Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Understanding Violence in my Country

The Gun to our Hearts (first published in the T&T Guardian, December 6, 2017)

Last week, my take on the current, extended wave of criminal violence invoked a metaphorical gun to our collective heads. I related my doctor’s tale. His deep sadness. The pervasive air of impunity, and the desperate prescriptions for brutish vengeance.

Then came Saturday and the lead pellets in little Candy Loubon’s body. On the front page of Monday’s T&T Guardian, the two year old is lying in hospital with two fingers in her mouth, a yellow-sleeved IV needle in her heavily-bandage left hand and a tiny neck brace that prevents her from nodding ‘yes’ to anything. Candy’s eyes are fixed on Kevon Felmine and his camera.

It is the look a stranger gets from a child, just seconds from the crucial breaking of the ice and a transition to either smiles or tears. You can almost tell from her eyes, that Kevon, hard-nosed reporter and decent human that he is, had planned to extract a giggle, a show of scant teeth, a shade of laughter, anything but a look of pain.

The late, great Guyanese poet, Martin Carter, spoke of a “festival of guns, the carnival of misery” – a period in which “the stranger invader (is) watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.” None better than Candy’s image to capture the gun to our hearts and aimed at our dreams.

We should know that none of this started two and a half years ago, around the time of Candy’s birth. Or even after five years or tranches thereof - depending on the twisted imagination of the mindless partisan. It is in fact the rot of social and political aimlessness, and a descent as much rooted in authoritarian prohibition and religious fervour as in the creative disorder of a nation adrift.

How many in the jail cells weren’t whipped and slapped? How many didn’t go to school or church or temple or mosque?

And so pathetic and puerile has been official edict that prayer and flag and ritual are routinely proposed to simulate the impact of reason and science and interventions fed by fact. It cannot be that we are truly serious.

Within these very pages, some weeks ago, we explored the trauma of an angry society. People moved to irrationality, displaying an inability to confront conflict and change. Witnesses to growing impunity and inequity. Emerging from the darkness in Candy’s brace – incapable of signaling ‘yes’ or even ‘no’ to changing circumstance.

Instead, the quick resort to “we” and “them” and violence as if it persists in its own solitary right – a scar without an initial wound. How does the noose or whip really differ from the cutlass or gun in other hands other than being united by the cold blood of revenge of one kind or the other?

Here we are, looking and looking for different faces, different skins, and different places of abode. Punishment barely distinguishable from revenge, yet reaping the whirlwind of collective neglect.
There must have been that moment when we determined that the best way out was through mindful violence. That because “we” can never be “them”, through pedigree, since victimhood remains the psychological domain of one and not the other.

Through this, some have lost the love of our land perhaps forever. Trapped though, by a thin strand, by all there is on offer in this tiny space – bounty upon bounty of music and dance and art and poetry everywhere as in Candy’s infant eyes on the front page of the newspaper.

In this resides our hope, if there had to be any. Those who speak of a “lost generation” do not know what they are talking about, are trapped by the message of terminal political wounds and are out of here anyway.

We who choose to remain do well to look and recognise the guns to our heads and are ever mindful of those aimed at our hearts. To do otherwise would be to die.

The Gun to our Heads (first published in the T&T Guardian on November 29, 2017)

So, my GP for more than half my life is moving out of an office he has occupied in east Trinidad for over 30 years and is devoting all his professional time to patients at his facility in the west. “Abandoning the East-West Corridor proletariat?” was my cheeky question last Tuesday.

Medical doctors have a way of lowering their heads and looking at you from above the upper rim of their glasses. There was a sadness I had never seen in the eyes that appeared from behind the glare of thick lenses. “Have you ever had a gun aimed at your head?”

The following day, a relative was posting on social media about the disappearance of equipment being used to prepare her new home. Then, to keep things rolling last Thursday, Beetham Highway became a crime scene somewhat reminiscent of March 23, 2015 – albeit at the hands of different players.

In the midst of it all, a thread of despair kept turning up everywhere like a pervasive spider’s web. “The guns,” my friend Elizabeth Solomon declared, “are pointing at all of us.” To me, this question raises at least two additional challenges: Whose (metaphorical) guns? And, once we have determined who “we” are: What do we do about this?

Prime Minister Keith Rowley appeared to have his finger on some important elements of the puzzle when he spoke on Friday, following an intemperate outburst the day before.

Some opposition wags, increasingly inclined to gloat over misfortune, held on to Thursday’s blunder even after the PM went on to present his take on one important element of the task before the entire country – that of the universal nature of personal responsibility.

It was an important intervention against the backdrop of the perception that application of the rod of criminal correction is viewed as being uneven across social divides. However insufficient the analysis, it was a significant observation.

However, by his own admission at the press conference, the prime minister had yet to consult meaningfully with senior security officials on a specific course of action to deal with still smoldering remains on the Beetham Highway.

It is important in such matters not to approximate what Canadian journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk, derides in a recent column as the increasingly popular, and deceptive, political creed of “deliverology.”

I am not good at MBA gobbledygook so I do not pretend to understand everything I have read on the matter, except that it sounds like an excellent strategy to promote a notion of accountability even as little can be expected to be eventually delivered.

Last Sunday, I also listened to what Jamaica PM, Andrew Holness, had to offer at his JLP congress. We always seem to trail Jamaica when it comes to such matters – on both the good and the bad points. (By the way, Holness also wants to outlaw all corporal punishment).

He conceded that the heavy-handedness of state security in the past had not only earned negative global attention, but had also not sufficiently addressed the problem of inner city violence and crime.
Holness held out greater hope for the island’s experiment with Zones of Special Operations (ZOSO) which, he claimed, had already started yielding results. The enabling legislation is worth a read, since it addresses serious human rights concerns invoked at the time of our ill-advised and bungled state of national emergency in 2011 – “deliverology.”

Another important initiative in Jamaica, which I am certain has been raised here more than once, is the planned introduction of a comprehensive National Identification System (NIDS). Though quite (and understandably) controversial, a database built on information acquired through the NIDS system can provide law enforcement with a sound start in the pursuit of sensible policing.

Holness prescribed three key applications - the law, intelligence and citizen cooperation.
A few weeks ago, I reprised the late Lloyd Best’s admonition to apply “educated common sense” to our problems of the day. Between the anguish and fear, leadership here requires such a quality at this time.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Journalism in the Digital Age

The transformational impact of the so-called ‘digital age’ on traditional, legacy media is undeniable. As an industry, mainstream media have virtually lost monopoly status with respect to news, views and information that matter.

In many ways, this follows on a longstanding relationship between mass media and technology. Think of the value of the modern printing press to newspapers and the innovations in wireless communication to broadcast media. Print lost to radio what radio went on to lose, in part, to television. Yet, whatever their respective conditions, they endure to today.

The immediacy of broadcast media now shares important space in the world of online content. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others are broadcasting and narrowcasting ‘live’ and way in excess of the reaches of broadcasting towers and cable connections. At the helm of these new platforms is a cadre of ordinary people telling ordinary and often extraordinary stories – much of it ‘journalistic’ in nature, but this is not ‘journalism’ in its purest professional sense.

The relationship between technological change and the practice of journalism however appears to have been important but somewhat less linear in character when compared with developments in the media industry as a whole.

On this question, for example, it had not mattered at the elemental level of journalistic practice, that the Gutenberg press and its associated functions had given way to more efficient mechanised processes. Tracing the development of the T&T Guardian over its 100 years tells us as much about the news of the day, as it provides us with an insight into the application of new publishing technologies.

It is undeniable though that the current era has challenged both traditional media and the journalism they produce. This has been achieved through the undermining of previously impervious revenue streams that served as platforms for the practice of professional journalism and through a diversification of alternative, virtually unmediated sources and streams of data, information and opinion.

Yet, journalism remains steadfastly relevant and important. This is in part so because though the aggregating of news and information is now possible by way of app and algorithm this is incapable, on its own, of advancing knowledge to the point of understanding or providing meaning. What some offer as the “DIKW continuum” comprising data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Some insert “understanding” before the word “wisdom”.

There are numerous studies on the manner in which the new digital landscape affects notions of verifiable news and information. GML technology correspondent, Mark Lyndersay, has written extensively on the subject. He points to the fact that online publications are already turning to “automated solutions to create basic stories” and in the process dramatically challenging the “modus operandi” of newsgathering and therefore some important pillars of traditional media practice.

This may eventually prove that the nature of what is broadly defined as “newsgathering” may evolve beyond current reliance on journalists as we know them (already there is the vexing question of so-called “citizen journalism”) and turn attention to the mechanical features of aggregating vast streams of data and information.

Yet, journalism remains at the core in so far as there continue to be the imperatives of verification, accountability and the nuanced voices of reporters on the ground, whatever their professional or vocational manifestation.

A Tow Center for Digital Journalism paper on Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present prepared by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky concludes starkly that while all journalism may not prevail, “hard news is what matters in the current crisis.”

Yes, journalism matters. But the real question is, which journalism. In my view, Lyndersay and the Tow Center researchers are not those many poles apart.

Another Tow study ‘The Story So Far’ by Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave and Lucas Graves enters the discussion from the vantage point of the media industry.

“Fifteen years after most news organisations went online,” they ask, “it is clear that old media business models have been irrevocably disrupted and that the new models are fundamentally different from what they once were.”

“What made traditional media so vulnerable to the Web? Or perhaps the better question is this: Why has digital technology, which has been such a powerful force for transmitting news, not yet provided the same energy for companies to maintain and increase profits?”

They conclude that even as the industry wrestles with the monetising of news and information in this new era, “we think the world needs journalism and journalists.” Why? Because while people now have unprecedented access to data and information, much of what media audiences need to know “will go unreported and unexposed without skilled, independent journalists doing their work.”

It is true that the nature of the job remains in transition. Today’s journalists are reporting and editing, but also aggregating data and information from a much deeper and wider pool of resources. Anderson, Bell and Shirky describe the process as capable of yielding “the iron core of news.”
It is this “iron core” that remains as the steadfast bastion of professional journalism. To me, this represents an important moment to reflect on the value systems that drive and motivate the work of journalists.

As a working journalist and trainer of some seniority, it has occurred to me that the current generation occupies favourable technological space even as they confront the dilemma of medium and message in ways we could not have previously countenanced.

Clearly, tomorrow is already here. What it portends for the media industry shares space in the eyewall of the storm alongside journalism and all the profession continues to offer.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Brief Media History - T&T and the Caribbean

Though the technological advances of Britain’s Industrial Revolution toward the end of the 18th century were generally slow in reaching colonial outposts in the West Indies, the printing press established itself as a significant exception.

Peter Boomgaard and Gert J. Oostindie challenge traditional views on this in their provocative study ‘Changing Sugar Technology and the Labour Nexus: the Caribbean, 1750-1900’, but it is clear that the advent of the printing press rode on the tide of social and economic change in the colonies in the years prior to the freeing of African slaves.

So important was this new technology, that by the end of the 1800s, there were well over 100 modern newspapers being printed and published in the English-speaking Caribbean. The Jamaica Gleaner, which began publication in 1834, is the oldest survivor of that era, followed by newspapers such as the Catholic News (Trinidad) in 1892 and the Barbados Advocate in 1895.

The first indigenously-printed Caribbean newspaper on the records of the American Antiquarian Society was the Weekly Jamaica Courant in 1718, followed in 1755 by the Antigua Gazette.

By contrast, in Trinidad, there appears to have been little evidence that any printing was taking place on the island at the time of the changing of hands between the Spanish and English in 1797.

Gertrude Carmichael’s History of the West Indian Islands of Trinidad and Tobago 1498-1900 suggests that printing was actually not introduced into the island until the late stage of Spanish occupation.

The history of newspapers in the colony therefore usually begins with the launch of The Trinidad Weekly Courant in 1799.

Carmichael however notes that British officials exercised “strict control over the press” and that then Governor Sir Ralph James Woodford was in the habit of sending polite notes to editors asking to borrow the handles for their printing presses – without which printing would have been impossible.

However prolific their publishers and active their printing presses, it was not an easy time for newspapers in the colonies back then. Public opinion expressed through such publications, and the official backlash they generated, had played important roles in the turbulence leading to the Declaration of Independence by 13 American colonies announcing the United States of America in 1776. Official censorship was par for the course in overseas holdings and most, not all, publishers chose to play it safe.

Early-year newspapers and periodicals in the Caribbean were also important organs for information on developments in the UK, Europe and other colonies in the region and contained important information currently used by researchers interested in trade and commercial activity, and insights into life on the colonies at that time.

For example, passenger lists of arriving vessels were regularly published, along with obituaries, court cases and the outcomes of public, political events, sometimes with the preferred perspectives of early publishers.

In T&T, the launch of the Courant was followed by the establishment of the Port-of-Spain Gazette in 1825 and there appeared to have been no turning back for what was becoming a very active industry, to the extent that the authorities moved to register all newspapers in 1834.

In the years that immediately followed, there emerged more than 10 important newspapers in Trinidad. In Tobago, seven years prior to establishment of the unitary twin-island state, a Tobago News had already been in existence since 1892.

That was the same year the Catholic News was launched. By then, a number of significant publications such as the Trinidad Standard and West India Journal in 1872 and publications such as the French-language Critique and Tobago Chronicle and Public Gazette had emerged.

Other major newspapers at the turn of the 19th century included The Trinidad Chronicle which opened in 1864 and The Mirror, launched in 1898.

By the time the Trinidad Guardian came along in 1917, there appeared to have already been a wholesome appetite for privately-published news and information. The Trinidad Chronicle was already in its ascendancy and a number of activist publications had increased in popularity and influence.

Among these were the left-leaning Argos newspaper, launched after the First World War by Sino-Trinidadian Aldwin Lee Lum as a voice of labour and as an important organ of early social justice activism. The East Indian Weekly followed in 1928 as a significant platform for Indian issues. And, there were also several important periodicals including Beacon magazine, launched by the Trinidad Labour Party, and The Nation, published by the People’s National Movement (PNM) and edited by CLR James.

There were also special interest publications including The Independence Chinese News, launched in the 1940s, Cheng Chi Chinese Weekly published in the 1960s, Tapia first published in 1969, The Vanguard by the OWTU and the Labour Leader, an offshoot of the British socialist newspaper.

The Evening News was launched as the country’s first daily evening newspaper in 1935, followed by The Sun which was launched by the Trinidad Express.

Early, locally-generated radio broadcasting came with the launch of the US armed forces radio station, WVDI in 1943. It actually pre-dates the establishment of Radio Trinidad, usually cited as the country’s earliest radio station which went on the air on August 31, 1947 as a part of the Trinidad Broadcasting Company (TBC), owned and run by Rediffusion (Trinidad) Ltd.

The TBC network, which at the time operated one AM and three FM frequencies was acquired by Trinidad Publishing in 1998 and the media group later launched CNC3 television in 2005, expanding in 2008 to operate free-to-air broadcasts.

Fifteen years, to the day, after the launch of TBC, Rediffusion was holding a 30% stake in the inauguration of the country’s first television station, Trinidad & Tobago Television (TTT) which began operations a week before the hoisting of the flag of independent T&T.
The main shareholder in the station was the International Thomson Organisation of the UK (50%) with smaller holdings by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) of the US with 10% and the Government of T&T 10%.

The Daily Mirror newspaper, which had previously competed vigorously with the Trinidad Guardian, was acquired in 1966 by the Thomson Organisation and, folded that very year. This led to the introduction of the Trinidad Express in 1967. Weekly newspapers such as the Bomb newspaper, launched in 1970, the Sunday Punch in 1972 and the TnT Mirror in 1982 were also significant publications that helped change the face of newspapering in the country under late journalist, Patrick Chookolingo. Trinidad Newsday was launched as the country’s third and newest daily newspaper in 1993.

As was the case at the changing of colonial hands in the late 1700s, new technologies - in this era the digital revolution industry - are challenging important connections between key sectors of the economy and the growth and stability of a mass media industry.
There are currently six free-to-air television broadcasters, 10 television broadcasting services via cable and 14 registered subscription television broadcasters.

Additionally, there are 37 FM broadcasting services and one AM service still on the books of the Telecommunications Authority. A number of online news and entertainment platforms have also been launched in recent years and traditional media enterprises make use of social media and digital formats delivered online.

It is 100 years since the launch of the Trinidad Guardian and more than 200 years of the English-language newspaper in T&T. Industry leaders would do well to consider a future unlike any other period in the country’s history.
* First published in the 100th Anniversary edition of the T&T Guardian on September 2, 2017