Jamaican media not obliged to be politically neutral, Scott argues

Jamaican attorney Walter Scott says there is no reason local media houses should not be able to publicly declare support for a political party, as is done in other mature democracies.

Scott advanced the argument in a column penned for the next edition of his online periodical Public Opinion, set to be published this Friday, but which he shared with the Jamaica Observer on the weekend.

Pointing to the practice of media houses in the United States, Britain, and Canada endorsing political parties and candidates in the run-up to elections, Scott asked: “Why should we be any different here in Jamaica?”

The column comes in the wake of the firestorm created by People’s National Party (PNP) General Secretary Dr Dayton Campbell labelling Nationwide News Network an “incubator for the Jamaica Labour Party” at a political meeting on September 3.

The comment has been condemned by the Press Association of Jamaica, which described it as an assault on press freedom and said Campbell had placed the lives of journalists in danger.

Here is the full text of Scott’s article:

“Media houses do not have to be politically neutral. This simple statement represents journalistic heresy to many Jamaicans. But is it so? On what basis, whether in law or otherwise, are Jamaican media houses obliged to be politically neutral?

Neither the constitution nor any law regulating media in Jamaica obliges political neutrality by media houses. The constitution confers “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, belief, and observance of political doctrines” on all individuals, inclusive of companies and media houses [Section 13 (3) (b) of the Charter of Rights]. There is special provision carved out in Section 21 (2) of the Broadcasting and Radio Re-Diffusion Act that mandates equal time for political broadcasts under certain circumstances. That apart, there is no statutory imperative for balance. A media house can pick a side. Commercially, it might be a disaster, but all persons, legal or corporate, have an unfettered right to lose money. Does anyone remember the Daily News newspaper, once described by the late C S Reid as “a political rag” for the PNP?

The old Public Opinion newspaper was decidedly left of centre; so much so that some styled it as the newspaper for the PNP.

Jamaica is a fairly mature democracy. Universal adult suffrage was granted in 1944. Almost 80 years later, Jamaicans have had, and exercised the right to vote as they please in periodic general elections. In mature democracies media houses can exercise their constitutional rights to support the political party or leader of their choice. A few examples will suffice.

In the 2019 general election in the United Kingdom The Telegraph, The Sun, The Times, and the Daily Mail newspapers all publicly endorsed the Conservative Party. Similarly, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror newspapers both publicly endorsed the Labour Party. The Economist is an avowed left of centre news magazine, whilst Spectator magazine is equally an avowed Conservative supporter.

In the 2020 elections in the USA in which Donald Trump ran against Joe Biden, the following were some of the public political endorsements by newspapers: The Washington Times, Boston Herald, New York Post, and New York Sun amongst others all endorsed Trump. On the other hand, The
New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, all publicly supported Joe Biden.

In the 2015 general election in Canada the Toronto Sun, Calgary Herald, The Globe, and Mail, amongst others, publicly endorsed the Conservatives, while the Toronto Star, Burlington Post, Hamilton Spectator, and others all endorsed the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau.

Why should we be any different here in Jamaica?

I believe that those who wish to give endorsements or to pick a side must do so openly, publicly, and transparently. By so doing they retain their integrity and give the advertising and reading/listening/watching public clear choices.”