most vulnerable groups in our midst . . . The greatest percentage of poverty and indigence” is among “females age 15 and over.”
It may be worth reminding readers that the government that had lustily applauded itself for instituting the SMILES program includes the sometimes acting prime minister now at the center of an unresolved child-support case. Following the prime minister’s SMILES announcement, he and his government colleagues had congratulated the prime minister on his demonstrated compassion in the circumstances. The MP might well have taken the opportunity, if only to put concerned
minds at ease, that he
was not among those responsible for the situation that had inspired SMILES, despite that there were pending court questions regarding his own treatment of two female dependants.
He made no obvious attempt at the time to correct possible misunderstandings with the potential to negatively impact the government’s credibility, not to mention his own, at home and abroad; that might affect his all-important foreign affairs dealings on the nation’s behalf.
This has nothing to do with legalities or constitutional rights; it has everything to do with respect for fellow citizens, official accountability and concern for the nation’s all-important image abroad—a concern that this government has nearly always given priority over all other considerations.
That the foreign affairs minister has only now chosen to say, whether as a direct consequence of the opposition party’s press release and nothing else, the repeated documented claims by his former wife and their child amount to political mischief seems to me not a little self-serving.
What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. His wife, so far as I know, has never publicly addressed the content of the cited court documents, let alone whether her former husband had ignored court rulings to benefit herself and their child.
But I repeat: Mr. Baptiste, like the rest of us, is entitled to his presumption of innocence right. Alas, the minister had not until now seen the need to dispel whatever doubts might be in the speculating public’s mind about his side in the on-going court dispute with his former wife, including that he had allowed himself to
appear in no particular
hurry to settle this year-old issue with all its far-reaching implications, if only for the nation’s sake. Indeed, the MP is on record as saying he considers this a private matter, therefore of no concern to inquiring minds.
The world has shrunk since the early 90s when politicians in this part of the world truly were monarchs of all they surveyed. Time and closer contact with the real world had taught our people the true meaning of public accountability and transparency and everyone being equal before the law. We’ve seen presidents impeached, governors sentenced to prison terms or forced to account in court for what they had earlier described as behind-closed-doors private activities. Not even the well-loved Bill Clinton’s private use of cigars had managed to escape public attention.
More recently there were the presidential candidates who were forced by scandals out of the picture. And lest we forget, right here in Saint Lucia we’ve had government ministers that had paid the price for ignoring court orders—in the full glare of the media. Needless to say, the day’s opposing party had made much hay out of the episodes—as is its duty. And it wasn’t the UWP!
Sadly this government is notorious for seeking to silence criticism of its policies or of its membership with threats of litigation. There was a time not so long ago when almost every question about the government’s behavior was met with a challenge, “take me to court!” being just one of them. Then there was Section 361 (later repealed) that was clearly meant to strike fear in the souls of pusillanimous journalists despite that it had no legal footing. Indeed, fear of government reprisals is at the root of the deafening silence surrounding the issue of Jack Grynberg’s pending suit against the government!
I repeat, the foreign affairs minister has every right to take legal action if he believes his name has been besmirched, whether by journalists or by his former wife or the opposition party. But that doesn’t mean he is not always accountable to we the people. For anyone to
suggest from the prime minister’s chair that to quote accurately from court documents is per se illegal, and that a related issue of child-support is a private matter and therefore out of bounds to reporters and the opposition party reeks either of ignorance or worse—arrogance, which in our particular environment appears to be a communicable disease!
A final word from Lord Denning: “The most important function of the law is to restrain the abuse of power by any of the holders of it—no matter whether they be the government, the newspapers, the trade unions or anyone else!”