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The dishonest truth: media and governance

Published Monday 24/5/21 as “Re-thinking news in a changing world”.

Opinion article: Felix Alvarez

Chair Equality Rights Group

 

This isn’t going to go away. No matter how much we may ignore it (and we have), it’s not.

I’m referring yet again, of course, to the issue of the media in Gibraltar (whether published or broadcast). It’s time Gibraltar looked at this beast straight in the eyes. Because the habit Orwell described as the ‘tacit agreement that a certain thing should not be mentioned’ (the damning process of hopeless denial he describes in the preface to ‘Animal Farm’) stopped being effective some few decades back. (Just look at the trajectory of the lgbt issue for a prime example of that. Not all ostriches hide).

As Chair of Equality Rights Group, conscious of coming change and the need for preparation, I have for a good number of years been calling for a re-think, a modernisation of the structures that currently support and sustain our published and broadcast press and media (‘the press’). The relationship between the Executive Branch of our Constitution (government) and the press is increasingly uncomfortable, even risky to the high aspirations for solid and open democracy in our midst.

A restructuring of the relationship in Gibraltar between newspapers, broadcast media and the prime source of their economic survival (government) is becoming ever more necessary. The evidence is increasingly before us.

At the end of the day, the culprit, of course, is the news marketplace. It’s too small in Gibraltar. The standard capitalist model does not work for us on this question. We have to find ways around this that will work into our future of greater diversity and increasing demand for participatory democracy. What we can’t do is look the other way anymore. And that is an exercise that should involve not only politicians, but editors, newsroom managers, individual journalists and members of the public, too.

No local information medium stands a hope of surviving on such a small economic scale, and alone. Step in government funding to the rescue. And thus the problem arises of a too close relationship between a need for independent journalism and requisite financing firmly in the gift of party political players; a danger area if ever there was one that no denial can deny. Because no amount of ‘we don’t meddle’ can quell even the faintest of suspicions over time that the reason why investigative journalism or searching questions never or hardly ever appear to overstep the polite ‘tacit agreement’ mark in Gib is precisely due to that very fact.

Jonathan Scott’s recent eye-opening report on GBC broke the mould. It was a burstful moment for which to be grateful. A moment that must continue for the good of our society.

Because freedom of the press, it’s clear, is not just any old issue. It’s a vital component of living in a relatively free and open democracy; and without which citizens are deprived of good government. Without it, information can be controlled to a lesser or greater degree, with differing levels of subtlety of treatment (from brazen omission to editing that diminishes the point of the original message). The upshot is that without it, journalism’s pivotal crusading, adversarial tenor, and investigative role are at risk of subtle and not-so-subtle undermining.

It’s unclear to what extent press freedom correlates directly to economic success; there are a good number of industrialised societies where press freedom is relatively high; but there are a number of underdeveloped economies also where no journalism deficit is evident. Rather than directly economic, the key appears to be civil engagement; for where participatory democracy is the prime goal, an unhindered press is a prime marker for systems of justice, fairer distribution of wealth, equality and equity. The three elements which characterise journalistic quality set the framework for a whole society: 1) the role of watch-dog, 2) providing space as a civic forum and 3) exercising the role of agenda-setter. These are mix-n-match elements that will manifest differently in each setting.

Yet the point now for Gibraltar is to look forward. To find ways that do not compromise our development. And it’s about time this society (our politicians, our institutions, and the media itself in particular) no longer acted as if nothing has changed over the past half century.

We must find alternatives to the way we have set up the media and support the best of journalistic talent. Because without a credible and reliable, independent cadre of talented professionals, this society will not keep up with our ambitions for the present or the future.

And no; platitudes are running out. Talk of democracy needs to tally with real evidence of commitment to it. The Chief Minister, the Leader of the Official Opposition, and indeed the Leader of Together Gibraltar as the third Party of this community, need to own up and deliver. They know this is coming.

Just as they know other fundamental democratic issues lie just over the horizon. Issues such as a demand for full transparency over their Party Finances, donors and donations.

But that’s another story and another day.