After the Sun set…
A reader has pointed out to me, privately, something that I and others have overlooked in our initial reactions to the shock news of the sudden demise of the Bermuda Sun.
If one looks at the RG article on the demise of the Sun, one comes across the following:
Jonathan Howes, chief executive of Bermuda Press (Holdings) Limited (BPHL), parent company of The Royal Gazette, said:
“The Royal Gazette takes no pleasure in the news that the Bermuda Sun is to cease publication. In the news business we thrive on competition and over the years the Sun has certainly proved a worthy rival as well as providing a valuable alternative media voice in the community.”
“The closure is another reminder of the challenges facing newspapers worldwide as the industry grapples with the impact of the recent recession, declining revenue and increased competition from digital sources.”
“As Bermuda’s only print newspaper, The Royal Gazette now has an even greater responsibility to provide the community with the balanced, accurate and inclusive news coverage that it deserves. It’s a responsibility our editors and reporters take very seriously and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Now, the first few statements from Mr Howes are alright – they speak to the general business situation for the news media, which, in light of his position I can understand him speaking about.
It’s the last part which is concerning.
Editorial Independence Is Vital
There is supposed to be a clear separation between the owner and the editor when it comes to news media.
Editorial independence is, by definition, the freedom of editors to make decisions without interference from the owners of publications.
Editors and owners do share, in theory, the common goal of producing a reliable and readable newspaper produced in respect of the stated aims of the paper and cost. However they have different roles, and it is extremely worrying when the latter encroaches on the former.
Owners have the right to appoint and dismiss editors (within reason, due process, etc) and to make key business decisions with the involvement of editors to the fullest extent possible.
However, editors must have full authority (independence) in determining the editorial content, place, tone and positioning.
Owners should not interfere in the evaluation, selection or editing of individual articles, either directly or by creating an environment that strongly influences decisions.
Editors should be basing editorial decisions on the basis of the validity of the work, importance to the public interest and not on the commercial success of the paper.
Editors, and editorial content (stories, etc), should be free to express critical, but responsible, views on any subject, even if these may conflict with the commercial goals (or financial interests) of the owner.
This concept of editorial freedom needs to be robustly defended by editors, even at the risk of their jobs.
It is not Mr Howes place, as representing owner interests*, to intrude on editorial issues, which is exactly what his last statement does. While what he said may sound okay, it should have been for their acting editor to express such a position.
That Mr Howes did so gives, at the very least, the impression that editorial independence at the RG has been fundamentally compromised.
And, seen in the context of:
- Editorial instability at the RG since the 2012 election where we’ve gone from an acting editor to a consulting editor, which remains the case today.
- The general failure of the RG to follow-up on the #JetGate story.
- The key reporter** engaged in following up on #JetGate for the RG being dismissed from the RG and truly breaking the seriousness of #JetGate as an independent journalist freed of RG discipline.
- Question marks over further dismissals at the RG, leading to questions about editorial independence.
This would indicate a worrying and systematic internal coup by the owner, with editorial independence wholly undermined.
It also gives the appearance that the RG is, at best, failing to investigate stories which may question the OBA narrative.
At worst, it gives the appearance of actively suppressing such reporting.
And, with long-standing perceptions of the RG’s ownership being dominated by pro-UBP (and now OBA) interests, such a pattern reinforces such a perception.
Lack of media diversity & editorial independence
With the sudden demise of Bermuda’s only alternative print media, we have a print media monopoly where editorial independence would appear to be lacking.
This should concern us all.
Just losing the Sun itself should concern us all, but having to rely on a compromised newspaper from now on is extremely concerning.
Democracies rely on an informed population to hold their elected officials accountable.
The various news media are the primary way that ‘the people’ get their information – the ‘one percenters’ have sufficient access through their power to get all the information they need to run the world as they see fit; the issue is whether ‘everyone else’ will have the information they need to participate effectively in democracy.
We do still have alternative news media sources, in Bernews, Politica and the various radio and television channels, but it’s questionable whether they have the full resources to allow one to say that Bermuda has a strong and vibrant journalism.
From my perspective, with the demise of the Sun and the undermining of editorial independence at the RG, I am of the belief that journalism in Bermuda, as an institution, is in freefall collapse.
The Sun is setting.
And there’s a bad moon rising.
*Mr Howes is not ‘the owner’ of the RG, but as CEO of BPHL, of which the RG is a subsidiary. However, in a functional sense, I see him as representing the collective interests of the ‘owners’, which are essentially commercial interests. He may not be the ‘owner’ in the strictest, literal sense, but for the purposes of discussing the undermining of editorial independence at the RG, I think it is legitimate to view him as representing the interests of the collective ‘ownership’ of the RG.
**I believe Mr Gary Moreno initially broke the JetGate story, but Mr Ayo Johnson was no doubt key in developing the story further, especially with the RG.