The Media: influencer of the people and political will

agendaThe cornucopias of structural and social issues that have been dominating the collective psyche of the Belizean populace of late (and of old) have repeatedly led the socially aware and conscious to ask one seemingly redundant question: why hasn’t anything changed?

Why after thirty-two years of independence do we find ourselves grumbling and complaining of pretty much the same old things: rampant poverty, staggering unemployment, nepotism (cronyism), corruption, government’s disinterest in real consultations, limited or no transparency and accountability, civil rights abuses, victimizations, and the list goes?

If it takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to raise a nation? The fact is that no one party has all the power or deserves all the blame, because, in a democracy, what you get is a result of the inter-play between the media, the people and political will.

The Media—the agenda setter

It is said that judgment begins at home, so let’s start with the media. There has long since been the debate as to whether the media leads public opinion or reflects it. As writer Ben Dupré puts it:

“The media are rarely, if ever, neutral channels or a conduit through which information passes between politicians and the public. They also act as a filter, determining what is and is not allowed to pass through, and as a valve, regulating the flow of information.”

Dupré adds: “The filtering effect of the media results in some issues being given space and prominence, while others are covered less or not at all. The consequence of this phenomenon, known as ‘agenda setting’, is that the public comes to attach particular significance to some issues and not to others.”

Let’s take, for example, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB)’s recent press release that calls for government to allow the reforms to the Public Accounts Committee that the PAC Chairman Julius Espat has proposed. If one would give a quick check of how the two largest TV news stations covered that issue, that individual would see the conspicuous difference in the degree of prominence given to this matter.

The blue-red dichotomy of Belize may lead some to attribute such differences in news valuation to political allegiances, and that may—to some degree—be the case; however, there’s a much more pertinent factor:

“Media organizations are commercially driven, so they look to publish or broadcast stories that they believe will be of interest to their audience. Often this means there is an emphasis on personality over policy and a tendency to focus on ‘human-interest’ stories.

“There is, for instance, an over-reporting of crime-related issues, where there is often a simple narrative with easily identifiable villains and victims, while MORE ‘DIFFICULT’ SUBJECTS, SUCH AS FOREIGN AFFAIRS, which are seen as rather abstract and unegaging, are give RELATIVELY LITTLE COVERAGE.” (Dupré, 2010)

Rooted in the commercialization of the fourth estate—the traditional rampart against wayward democratic leaders—has encouraged the dilution of the discussions in the new-day public sphere. As far as I’m concerned, Dupré is right! And, unfortunately, the media has taught viewers and readers to gobble up the “Small Think”—junk food, while teaching them to have little taste for the bigger issues—the vegetables on the table.

The media, as the agenda-setter, primes or conditions the public to judge politicians largely on the basis of their performance in certain media-selected issues. Is it then any surprise that the Belizean people are mostly edgy about corruption issues? Therefore, is it any surprise then that the politicians make it their business to preach the gospel of Transparency and Accountability whenever there’s a general election?

The problem here, however, is that while there has been on emphasis on the corruption, there has been little coverage on what needs to be done to fix it.

The distortion

“With the agenda effectively out of their hands, politicians are often obliged to follow the media’s lead and to prioritize matters that, objectively, warrant less attention. Often this can have a significant impact on policy decisions and distort the political process.”

We see this distorting of the political process every day in the policies that the government would emphasize and those they disregard. Let’s look at the ongoing battle over the Public Accounts Committee that I had mentioned earlier.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) has declared this the committee the most significant of all such committees; but, in Belize, the CPA’s view point of the PAC is obviously not shared by the masses or the media that treats this issue as a trivial matter.

Why haven’t more serious conversations and debates been triggered in the media circles on this issue? Why is it that the only time the PAC gets airtime is when some one of the social partners issue a press release? Why is news about the Public Accounts Committee not the headline news almost every night or on the front page on every week’s newspaper?

Taking the media for fools and light weights

By not focusing on the bigger issues and keeping the debates about them perpetually in the forefront, not only have we taught Belizean viewers and readers to gravitate to the “lesser” issues, but we’ve also taught government to take us lightly as the media.

Let’s take that closed press conference in which the government launched the Norwegian Cruise Line MOU. Has anyone ever asked the question: why was it closed and only the media could attend?

The only thing that makes any sense is this: the government didn’t want the BTIAs and the environmentalists to attend.

Call it a conspiracy theory, but in a large way it appears that the government had no fear that the media would have scrutinized the heck out of that MOU; and it had no doubt that “just the media” would have been fine—no worries there.

Do you think it’s because the room at the Matalon was too small and it couldn’t support too large an audience? If that was the case, why not hold such an important, wide-ranging event at some of the more traditional spots: Radisson, Princess, or Biltmore?

Since the launch, we have heard the BTIA question several aspects of the deal. FECTAB has called foul as it pertains to its supposed risks to the tourism business in the City.

BTIA’s most recent press, entitled “No means No”, ends with this statement:

“Opponents of this proposal have been varyingly referred to by GOB officials and employees as ill-informed, irresponsible, and disrespectful. Lack of information and secret and select meetings, all serve to divide our communities and inhibit sustainable growth of the tourism industry.

“We call on GOB to make public the full facts about this scheme – including the specific points made above – so that all Belizeans can draw their informed conclusions as to the benefits and disadvantages of this proposal, and whether one outweighs the other.”

So, obviously, the closed press conference didn’t solve a thing, and the real questions—those of jobs, sustainability, environmental impact, the 25-year exclusivity, and more—were neatly skirted by government in its closed press conference. This has left everyone with more questions than answers. Does the government have more fear of facing the “people” than it does facing the media? If yes, that says a lot about the media and its degree of “effectiveness”.

The nation-building agenda

What’s the policy distortion here? The fact that government religiously engages in these investments without adequately consulting with the chief stakeholders in the industry is the chief concern. The debate and media rounds should be more on the lap-sided nature of this non-consultative approach. But, just like the PAC, those issues are treated as second-rate.

Issues such as poor transparency and accountability structures, rampant human rights abuses, repeated disrespect by a government that doesn’t engage relevant stakeholders in half-a-century-long decisions, and restructuring of pertinent Standing Committee, are what should comprise the Belizean media diet until the nation sees some meaningful and relevant results.

If we want to see an amelioration of many of these issues, the media needs to remember its roots and promote a nation-building agenda and re-educate Belizeans to demand more and tolerate less.

The media cannot afford to “reflect” society, because “society” isn’t where it needs to be.

It cannot afford to “reflect” current structures and methodologies, because many of them are inadequate.

The media must lead public opinion to a higher level in which nothing relevant will “blow over just like a little breeze”.

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