The Fourth Estate stoush

What is it that incites Pacific media owners, journalists, media academics and students to go ferociously for one another’s jugular every so often? The short history of journalism in the Pacific Islands is littered with numerous episodes of media proprietors, scribes and tertiary teachers lunging at one another’s throats, polarising the student community at an enormous cost to their study.

These confrontations always tend to begin with ideological differences, which is not a bad thing at all, given that the raison d’etre of journalism is to question the status quo in an informed and collegial manner, but the debate quickly degenerates into unabashed personality clashes.

Before long, the quality of the discourse spirals out of control into petty name calling, questioning of credentials and antecedents, abusive comments—right down to racist remarks directed at all concerned.

In years past, such quarrels were restricted largely to the print medium and points and counterpoints were to a large extent reasoned and measured. But the popularity and accessibility of the online medium and the lack of editorial control, particularly on blog sites, reduces the level of debate to little more than the raucous, expletive filled exchanges in a bar brawl.

The latest episode in this continuing sordid saga involves Marc Edge, the current head of the University of the South Pacific’s Journalism Programme; David Robie, one of his predecessor;, Graham Davis, the twin hat wearing journalist cum consultant to the PR company rendering services to the Fiji government; and a bunch of journalism students hopelessly divided across the continuing unseemly stoush that is spreading to all sorts of Pacific centric websites—all at the cost of their study.

At the Pacific Islands News Association’s biennial meet earlier this year, questions about journalistic ethics were raised and inconclusively argued between Edge and Davis resulting in frothy debates on websites for several months following.

Then again at last month’s USP hosted media freedom symposium, what started out as a an extremely interesting debate about what style of journalism is best suited for the region’s realities, quickly deteriorated into another unseemly spat with the washing of copious amounts of dirty linen in the public domain.

Last month’s debate began around something that has been a subject of discussion among media academics in the region for some time now: whether journalism in the Pacific should be based on the ‘social responsibility’ or  ‘deliberative’ model—which Robie favours—or whether the more libertarian ‘western style’—which Edge seems to prefer—suits it better. Associated with the former are what go by the labels ‘peace journalism’, ‘development journalism’, ‘guided’ and ‘collaborative’ journalism.

The discussions around this interesting debate would have been collegial and conducted in an atmosphere that would churn some great ideas one would think, but if one goes by the posts on a range of websites and blogs one can see that the discourse has moved away from this topic and degenerated into name calling, accusations and even unbecomingly petty racist remarks.

Parties slugging it out on these websites and blogs have cast aspersions on one another’s credibility, exhumed past skeletons going back decades, accused one another of impropriety, reproduced leaked work emails and correspondence, and have even called for people to pack up and leave, to say nothing of all sorts of veiled threats and counter threats.

Students have waded in to the controversy and added their own bit of venom to the arguments. In the process, the debate has veered light years away from where it began, resembling a street fight rather than an informed collegial discussion.

The no holds barred highly personal exchanges have exposed the poor regard these journalists and academics have for one another—which, reading through some of their vitriolic responses, is probably justified.

For instance, prolific Fijian affairs commentator Davis is hard put to defend his work as a consultant to an overseas public relations outfit engaged by the Fiji government while being a journalist at the same time. Small wonder then that his arguments in defence of juggling two hats and justifying the charade look like the proverbial fig leaf.

Such obvious as daylight conflict of interest would scarcely, if ever, have gone unchallenged in the country where this commentator lives and works from. But apparently, as we have known all along, everything is fair game in the Pacific. This only goes to show the poor regard that these sparring individuals have for the people of the region.

Edge, on the other hand, has been accused of using western, developed world yardsticks to instruct and evaluate his students.

He has been criticised for insisting on punctuality and discipline, which according to his opponents are rather harsh given the “realities” in the Pacific islands region.

On an unrelated matter, his integrity has been questioned for not adequately explaining the arrangement about his involvement in an endorsement for a commercial entity in Suva.

In another raging controversy with Fiji journalists, which also gained currency during last month’s symposium, Edge insists that self-censorship is rampant in Fiji, which Fiji’s journalists rather unconvincingly refute.

Again, this is an important topic for wider discussion—but the fact that it quickly descends to the level of personal attacks and even abuse in the form of comments written anonymously, many times quite obviously the same person assuming multiple online identities, robs the region of healthy, informed debate.

In Samoa last month, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi gratuitously offered the services of his head spin doctor and former scribe Terry Tavita to his former employer, Samoa Observer publisher Savea Sano Malifa. Malifa publicly refused spewing out a range of reasons why he thought it was a bad idea, while going over Tavita’s employment foibles in great detail.

That a prime minister can even think of suggesting that his PR man should work for what is truly the nation’s truly independent newspaper speaks volumes for how poorly regional politicians think of the national and regional media.

And why wouldn’t they when regional media stalwarts, academics, journalists and media organisations continually indulge in ugly and very public stoushes as is now being played out in Fiji?

The media’s role is said to be to hold a mirror to the government and to society without fear or favour. But Pacific media practitioners and academics are doing a disservice to their professions and to media consumers at large as they continue blackening one other’s faces putting their narrow egotistic interests above the greater good, reflecting the rot in their lot. And in the process, only fuelling politicians’ proclivity to ride roughshod over themselves and the powerless public.

First appeared as a “We Say” in Islands Business October 2012