In An Alter World Of Politics And Ego

By SUNITY MAHARAJ

In time to come, we might find compassion for Sasha Mohammed, too. Seduced by the borrowed power of the Media, how could this reporter have known that she was a mere proxy for power, another convenient creation of our combined impotence- we, a damaged people, practising a dysfunctional system, condemned to travel every which way but straight?
When parliament couldn’t tame governments from Williams to Manning; when the PNM couldn’t rein in its political leader and the UNC couldn’t corral Basdeo Panday, the culture ingeniously engineered subterranean channels to shift the battle from party, cabinet and parliament to a place of greater public access and public control: the Media.
Under normal circumstances, it would be a difficult fit. It is Parliament, not the Media, that is designed as the space for the contestation of interests in a democracy. The Media’s task is to report reality, distill truth: What do we know? What does it mean?
Increasingly, however, history, culture and the deep-seated inadequacies of the constitutional framework have combined to neutralize Parliament and Government as Legislature and Executive. With its usual inventiveness, the culture’s collective intelligence has settled on the Media as a suitable Parliament of the People from which to govern the Government. This explains why, every day, politicians from the Prime Minister down, seem to draw their daily agenda from the news agenda. Government by headline, one might say. Everyone now knows that the easiest way to influence power is to go to the media. Far more effective than asking for an appointment to meet and discuss matters of national concern.
For their part, Society and Media have found ways to flex and accommodate the requirements of the culture. In many cases, and with the full complicity of both Public and Media, there is tacit agreement to suspend and/or contravene espoused codes of ethics and norms of conduct. So that when neither party, nor government nor parliament is effective for our purposes, we shift the battle to the Media, suspend the normal rules of play and represent ourselves directly, down to tarring, feathering and running people out of town.
In the last political season, as we confronted the defiance of Patrick Manning in the Government and the PNM, and Basdeo Panday in the UNC, Sasha Mohammed became the Chosen One for the forces of change. Many of those baying for blood now were on the sidelines, cheering on Ms Mohammed, happily willing to overlook all transgression on the principle that the ends justified the means.
Tragedy was inevitable the moment the decision was made to invert the relationship and relocate the conduit to the source by moving her to the Office of the Prime Minister. Explosion, whether by computer or not, was inevitable. It requires just a short leap to go from “unnamed sources say…” to the facelessness of facebook.
True, the number of reporters who have been taken into government by the Persad-Bissessar administration is worrying in what it says about the state of integrity within our newsrooms and the media as industry. More important by far, however, is the suggestion of a complete collapse of the finely-tuned tension between the Media and Politics, which though not perfect, has permitted a reasonable co-existence between both. A radical change in dynamics doesn’t threaten just the Media (as institution—not industry); it threatens the entire society. The full implications of this we will understand when the information network itself becomes as choked as the political system, creating a society without an axis of trust.
Among the first to recognize the potency of the Media as an alternative arena for representative politics was Patrick Chookolingo, the editor who launched us into the age of weekly tabloid journalism, T&T style, and changed the role of the media with the Bomb in 1970. Boxed in by the norms of orthodox journalism, which renders so much of interest into so little to publish, Chookolingo introduced a range of devices, including dreams and story-telling, to report what everyone suspected but no one could write. The impact of the Bomb’s popularity and influence under him was profound, especially on the mainstream competition. On St Vincent Street, the conservative Trinidad Guardian responded with “Sunday Guardian Correspondent”, a notoriously propagandistic column, written anonymously but widely assumed to be penned by the late Lloyd Cartar among others. It was a platform for launching an assault on the Williams administration and for promoting the rise of the rival Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR).
Between the two dailies, however, the eighties really belonged to the Express. Just over ten years old, the Express found its stride as “the people’s paper”, straddling the worlds of mainstream and weekly journalism, in a style partly inspired by the investigative journalism of Watergate and the Trinidadian appetite for human drama. Hopefully, in time, our scholars will chronicle the history and development of the media. For now, though, as we ponder the meaning of the Sasha Mohammed episode, we must note the moment when the political forces that Chookolingo had kept hidden in the Bomb’s closet, came out into the open to be counted alongside Express publisher, Ken Gordon. The marriage between Politics and Media was secret no more. With the innocence of children, we had let the genie out of the bottle. Over time, and with the devaluation of media currency, the publisher as kingmaker would devolve to the reporter as queenmaker.
If anything, the massive and dramatic expansion of the media industry in the years since then has entrenched the role of the Media as an extra-parliamentary, extra-party, extra-government entity. Put simply, the Media has become a surrogate for our impotent political system. The good news is that, in re-casting the Media in this role, the culture has created space for expression where it found none in the formal space; the bad news is that it has subverted the media away from its supremely important role as reporter of reality and distiller of truth. Once poisoned, the chalice of information inevitably toxifies the body politic.
In the cut-throat world of politics, Kamla Persad-Bissessar triumphed, not because of a smiling congeniality and willingness to compromise, but because she was more successful than the rest in keeping her war invisible. She did so by shifting her battles onto others and staying at arm’s length, smiling while others fought her wars, through the media and in the raw politics. Sasha Mohammed and Jack Warner were just two of the alter egos employed and, by a curious turn of events, both are being neutralized as the PM prepares faces the fact that it is time to show up.. Her first year experience tells her that while it was the shrewdest of strategies for surviving Panday, it is hardly a strategy for government.
What her cabinet reshuffle most reveals is her preparation for settling into the saddle. The question is, can you saddle a tiger?

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