Freedom of the press

| 19/07/2009

While the comments by McKeeva Bush in response to a Net News editorial may have strayed a little close to a warning not just to Desmond Seales but the wider media, what is worthy of further exploration is the idea of a press association — not only to maintain ethics, as he suggested, but to protect journalists fromthe threats of big business as well as politicians.

Anyone who knows the editor of Net News will recognise that, while Bush was sailing a little too close to the threatening wind, he also had a point.However, that’s a matter for Seales and his clients and readers to worry about. Furthermore, Bush’s war of words with him will probably continue on and off, as it already has done for years, without resolution. Moreover, Bush is not alone in his decision to use press briefing time to castigate the media – Kurt Tibbetts also took time to do it on several occasions as well, even if he didn’t do it with quite so many colourful adjectives.

The important point here is how the media can improve standards but also protect itself from manipulation. Press freedom is a very precious thing but it is not until it is gone that we recognise how important that it is. There is no doubt that the formation of a media association here is long overdue and it is desperately needed to protect the independence as well as the standards of reporting.

While Bush may have accused Seales of blackmail, it is not uncommon for blackmail to be used to manipulate the press. As all of the media in Cayman is dependent on advertising sales, local businesses and of course successive governments (as they spend money on ads too) have also been guilty of the same tactics which Seales has been accused of.

During my own time at Net News I witnessed first hand threats from certain quarters of the business community to remove advertising if an unfavourable story about their brand or business was not stopped from appearing on the pages of the newspaper.Of course, advertisers have a right to advertise where they choose, but it is a dilemma for all publishers to balance the need to make at least enough money to stay viable or to publish and be damned.

Historically, the tabloid press in both the UK and US, by way of example, has depended on its formally vast readerships to keep advertisers on board, despite the fact that there may be less than favourable content about those very advertisers or their industries on the pages. However, with the advent of the internet and free classifieds, the print newspaper business is shrinking rapidly and the revenue streams which once ensured a free press in the free world are drying up everywhere — and Cayman is no different.

If people cannot rely on the relative objectivity of the press when it comes to news headlines then the community will be far worse for it. It is my own belief that because Cayman has not always had a very reliable press the marl road has flourished to the extent that it has – it’s no surprise that the absence of information will leave plenty of room for speculation.

The independence of the media, however, can only be maintained with financial independence, which means that advertisers must understand that, as they are themselves in turn consumers of news and information, the editorial aspects of a news media house are independent of its advertising. The medium, be it a newspaper or a website such as CNS, provides the advertiser with numbers. Advertisers should be looking for concentrations of people who will buy their product and they should not expect to control the editorial content with their advertising dollar.

The best place to advertise is with a news organisation that has lots of people reading it regularly and people will only read a news website or newspaper if they can depend on the accuracy and timeliness of the news. Once an advertiser tries to manipulate the editorial content of a media house, then hebegins to undermine the very thing he is trying to do, which is to reach the widest most relevant readership he can.

Manipulation of the press by either politicians or business is equally as destructive to the fundamentals of a free media — a crucial element in a democracy — as is the idea of a newspaper proprietor threatening to run bad stories about people who won’t buy advertising. The two things, advertising and editorial, have to remain separate and apart and it may well be that a newspaper association could bring independent pressure to stop both sides abusing their potential power.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    It is a well-put point that was missed by a number of the respondents here but eventually set straight – "the media" does comprise more than just newspapers. Yes “the media” does include radio, and television, but it is broader still. Let us not overlook a very potent and, judging by the often-fiery responses here, a very though provoking media form: online-only media such as CaymanNewsService!   

    In my opinion, online-only media have the ability to be more responsive, more objective and more isolated from political influence than traditional print or airwave media. Inclusive of forums such as this one, the option to have one’s opinion about a subject posted rather immediately and possessing the space for just about everyone to have their opinion published, online media afford the public a chance to assume some “ownership” of a news item, allowing a unique opportunity for the matter at hand to be debated publicly.
    Ms. Watson and her staff need not put any bias or “spin” on a story. They need only to report it objectively and leave the rest up to us, the general public, to see how it flies. CNS need not grind any axes; we the readers can do that with panache! What could be a more genuine embodiment of true freedom of speech and freedom of the press than this site? If you want the raw, gritty lowdown on a story, you need look no further than here. I love it!

    Lest readers here think I have a stake in CNS let me now say that I have no connection with CNS other than being an avid reader and occasionally posting comments on a news item here and there. Then again maybe I do have a stake in CNS in that I am an ardent and passionate believer in an objective and politically unbridled press. I value CNS because I believe people should have a say in the way their country is run and they should be able to lavishly praise or, without fear of reprisal, feel free to express a differing opinion and even sharply and soundly rebuke those who run the country . Therefore, I am a keen fan of CNS. It is my hope that CNS continues to be objective and that it gains in popularity and comes to be recognised as The Voice of the Caymanian people!

  2. CSPN Holla!!! says:

     Sports gets so little coverage because its not taken seriously in Cayman. The government does a piss poor job of promoting it and getting anyone excited. A big focus for CI government should to be to invest heavily in sports among the athletic youth. Do something astounding and Cayman can be a little giant. Look at Jamaicans for god sakes, the most sports excitement Cayman ever had came from when the Jamaicans won 8 gold medals at the olympics! Sorry this is my venting session now…but seriously. You can’t expect reporters who have to work at day when very few events occur to attend the numerous club level football, basketball, rugby and whatever else kind of games are going on. Simply put, they don’t work like real sports writers would and work their schedule around the games. Its simply about filling the back page just to say there is a sports page, for both papers. To say sports is an afterthought for Net News or the Compass would be putting it too gently. More so for Net News however and that’s for lack of resources amongst a litany of other managerial reasons. The best thing to do is cover your sport as much as you can or get someone too and write the best releases possible like Wendy said. Give the stats box score style and then times of goals and some color and background about the players. Did they do better than the last game? Any league leaders? Anyways, thats just a suggestion. Big thing is to get some good pictures if possible and you’ll go right in the paper as that fills up dead page space. But remember, Cayman is still somewhat of a nice little caribbean island. Who the hell wants to watch hedge fund managers play  indoor football at 7 p.m. on a thursday or watch cricket in the blazing sun while huge jets fly over you? What the hell is cricket anyways….

  3. Colleen says:

    Here’s a question…Wendy & John, maybe you can offer insight.

    I have a collegue who has to beg to get coverage of any of his sports events. Only if he is friends with a writer will someone actually come out. More often than not, he has to write the article himself only to have tihe senior editor chop it up and edit to his liking, where the information is no longer correct.  In my opinion, it is the job of a staff writer to attend events and write, not cut and paste someone else’s work–I could do that!  But if that writer is "too busy" to do his job, then don’t rewrite someone else’s work.

    Furthermore, it appears some of these writers only write what interests them (benefits of the job) but do not give equal time to new ideas or programs happening on the island. When coverage is offered, there are big mistakes in the article (wrong company name, mis-quotes) or it is forgotten and doesn’t get printed in a timely manner. As a result, corporate sponsors are ticked off and kids who are excited to see their team in the paper are dissappointed.

    Sorry…I guess this is more of a venting session, but it seems near impossible to get writers to do what they are hired to do (of course I only speak of the sports writers). How does one overcome such an obstacle?

    Nicky: I can only speak for CNS – Right now we have a tiny staff and we don’t have the funds for a sports writer/editor, though hopefully when the rush of advertising comes in (!) we’ll be able to hire someone. In the meantime, if someone sends a press release here we will do our best to publish – sorry, but it’s the best we can do for right now. Like all media houses, we do reserve the right to edit, which most releases need. I will say that even full time sports writers probably have a hard time keeping up with all the sports that goes on here.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Freedom of the Press.

    The UDP and quite possibly the PPM will soon start their own online news forums, and then I believe the existing press group will agree that standards should have been set.

    But on another note: CNS: no articles on the CUC report?

    • Anonymous says:

      "The UDP…will soon start their own online news forums".

      Great. Pravda here we come.

  5. Its a Hackers Paradise! says:

    On the topic of freedom of the press all those who think that the Cayman Islands has one I’d point you to the below link.

    On the subject of Desmond, I find it so interesting he continually posts Turks and Caicos stories on the front page. Desmond is not putting these there because he is seriously concerned about TCI. No, rather he tried to start a franchise paper there in September of 2008 and when the so called investors caught wind of his reputation and that his offer to "franchise" the Net News brand to them sucked, the deal fell through. Of course Desmond blames everyone but himself for this. So with glee he puts those stories in the paper of another UK territory who most people in Cayman could care less about. He also likes to remind the CI government that a similar investigation might come to cayman, something he would love because then Desmond could dress up again and testify before yet another Cayman tribal council inquiry commission or whatever the Brits dream up to call the damn things. Point is, Desmond abuses the press whenever it serves him to do so contrary to what he told the Compass. When MCM had contracts with the Turtle Farm Desmond killed nearly every story that may have been bad PR for them. When he was trying to get on Cayman Airways good side he killed any story about them too. Whenever a story about DART was being worked on it was killed before it went to the presses. Why do you think he’s only got one real reporter left at his newspaper????

    Anyways, thank god for wikileaks and oh how they must ruffle the feathers of those who write reports never meant to be seen by the public eye. The quote lifted from their site explains why jurisprudence, something actually respected and hardly ever questioned by CNS or any other news org, is complete and utter BS.

    "The corruption report gag-orders are a result of English jurisprudence, which evolved to protect the dirty dealings of Earls, Barons, and similar multi-generational oligarchs, from public oversight. In many other post-feudal countries, revolutions, occupations and independence movements have reset the jurisprudence clock, establishing cultural and legislative norms for free expression. This is not the case for the UK or its pseudo-independent colonies."



  6. John Evans says:

    What is interesting is the revelation that this whole bust up was triggered off by a dispute over the contents of an advertisement.

    It appears that the publisher was not concerned about the accuracy of the contents (which would clearly be well within his area of responsibility) but with the format. So the question this raises must be where editorial control ends. In this case it seems that the re-vamped layout of the advertisement was rejected by the paying customer and the publication involved then refused to accept the original copy. It is a strange state of affairs when any branch of the media can reject an advertisement  just because someone doesn’t like the way it looks because that sounds rather like censorship to me.

    I was also intrigued by a quote attributed to my former employer, “All the media professionals here who are responsible for dissemination of the news take their roles seriously and…in my view, will not embellish any report for self–serving reasons.” Strictly speaking that is true but the problem, from my personal experience, comes when the material leaves the control of those professionals (the working journalists) and passes into the hands of people who can use their position to change the text of a story to suit their own views. I can remember numerous instances where solid, well-researched stories went into print with substantial changes, which were made without any reference to the original author and which often had little relevance to the actual story.

    There were also (and I suspect still are) numerous occassions, particularly after 27 March 2008, when whole ‘stories’ were written from Miami, without any reference to the staff journalists actually in Grand Cayman, simply to statisfy the current editorial spin being put on an issue.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I must agree with last comment. The public knows a great deal of what is happening, but not hitting the newspapers. I would love to submit a few ideas but fear retribution as I am a civil servant and an expat. However, I feel if enough is publicized about certain issues, change can happen. The government of the past four years and from what I am witnessing so far, appears to be reactive, not proactive. 

    I also do not believe the newspapers offer full objectivity in their articles as I know a few journalists simply edit articles that are submitted by the public and therefore the article could be biased. 

    I am impressed with the articles presented in the Observer as it is challenging the community to question some uncomfortable realities of this country.

  8. Caymanian with a chip!! says:

    What about Elio Solomon on the Cayman Cross Talk show on Rooster FM?

    He spent the last several years castigating the former Government and not to mention the curren UDP Government as well.  It was only when he decided to jump on the political wagon again and since the PPM Govt. didn’t entertain him as a member and the UDP scooped him up did he drop his castigating of the UDP to concentrate fully on the PPM.

    Tell me if that aint’ full and downright complete castigation using the media to do so.  Last time I checked Radio is termed as a another form of media just not in the printed version.

    I don’t support either of these Governments (PPM or UDP) as i find they are all a bunch of power hungry, greedy people, who would sell their mothers to make a buck.

    I don’t see the UDP crowing Elio him down for what he was doing?  Don’t think that i am supporting Desmond Seales either but when you are in a country that is suffering in all areas, and your LOGB spends his time castigating a member of the media for whatever reasons personal or public that they may have between them that is a waste of my F*&^ing tax paying money and time!! 

    If you are going to run the country Mr. LOGB then do so and stop sounding off like a kid in a sandbox that has gotten slapped by another kid for his toy!!!

    Run this country UDP, stop your celebrity seeking ambitions and do the job.  Because Iam sure if you don’t you will have to deal with the people next time around.  So far I think you are wasting your time listening to the special interest groups whose only agenda is to cover thier own asses.


  9. Knal N. Domp says:

    What drives advertisement revenue is circulation (or "page-views" and "click-through-rate" for digital media). High circulation rates are achieved by offering content that is attractive to readers- quality news, insightful editorial, pretty models with big boobs, scurrilous on-the-edge investigative reporting- whatever. Media that shocks "ohmygod!" has as much right to publication as media that informs "that’s very interesting", entertains or titillates "ohmygod!"  Circulation (or click through rate) is at risk it the content no longer does so, and thatmedium either dies or re-invents itself. So, if I infer Wendy’s intent correctly, a Media Association would protect circulation rates by offering assurances(?) that the content of the media under the control of its membership will continue to shock, inform, entertain and titillate in conformance with ethical standards set by it, in return for an assurance from advertisers that advertising will not be adversly affected by the editorial opinion of the medium in question. This last tiff between Sleaze and Beloved Leader will have done two things by the time it dies down- CNN will have seen its circulation rise slightly but only temporarily, and Beloved Leader might just slightly regret his little outburst as showing too much sensitivity about what Sleaze thinks or the real influence of his medium CNN. There is no real need for a Media Association- the marketplace will allocate relative influence as it always does…

  10. Anonymous says:

    It is not at all clear what model for (self) – regulation/self-defence you have in mind. The Press Complaints Commission in the UK "regulates" the print media not TV and radio for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the licensing and content models differ considerably.

    Why would a radio station that only airs pre-packed vintage rock music need oversight of its editorial content? For that matter, why would it need or wish to pay for protection from government or big business seeking to influence editorial slant in the same way that CNN or CNS might?

    BTW – I suspect that the email linked contact button on your site is perceived as far less anonymous than your "post a new comment" buttons – by most people – irrespective of the realities.

    CNS: You’re right, the contact button is only as anonymous as your email address.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Another thought provoking article. 

    As an ill-informed outsider, I would question whether a mutually supportive press association is possible in a small community with only 3 competing "press houses". This is particularly so when readership is not well differentiated and each of the 3 would likely beneftit from the elimination of one or more of its competitors. 

    On an entirely separate point  and despite whatever freedom of speech may exist in Ca;yman, many of the reader posts on CNS suggest that the readers know much more than they are comfortable writing for direct public consumption. May I suggest that Cayman’s media product might be enhanced if it were possible for readers to provide "for the editor’s eyes only" story line suggestions, together with any available supporting material, electronically and anonymously. Perhaps CNS could lead the way by inserting a hyperlink for suggestions on its site. 

    CNS: There is a contact us button on the main menu and we welcome suggestions. On your first point, "the media" includes TV and radio.