Sunday, May 23, 2010

Something Different

As this is a blog about Bermuda I try to avoid things that aren't really relevant to Bermuda. I'll leave it to you to decide if I've broken that rule with this post.

I first heard of this story a week ago and have been following it since (in attempt to make myself feel better about the direction Bermuda is headed):

Texas schools to get controversial syllabus

Education officials in the US state of Texas have adopted new guidelines to the school curriculum, which critics say will politicise teaching... Critics say the changes are ideological and distort history. However, proponents argue they are redressing a liberal bias in education... But during the discussions some of the most controversial ideas were dropped - including a proposal to refer to the slave trade as the "Atlantic triangular trade"... Opponents of the changes worry that textbooks sold in other states will be written to comply with the new Texas standards, meaning that the alterations could have an impact on curriculums nationwide.

The full list of originally proposed changes were as follows:
  • Referring to the slave trade as the "Atlantic triangular trade".
  • Diminishing the role Thomas Jefferson and the idea of the Separation of State and Church
  • Casting the United Nations in a critical light as a threat to sovereignty
  • Promoting American ideals as beneficial for the world
  • Emphasizing the role of religion in America's founding
  • Promoting the superiority of the capitalist system
  • Toning down criticism of McCarthyism
Now can anyone think of something more ironic than the nation that is supposed to be the shining light of democracy so obviously going down the road of the conservative indoctrination of children? I can't. Sure history is up to interpretation but... there's only so far you can take it and still preserve at least a semblance of objectivity.

The rest of the world is laughing at how absolutely ridiculous this is and the hypocrisy is incredible. In any other country it would have been laughed off as a complete joke, no one would have expected it to be serious and yet... America is another world too.

I wonder who else may want to rewrite history? Surely no one in Bermuda... that would be silly.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It Hits The Fan

It seems that it's really hit the fan over this Media Council Bill (Dubbed the Media Suppression Bill by Vexed), its gotten to the point where I'm losing track of the number of international organizations that have released damning condemnations of the bill. Those of us in the online community seem united in opposition as well.

To restate the reasons for the strong opposition to this bill is by now redundant and a waste of time and I hadn't intended to post again on the subject but, when unnamed government spokesmen clutter our newspapers with the absolute drivel that they've seen fit to grace us with this time it's hard not to address their attempt at a counter-argument.

First of all I must point out (as many others have) the irony of the use of unnamed spokesmen to defend a bill that seems set to be debated on the same day as the PATI legislation. Go figure. Then of course there's the question as to why the government use an unnamed spokesman in the first place. For a government that claims to have no intention but to protect the public interest and promote a free and fair media one would think they'd take reasonable steps to avoid creating the suspicion that the choice of spokesperson create but then again... It is Dr. Brown.

Unfortunately things only get more ridiculous from that point. Step one of the Government counterattack seems to be to discredit the international organizations that have expressed their concern (Hmm.. Where have I heard of governments doing that before?). What's most interesting is their strategy. They dismiss all but one of the organizations of having an inherent American slant which makes their concerns invalid because we're not America. The one they don't paint with that brush, The International Press Institute, which isn't based in America is dismissed with a suggestion that their spokesperson may be American. Yeah that's right. He may be American. Now if you live in the same Bermuda I live in then you will remember the various battles the Government has had with the Governor and the way Dr. Brown repeatedly takes shots at our "Colonial Masters" you wouldn't have dreamed that suddenly the Government would take a U-turn and begin extolling the correctness of the Governor's views (he believes that the Council would, in fact, be independent in its current form). Such is the political times we live in though. As soon as it becomes convenient the Government drops the attempts to portray us as closer to America with the UK and their representatives as our evil masters and turns around to dismiss experienced international press freedom organizations for being too American and begins using the UK appointed Governor's statements as proof of their point. Apparently it is completely acceptable for the Government to ignore not only the skills and reputations of some of the organizations but, to mislead the public as well because two of the organizations in question are actually related to the UK and have little/no ties to America (those two being the Commonwealth Press Union and the Press Complaints Commission which is the corresponding council in the UK). Lets have a look at some of the big names:

  • The IPI
60 years of defending press freedom:
The International Press Institute is a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists. We are dedicated to the furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism.
  • Commonwealth Press Union
The CPU Media Trust has been established to defend the interests of the Commonwealth media.

The Trust is committed to a professional, ethical and effective media across the Commonwealth. Its primary concerns are supporting media freedom and media rights, the training of journalists in the skills necessary for them to enable their work and a thorough understanding of media law and the establishment and support of self-regulatory bodies throughout the Commonwealth.

Groups with a purely American slant that don't understand the way things work in Bermuda? Or dedicated press freedom organizations expressing concern at the direction a reasonably developed democracy is going? You decide.

Next we have this issue of whether or not it is right to have Government appointees sitting on the council. The spokesman attempts to justify it by pointing to the presence of "lay members" on councils in England and Ireland. Lets be clear on that point right off the bat. Government appointees are in no way lay members of the council, they are Government representatives with the forseable power to vote to suppress embarrassing stories. Were it to be 5 representatives of the Media, a Governor appointed chairman and 6 independent members of the public agreed upon by the Media and Governor then it would be a different story but, these 6 members are appointed on the advice of the Premier who shall have consulted the Opposition Leader as it currently stands and that is a risk no one should be willing to take. I previously stated that I understand the arguments for including government representatives on the council but, would rather see 6 Media reps and 5 Government reps rather than the current opposite situation because then the Government would require the support of the Governor's rep which creates a presumption to err on the side of the media as it would require the Governor's rep to actively vote against the media. That being said however, I would prefer to see no government involvement at all much like the UK council which proves that self-regulation not only works, but works well.

In defense of the independence of the Governor's appointees the spokesman points to the Public Service Commission and the Ombudsman and this is a good point but, unfortunately it's not good enough for me. In any political system there are two parties in almost constant conflict, the People and the Government. In a Democracy the weapons of choice are (theoretically) facts and the arms dealer (to both sides) is the Media. Such a basic pillar of our system cannot be put anywhere near the danger of control by the Government. As well intentioned and incorruptible as any current or future leader may be it would only take one with ambition to abuse the system and that is a risk we cannot afford to take. For the PSC and the Ombudsman we have no choice but, to deal with the imperfect system but, the same risk should not be taken with the Media. If the Government was really committed to ensuring a fair and open Media they would adopt the successful policy adopted by the UK government and let the local Media attempt to create their own self regulating council before rushing in with the big guns and taking what could be a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

Then there are the power to effectively gag the press that the council would have under the legislation., keep in mind that the UK commission acts without any statutory powers at all and yet functions perfectly well. This has created one of the biggest bones of contention regarding this act. The defense from the spokesman?...

They can only gag it for a limited time.

Clearly they missed the point. It should have no power to gag at all!

We can only hope that this will not go through on the nod under the PLP whip. It would be a travesty for local democracy. The UBP opposes it, the Alliance is almost certain to express similar views, now its time for the PLP backbenches to take action in the interests of the Bermudian people rather than following the agenda of a clearly confused cabinet which seems unable even to figure out the name of the spokesman in charge of dealing with this bill.

Wishful Thinking

Friday, May 14, 2010

More On The Media Council

Vexed has posted a copy of the proposed Media Council bill on his website here and looking through it there are a number of interesting things that caught my eye.

Section 2 lays out the purpose of the act and subsection (a) specifies that it should be an "independent" entity and yet the government will effectively appoint half of the members. That gives a party with a vested interest in keeping the media subdued (what government wouldn't want the media not to report embarrassing things?) a lot of power to control it. Granted it seems that it's not as unbalanced as I previously indicated it may have been since Chairman appointed by the Governor exercises both a normal vote and an extra casting vote in the case of a tie. This balances it up although I must still question why the choice was made to give the council a bias towards the government when international practice often allows the media to police themselves with much success. There must always be a certain level of inherent distrust of the government in a democracy, with the media supposed to be the counterbalancing force. While the council has great potential to do good I'd rather have 6 elected by the media and 5 appointed by the government and since the balance would remain the same (the governor's appointee still with the casting vote) I would hope that the government would be receptive to the worries of cynics such as myself and make this slight change so that if Dr. Brown truly does wish to do good with this council it is not hidden behind the suspicion and distrust that his actions so often evoke from many within the community (and rightly so).

The act also seems to give a lot of power to the Minister to decide who the Council has jurisdiction over and who it doesn't. I'd rather see specific definitions that all media outlets could be tested against than this power be given to a politician who could potentially have vested interests in deciding one way or the other.

Finally it is interesting that the Media Council is to be funded purely by the media. It just seems a bit wrong to me, I doubt the profit margins are high (especially considering that a newspaper was forced to close due to costs recently) and if the Government wishes to regulate the media it is only fair that the Government pays for it. If however the council is adapted to consist purely of members of the media then the case could certainly be made for them paying for it but, in its current form it is wrong.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It Gave Unto Them Spines

It would seem that the PLP parliamentary group has at last found its voice... and its spine at last. In a thus far unprecedented move an overwhelming majority of PLP MP's spoke out against a key piece of their Leader's agenda, gambling.

I have a number of theories as to why this may have happened (or more specifically why it happened NOW). Here are a few:

  1. Dr. Brown is now a lame duck Premier on the way out so they aren't worried about upsetting him anymore.
  2. Paula Cox's leadership early in the debate gave backbench MP's the courage to speak their minds
  3. Gambling is an issue that arouses such strong opposition within the church community (traditionally a strong PLP support base) that the MP's are terrified of upsetting them by supporting it.
Theory 1 is the pessimist in me, it is what so many years of complete lack of backbench scrutiny of Dr. Brown has done to me. It seems to be a theory that is widely shared and it certainly isn't a good indication of the health of Bermudian democracy. With such a small parliament it is simply impossible for our system to function when the backbench is willing to stick their head in the sand and ignore the failures of their party leadership. This needs to change.

Theory 2 is a more moderate approach that also seems to be rather popular. Not much to say about it except that it seems clear that Paula Cox is set to become our next premier. Ms. Cog the Jellyfish hasn't had much in the way of backbone until now and its a worrying prospect that she won't have developed one in time for the serious changes that need to come under our next Premier if our Island is to continue to prosper. Better late then never though I suppose but, then again her backbone may well have only materialized due to theory 1. In which case it is no backbone at all.

Theory 3 is the hope that this incident is actually democracy in action. Whether or not you agree with the church lobby you can't deny that they represent the views of a large portion of Bermudian society and if this was really a reaction to their opposition then it just goes to show that the MP's actually listened. That would be a very positive sign and would suggest that the onus is on us to keep our politicians working for us. I have argued in the past that our system is what we made/continue to make it. If only every issue got people as interested and active as gambling did. Then we'd have the healthy, thriving democracy that we all want. But.. there I go with the wishful thinking again.

In the end I think it comes down to a mixture of all three. A little bit of positive in there, a little bit of negative, a little bit of "Yawn, Bermuda really is another world". It will be interesting to see where this new phase of politics in Bermuda will take us, if it even lasts beyond October that is.

Wishful Thinking

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Media Council

The PLP is no friend of the Royal Gazette. This is more than obvious to anyone who has watched the Government kill the Mid Ocean Newspaper by withdrawing advertisiment, attempt to gag the RG on major stories and repeatedly criticize the Royal Gazette for reporting on anything negative relating to the Government. But I certainly didn't expect it to go as far as it seems to be going.

Dr. Brown has announced his draft plans for a Media Watchdog which he's been speaking about for a while now. At first glance it seems reasonable enough (although personally the thought of any government controls on a free media is worrying) but, as usual the devil is in the details. It is proposed that the council have 12 members, 6 of which are appointed on the advice of the Premier (i.e. appointed by him in non-political speak). One of the remaining 6 is to be the chairmen appointed by the Governor (presumably with only a tie-breaking vote) and the other 5 are supposed to be members of the media. If my assumption regarding the chairman is true that leaves the Premier with a majority representation on the council. As far as I'm concerned that gives a dangerous amount of power to the people who have the most to fear from a free media. Especially if our next premier is as openly hostile towards the Royal Gazette as the current one.

Unfortunately I expect this bill to go through parliament on a purely partisan vote without much in the way of public opposition, except for those who are already suspicious of or dissatisfied with the PLP. I look eagerly for when the bill itself is released, perhaps my fears are unfounded but... I doubt it. So much for..

Wishful Thinking

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thank You Mr. DeVent

PLP MP Ashfield DeVent has at last hit back at Rolfe Commissiong's comments that Bermuda's drug problem is purely an issue of structural racism and good for him! I think he says it all when he accuses Commissiong of "Tunnel Vision" on the issue of race. When it comes to Comissiong's opinions it seems that we can link everything from crime to support of the BDA back to race somehow and it seems that Mr. DeVent believes, as I do, that this is doing more harm than good.

As much as we'd all like to say there was no racism in Bermuda we all know there is but, it does a disservice to us all when we freely allow people to shirk responsibility for their actions in favour of blaming racism when in fact it comes down to personal choice. But, I've said all that before; most of all it's just good to know that there are those in the PLP who will stand to Mr. Commissiong and his race based tunnel vision. Perhaps there is some hope to be had for the future after all.