National Review

A solution in search of a problem

An impractical approach to media relations

The guidelines recently proffered by the new press secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, our longtime colleague and friend, Clint Watson, amount to a solution in search of a problem.

They are unnecessary, inappropriate and an overreach.

We have said so directly to Watson, and still believe this to be the case.

The press secretary appears to be making busywork as he seeks to carve out something to do in his new role.

To quote a senior individual in our profession, the press secretary has arrogated to himself powers that he does not have and is already giving the new government a bad image.

No doubt unintentionally, the guidelines have made the Davis administration appear even more anti-media than its predecessors.

In office, former Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis frequently treated the media with disrespect and disdain. 

He was on many occasions rude and condescending. He spoke more frequently with those in media he liked, and mostly ignored others he obviously did not like.

Following his lead, many of his ministers were unavailable, arrogant and unaccountable.

When reasonable-minded Bahamians analyze the reasons for their devastating election loss last month, the Minnis administration’s treatment of media is often high on the list.

It is less about media and how we were treated, and more about how that reflected in the wider society and the message it sent about a government that betrayed its commitment to be fully accountable and transparent.

More than just disrespecting the media, it was a huge demonstration of a lack of regard for the wider public.

As punishment for our criticisms of the behavior of the Minnis administration and our questioning of certain policies, we were blacklisted as the official gazette. Our newspaper lost substantial business as a result of a directive that no government advertising be done in The Nassau Guardian.

But we pressed on, continuing our efforts to keep the business side of the business separate from the journalism side of the business, and to fulfill our role in deepening democracy. We strive to always recognize our responsibility to get it right and our obligation to retract when we fail to do so.

The decision of voters to rid the country of the Minnis administration signaled a new hope for good governance in our country, and also a much-needed reset of media relations with government.

The Declaration of Chapultepec, endorsed in 2002 by then-Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham on our nation’s behalf, observes: “Wherever the media can function unhindered and determine their own direction and manner of serving the public, there is a blossoming of the ability to seek information, to disseminate it without restraints, to question it without fear and to promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions. But wherever freedom of the press is curtailed, for whatever reasons, the other freedoms vanish.”

The declaration, which outlines the 10 fundamental principles necessary for a free press to perform its essential role in a democracy, also states, “The exercise of this freedom is not something authorities grant; it is an inalienable right of the people.”

This does not mean, of course, that we are to exercise our freedom in an unaccountable fashion, but it is not the role of the government or the press secretary to tell the media how we should function.

It is not the role of the press secretary to create “structure” for the media. As a journalist by profession, he should know better.

There is a tendency of administrations to create a bunker mentality around issues, which then feeds into particular types of behavior from the top down. We trust this is not a situation like that where the media’s resistance to or rejection of this becomes an issue that impacts the relationship with the administration.  

GUIDELINES

The media guidelines the press secretary released are not intended to restrict the media, but to provide greater access, he says.

But it is easy to see why many believe, or believed, otherwise.

Watson released those guidelines to media personnel in a Zoom meeting on Friday, and said the document was for consultation.

It got out.

The press secretary then insultingly accused journalists of “manufacturing a controversy” on social media.

Among other so-called guidelines, he presented, one stated, “absolutely no interviews should take place while the PM or CM (Cabinet minister) is attending an event unless pre-approved by the office of the press secretary or minister”.

The guidelines also state, “Random Cabinet Office interviews will be discontinued and replaced with a structured Cabinet press briefing at the briefing room at OPM.”

Also, “Only accredited journalists and staff will be permitted into Cabinet and OPM briefings … we recommend that seasoned team members be sent for these assignments as we seek to establish new media protocols for our national leaders”.

And, all requests for interviews and comments from the prime minister and Cabinet ministers will be facilitated through the press secretary.

We were also told that anyone seeking to interview the prime minister without “boom stands” will not be permitted to participate in any interview.

And we were told that we should address the prime minister as “Prime Minister Davis” or “Prime Minister”, and Cabinet ministers should be addressed as “Minister” or by their surnames using Mr., Miss or Mrs.

Why the press secretary thinks he needs to tell anyone in media how to refer to the prime minister or any minister is beyond us.

We were also advised of a dress code (business attire unless otherwise specified). 

The guidelines are laughable, unnecessary, insulting and in some cases, offensive.

In the follow-up email he released after the “consultation” call with media, Watson attached an accreditation form for his approval which he said was due in yesterday.

The form asks for personal information about the journalist seeking to be accredited, including date of birth, address, and years of service.

Bizarrely, and most inappropriately, journalists are asked: “Do you have any conflicts of interest in covering the prime minister or a Cabinet minister? If so, please explain.”

It also asks, “Are you a member of, or associated with any organization or movement that has opposed government on any matter?”

We fail to see how any of that is the business of the press secretary or the Office of the Prime Minister.

Further, if his justification for accreditation is to enhance security at OPM, what about those inappropriate questions lend to that being achieved?

Apart from the questions being inappropriate, the accreditation is unnecessary. 

What we have suggested, and is in fact already the case, is that journalists have proper identification from their media organizations when they attend assignments at OPM and anywhere else.

Watson has asked media houses to select two journalists for accreditation. This is impractical.

The kinds of media operations in our country and the size of our staff means that all journalists must be flexible and all must be in a position to cover any event and anyone at any time.

Limiting media houses to just two journalists permitted to cover the prime minister makes absolutely no sense.

As a journalist by profession, the press secretary should understand this.

If ministers wish to make themselves available for a weekly briefing with media then there is for sure value in that, but it would surprise us if this were something that is sustained over the course of the term.

If we need to speak with any minister and the only available option is to get that minister at a location we know he or she will be – at Cabinet – then we will continue to show up there.

These guidelines as presented could not have been reviewed by senior members of the government. 

We are happy to see that the press secretary has subsequently acknowledged that media are free to contact any minister directly; not that we needed his approval.

We have spoken with several Cabinet ministers who sensibly see no need for any middleman in this process.

We are satisfied that ministers and the prime minister will continue to speak with journalists on the sidelines at events – as Davis did on Monday.

We do not think the prime minister would support the blocking of journalists with proper media house identifications from coming into OPM or anywhere else he is having a briefing.

Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis (center) addresses questions from the media outside One Montagu.

Such a move would not be good for the image the prime minister is seeking to project for his administration – that of an open and accountable government.

It is not on the press secretary to decide or even suggest who should cover any event with the prime minister or minister. Whether we decide to send a journalist with 20 years’ experience, or one with a year’s experience should be no concern of his.

The press secretary experiment did not work out under the Minnis administration. If Bahamas Information Services is properly functioning in its role, there is really no need for a press secretary – a job title adopted from the American system, but one that is of little practical value in our country.

The approach taken thus far by the new press secretary would have made him more fitting to be the press secretary of the former administration because in our dealings with the current prime minister we have never had these types of issues.

That said, the prime minister has decided to have Watson responsible for personally overseeing his communications. 

The press secretary should not be someone who is damaging his image, creating friction with media through the implementation of cumbersome and inappropriate rules, and in the process hampering the free flow of information.

The pushback to the guidelines was certainly warranted.

We are baffled how someone who has spent more than two decades as a journalist in The Bahamas would sit down and draft them.

It is important that the Davis administration change the tone on this matter. If not, the narrative will be set, and even if the guidelines are not implemented, the damage would already have been done.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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