The Guardian affair: a breach of basic media ethics

Guardian Editor Anthony Wilson threatens Barbados Free Press

The following column by Afra Raymond was spawned by events associated with two of our recent stories. On December 30, 2011, Barbados Free Press published Afra’s piece Did former T&T Finance Minister break her oath over CLICO insider trading?

After it all hit the fan between The Guardian and Afra Raymond, BFP published our January 4, 2012 post: Afra Raymond resigns from Trinidad & Tobago Guardian: Paper wants politicians to preview articles.

That resignation story brought T&T Guardian editor Anthony Wilson to BFP. Mr. Wilson was not a happy camper. It sure was unexpected to see a news media professional so upset by a little old blog like BFP to the point where Mr. Wilson threatened us with legal action.

Hey… we’re just telling it like it happened. I guess we expected some of that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” stuff from Mr. Wilson. Wuhloss! What a disappointment.

Here’s Afra Raymond’s latest in the saga. Let ‘er rip, Afra!

Media Integrity

by Afra Raymond

For those who are only now joining the story, this is a summary of what I feel are the vital issues here.  My commentary column on the former Minister of Finance, Karen Nunez-Tesheira, was sent to her for comment by the Guardian’s Acting Editor-in-Chief, Anthony Wilson.  That is a completely improper action, which is a breach of basic media ethics.  When I challenged that action as being surprising and unprecedented, Wilson responded that “…It is by no means unprecedented territory…”.  At which point I resigned as a Guardian columnist and this broad discussion started.

This is the opening paragraph of Anthony Wilson’s post on Judy Raymond’s FB page on Friday 6th January at 12.04pm –

…In response to Mr Raymond’s comment, let me say that I have NEVER before sent any commentary to any politician or anyone else, apart from our attorneys, for pre-publication vetting. I say that without fear of contradiction and also state that that is NOT the newspaper’s policy or practice. (For Mr Raymond to pursue this point after this denial would simply be compounding the defamation.)…

Quite apart from the unnecessary legal threats, since it was never my intention to defame anyone, we are now being told that this was a one-off decision to send my entire column for vetting.

Two questions arise –

Firstly – Why did Wilson seek to tell me, in relation to his decision, that “…It is by no means unprecedented territory…”?

Secondly, if we accept that his reversal is now the true state of things, there is another issue.  Why was this exceptional consideration shown to the former Minister of Finance?

That is the ‘sole and only issue’.

The three alibis which Wilson has been using on the internet need to be set aside at once –   

  1. The attorney told me to do it – According to Wilson’s post of Thursday 5th January at 4.41pm on Judy Raymond’s FB page, the Guardian’s attorney’s advice on this question was – “…the subject of the article has not been asked to comment on the allegations. I think at the very least in order to fall within Reynolds, a comment should be procured….“.  That advice could never be the same thing as sending my entire column.
  1. The article was published before by Barbados Free Press – My article was published by BFP on Friday 30th December, but the first point is that when we spoke on the evening of 3rd January, Wilson told me that he did not know it had been published.  Also, even if Karen Nunez-Tesheira saw the BFP posting as soon as it was published, how does that explain Wilson’s decision to send it to her for comment before making his own decision?
  1. I thought it was entirely defamatory, so I showed it to the subject – Wilson, from his post on Judy Raymond’s FB page at about 1.00pm on Friday 6th January – “…I sent the entire commentary to Ms Tesheira because I formed the view that the entire commentary, from its proposed headline to the last sentence, was defamatory…”. So, if Wilson had already decided it was defamatory, why did Karen Nunez-Tesheira need to see the column? Why did Wilson send it to her?

Please note that at no point has Wilson admitted to doing anything wrong or breaking any principles or proper editorial policy.  He started-off by trying to say that his decision is nothing unusual, then that course of action went sour when BFP put the only logical meaning to the Guardian’s position.  So his first post to BFP was to threaten action for defamation, problem being that the BFP article was based on his words, so that was a dead-end.  Next move, Wilson reverses his position by stating that this was a one-off decision and threatening legal action for defamation – again…– if I continue.

Wilson has reversed his course with no admission of error or wrong-doing or anything being out-of-order at all.

Sad to say, it is reminding me of CJ Archie and Justice Kangaloo returning their ‘Silks’ to the President, while being careful to point-out that they are not guilty of any error or wrongdoing, going further to confirm that their actions are not intended to be critical of either the Administration or the President.  To my eye, the parallels are powerful.

In addition to finding out why Wilson took that decision to send my column to Karen Nunez-Tesheira, there is another question.  Given that Wilson is Guardian’s Acting Editor-in-Chief and he has not accepted that he did anything out-of-order, I feel entitled to ask what is the position in going forward?  Has the integrity of the Guardian been compromised by this unusual accommodation offered to a politician?  After all, their Acting Editor-in-Chief does not appear to see that decision as being anything improper.

Well yes, I never imagined that the occasion would arise for me to quote Karl Hudson-Phillips with approval, but here goes…new times bring new issues, which demand new responses.  I tell you.

From the leading story of the Express of Saturday 6th January about the CJ & Justice Kangaloo returning their silks – Hudson-Phillips is criticising the CJ for his first Press Release on the issue

…an alarming lack of understanding of what is thought to be a very important institution in Trinidad and Tobago under his purview. His release can be considered a perverse avoidance of a serious issue. The sole and only issue is that sitting judges should not apply for and accept silk…”.

In my view that powerful statement is relevant to this discussion on Wilson’s decision – Here is my version, paraphrasing Hudson-Phillips –

…Wilson shows an alarming lack of understanding of what is thought to be a very important institution in Trinidad and Tobago under his purview (the T&T Guardian). His postings on the internet in relation to this issue can be considered a perverse avoidance of a serious issue. The sole and only issue is that Editors should not send entire columns to the subjects for their comment…

An additional level of perversity intrudes here when one considers the fine Guardian editorial of Thursday 5th January on the broad matter of quality in our society and its implications for the ‘Silk controversy’.

Given the history of this aspect of the media, my view is that we need to be vigilant in this matter, since it is reminding me of the earlier situations involving Aldwyn Chow, Jones P Madeira and so on with the media having to face-down over-ambitious politicians and public figures.  We need to guard against the perils of self-censorship.

As I said, in the closing part of my resignation email –

As far as I am concerned, this is a vital issue, hence my spending this amount of my limited time and energy on it.  An independent, high-quality, courageous and honest media is essential to the advancement of our country.  That conviction has been at the centre of my work with The Guardian and I am thankful for the opportunity to have had my views published in those pages.

The enduring questions are how do we speak truth to power and more to the point, how can we be honest with ourselves.

FACEBOOK extracts

Nigel Campbell – Afra Raymond’s FB page Monday 9th January at 2.00pm

“…Nigel A. Campbell

In light of my friend, Afra Raymond‘s recent clash with the Guardian newspaper’s acting editor-in-chief Anthony Wilson over editorial practice and the appearance of political influence, and Afra’s subsequent “resignation”, I was reminded of the Alwin Chow/Jones P Madeira brouhaha back in 1996 with the same Guardian newspaper re the purported unfavourable influence of a hypersensitive Panday administration in the paper, <http://ipsnews.net/print.asp?idnews=94352&gt;. I went Googling the topic and found a thesis for an MA in Mass Comm. by Cassandra D. Cruickshank <http://etd.fcla.edu/UF/UFE0012001/cruickshank_c.pdf&gt;

Refresh your memories of a time excerpted from Ms Cruicshank’s thesis:
“…any criticism of his government on the part of the media was seen as racially motivated and worthy of extreme censorship…In April 1996, several senior staff members, including Madeira and managing editor Alwin Chow, said that the Guardian’s owners, the Trinidad Publishing Co., had forced them to choose between censoring their editorials and resigning. Chow told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that Trinidad Publishing, either willingly or under government pressure, sought to appease officials by ousting the journalists. The chairman of the publishing company denied Chow’s charges. In May 1996, Chow, Madeira and several former Guardian journalists started a new weekly newspaper, the Independent.”

I ask, have things changed since then? Do we cherish free speech? Can we afford it? In the age of the weblog and social network supremacy for news gathering and dissemination, what is the place for the media organization that still holds as its business model that the media form is a package for the circulation of advertisements?…”

Judy Raymond on her own FB page 5th January 11.53am
“…Judy Raymond I don’t know that it’s a “policy.” I’ve never heard of such a thing being done at the Guardian or anywhere else…”

Judy Raymond “If you’re writing a news story then obviously you (not the media house’s lawyer) need to contact the subject for their comments on any allegations. This isn’t a news story; it’s about events that happened in 2009. I’ve never heard of the subject of any story being sent the whole story in advance.”

January 5 at 12:15pm

Attilah Springer – Guardian columnist

Tillah Willah “…that passive aggressive drivel the chief editor wrote should not distract us from the fact that he has compromised his profession and his office by acting in such a manner. The whole thing is disgusting and unethical and needs to be dealt with swiftly…”

January 5 at 12:21pm

Judy Raymond Kevan, what I had a problem with was that it seemed an entire unpublished column had been sent to the subject of that column. Whether or not the column was defamatory isn’t the point.

January 5 at 7:12pm

Rhoda Bharath “…Wait….I’m confused….how did Mr Wilson go from “four or five ill chosen words” to “the entire commentary, from its proposed headline to the last sentence, was defamatory.”???? So was it that Mr Raymond used a few ill chosen words or the entire article was defamatory?

And if it was the latter, then why wasn’t Mr Raymond asked to re-write the piece as opposed to it being sent to Mrs Nunez-Tesheira for vetting?…”

Friday at 12:21pm

Rhoda Bharath ok….so then the entire piece was defamatory….In that instant why not simply return the article to him and ask him to re-write it? Or not print it at all and run something else in the space?

Friday at 12:57pm

Maxie Cuffie, former Express editor and now Editor of The Mirror

Maxie Cuffie “…I think the issues here have to do with misapprehension of the defamation laws that is widespread in the media and leads quite often to self-censorship. I have been in the for almost 30 years and although I have edited some of the most aggressive publications including the Independent, the Sunday Express with Camini Marajh and now the Mirror, no publication I edited has ever had to pay a cent in libel. And I never consult attorneys before deciding whether to publish. There is nothing defamatory in Afra’s piece and I would publish it in the Mirror in the morning if he agreed. There was also nothing defamatory in Selwyn Cudjoe’s piece which was dropped from the Guardian and led to him becoming a columnist for the Mirror, that’w why we were able to publish it without fear of repercussion. Trevor Sudama has now joined us after Newsday refused to publish one of his column’s on similar grounds. We published it without a murmur from any of the offended parties…”

Saturday at 12:25pm

Maxie Cuffie The Reynold’s guidelines have to do with reporting and not commentary. Afra’s writing is fair comment on a matter of public interest. KNT, as a public figure could have responded to the contents of the column after its publication. She need not have seen it before and Afra was under no obligation to solicit a comment from her.

Saturday at 12:28pm

9 Comments

Filed under Barbados, Ethics, Freedom Of The Press, News Media, Trinidad and Tobago

9 responses to “The Guardian affair: a breach of basic media ethics

  1. I hope he kept Screen Shots of all FB references, comments and threads can disappear on FB faster than a politician’s promise!

  2. Angela Ifill

    I am yet to figure out the purpose for Barbados Free Press.I personally think the owners need to get a life.

  3. Newbie

    In my view Mr Raymond has been treated rather shabbily. The rich and powerful are always quick to threaten others with the law because they can afford access to the law while the poor can only beg for Justice.
    FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS IMPORTANT TO ALL OF US.

  4. The only problem I have with this blog is that Mr Raymond published only one side of the issue from the FB page. I have a problem with that kind of selective commentary that parades as fact although technically, he did nothing wrong. He was trying to make a strong case but I find when things are lopsided one tends to lose credibility.

  5. AfraRaymond

    Ira,

    I was merely making the point that Anthony Wilson sent my entire column to KNT for comment and that is unprecedented and unjustifiable. There were over 60 comments on that FB page and yes, the fact is that I selected those comments which supported my opening assertion in this post.

    Once Anthony Wilson confirmed that my complaint was factual and compounded that by his various shaky explanations, the few supportive comments petered-out.

    Most of all, as I have written on my own blog –

    “…When you place on one side the obvious attempt at intimidation by the Police in their CCN raid on Thursday 29th December and then place on the other side, that the Guardian Editor-in-Chief sent my column to Karen Nunez-Tesheira for comment on Saturday 31st December, it is chilling. On the one hand we have what appears to be an enemy without, seeking to make a show of force and on the other hand, there is the cancer of self-censorship, being the enemy within…”

    The question in my mind is where does the Guardian stand on all this?

    Afra

  6. Pingback: Trinidad: Police storm newspaper offices, journalist’s home | Barbados Free Press

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  8. Mark Fenty

    Freedom of the Press is essentially the life blood of our democracy, it is the engine that keeps it functioning correctly. And for anyone to attempt to curtail the very important functions of this vital institution, upon which our liberties depends, is certainly a threat to the liberties of every citizen.

  9. Mark Fenty

    The Press also has a moral responsibility to prosecute the facts with: honesty, impartiality, equanimity, and credibility.