Amid the shock of the Bermuda Sun suddenly going under, and the general crisis of Bermudian journalism that this has both highlighted and exacerbated, there’s been one voice which has been conspicuous in its absence – the Media Council.
Born out of concerns about problematic journalism – and hostility from the then PLP Government led by Dr Brown towards the Royal Gazette (at least in perception) – and threatened statutory regulation of the media, complete with the proposed Media Council Act 2010, the Media Council was established as a voluntary organisation for the self-regulation of Bermuda’s media.
While many may consider the role of the Media Council as handling and resolving complaints concerning the media, this is actually just one of its two main goals:
“We have two main goals – to help resolve complaints against the media and to protect freedom of expression.” [My emphasis.]
Missing in Action?
Despite this crucial guiding animating goal of the Media Council, it has been silent while threats to freedom of expression have been steadily growing in Bermuda.
- The intimidation meted out at the Cabinet Office to Ayo Johnson (while particular to Mr Johnson, this can, and should, be seen as a message and threat to all media). Additionally, the official statements from the Government explaining their actions provided inaccurate information regarding the Media Council itself. The Media Council should have issued an emergency statement immediately after this incident came to light, followed up by correcting the Government’s misinformation
- More recently we have seen the the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission release a statement that they were monitoring online comments, both on social media and in the comments sections of the news media. While their statement, in itself, is rather innocent, to many it has overtones of Big Brother to it. Furthermore, one wouldn’t be surprised if this also signals a more hands-on approach, possibly involving the HRC convening a meeting of media representatives – which itself may well serve as a prelude for some sort of formal (even statutory) regulation of online comments. This would certainly appear to have consequences for ‘freedom of expression’. The Media Council itself should have taken a pro-active position on this and responded to the press statement issued by the HRC, setting a few red lines – however over-reactive this may have been seen by some – concerning protecting freedom of expression in Bermuda.
- Also on the issue of commenting on online media articles, the Media Council has more or less failed to address this issue. While online commenting can be overly negative, they can also enhance articles, provide context otherwise missing from articles and even provide insights resulting in new leads for journalists to follow up. The Media Council includes, as part of its remit, the creation of ‘Guides for Media Professionals’. To date, it has only produced one, ‘Reporting on Race in Bermuda’. It is disappointing that they have not sought to address the issue of online commenting. It should also be noted here that the RG has increasingly restricted the number of stories where commenting is allowed. While there may be good reasons for this, it has not made them clear, contributing to a growing fear of reduced freedom of expression – this is something the Media Council should be addressing.
- It is shocking that the Media Council has not issued any statements on the state of the media in Bermuda in light of the closure of the Sun. As I’ve touched on elsewhere, this has potentially grave consequences for the institution of journalism – and by extension, democracy – in Bermuda. Even the sudden surplus of journalists creating a reserve army of labour (to use some Marxist phrasing) threatens editorial independence of journalism, with journalists at greater risk of being replaced, and so more open to be dominated by demands of bosses rather than good journalism.
- It is also quite disappointing that the Media Council has not taken a pro-active position on editorial independence in a more general sense, specifically the ongoing editorial instability at the RG. To date, the RG has not had an editor since Bill Zuill stepped down following the 2012 election. We’ve had an ‘acting editor’ followed by, now, an ‘editorial consultant’. With this editorial instability the concept of editorial independence at the RG, one of the key media institutions in Bermuda, is seriously in question – and with it freedom of expression. And yet the Media Council has said nothing.
- The Media Council has been absolutely silent on issues regarding PATI, at least since the 2012 election. As PATI has been in the news lately, with proposed amendments forthcoming, it is extremely disappointing that it has not issued any public statements regarding it, articulating its own vision of what PATI can and should be.
- Increasingly we are seeing official press releases passing for media articles, with a near verbatim repetition in the articles, without being challenged by reporters or enhanced through questioning. This does not constitute journalism; rather it renders the news media propaganda mouthpieces – and damages freedom of expression as a result. The Media Council should be taking a stand on this, articulating the problems in the media which is allowing this to happen, and taking steps to improve journalism across the board.
Overlooked Consequences of the Sunset
In addition to these various issues, the loss of the Bermuda Sun has some very direct and immediate consequences for the Media Council.
For starters, the chair of the Media Working Group (MWG) is (or rather was) Tony McWilliam, the now former Editor of the Bermuda Sun. As I understand it, the MWG was the part of the Media Council that actually did all the heavy lifting – the grunt work if you will.
Mr McWilliam was also the President of the Media Council Foundation, which had as its key function ‘to sustain the Media Council’.
With the demise of the Sun, it is likely that Mr McWilliam is no longer able to act in either of these key positions.
With the apparent loss of the Media Council’s key ‘champion’ one imagines they have been thrown into disarray.
Additionally, I understand that the Executive Officer of the Media Council, Meredith Ebbin, is due to retire soon, and the meeting to discuss her replacement was scheduled for the very day the sudden closure of the Sun was announced, further contributing to the organisational crisis of the Media Council.
Another factor that needs to be considered with the demise of the Sun is that, in as much as the Media Council is funded by its members, the loss of such a key paying member as the Bermuda Sun means the Council has even less resources than ever.
This makes it subsequently more dependent on its remaining members – and thus less likely to take pro-active positions regarding this or that member (such as the editorial independence issues at the RG).
A General Crisis & Collapse?
Journalism in Bermuda is in the midst of an institutional collapse – it’s in freefall – and the Media Council, which is supposed to be the key representative of Bermudian journalism, has been missing in action for some time, at least for the last year and a half.
And just as journalism in Bermuda in general is in the midst of a general crisis, it would seem that the Media Council itself has been plunged into crisis, both in terms of resources and organisational abilities.
The Media Council is failing to be pro-active to address this crisis in journalism, and now, with its own internal crises, it’s not clear they can even take pro-active steps to save themselves, let alone Bermudian journalism.
The biggest losers in this are the electorate, who are rapidly losing the ability to access the information that good journalism is supposed to provide as a public good.
And this vacuum being created by these crises may well lead to more worrying developments regarding censorship, such as more heavy handed statutory regulation of the media, going forward…