By PACO NUNEZ
Tribune News Editor
THE media in the Bahamas rarely agree on anything.
But last week, when issued a dictate severely curtailing our ability to cover parliament, and interfering with how we do our job in general, journalists were of one accord in rejecting it.
The new House of Assembly rules – including that cell phones are banned in the chamber for everyone but MPs, and that written permission must be granted before any footage can be shot – displayed an egregious ignorance of the way modern news organisations work, of our need to respond instantly to ever-changing circumstances.
No newsroom in the Bahamas has a stable of idle reporters just sitting there, waiting. They are all busy, all the time, and when a big story breaks someone must be pulled off another assignment to cover it.
So, under these new rules, what happens if a protest develops in Rawson Square during a House sitting, or a few members decide to call a press conference on the steps of parliament? Obviously, my team in the chamber is the closest to the action, but how am I to let them know, hermetically sealed away as they are from all outside contact?
And for radio and television operations, what happens under these rules when the sound or video on the ZNS feed cuts out, as it so often does? Are they to rush a cameraman down to take up the slack with an “Application to Film” in hand, then wait in the foyer while a staff member takes it to the clerk, who then sends a note to the speaker, who finally grants permission when he has a chance to step out of the chair? Are we to just hope nothing important was missed?
To be fair to House Speaker Kendal Major, when made aware of the general anger over the new rules, he agreed to meet with senior journalists and after considering our point of view, committed to rescinding these two stipulations.
The speaker’s open mind and willingness to compromise have done much to boost his regard among journalists.
But as I said, we rarely agree on anything in the media. And while many were satisfied with concessions to our technical needs, it seemed to others that there is a greater ethical question at stake here as well.
This is because another of the new rules states (actually, restates – the provision already existed) that members of parliament can only be covered when standing to give official communications to the House. All other activity by MPs should remain hidden from the public as far as possible.
This apparently, is in an effort to ensure that the appearance of dignity is maintained.
You see, it turns out that this whole thing started because someone had been embarrassed.
Some MP had done something stupid, said something ridiculous or intolerant from his seat, and was upset that the public had been allowed to see it.
The letter sent to the media last week explained that the new rules were being adopted after “disturbing” videos featuring “terrible images” was taken by someone in the gallery and posted on social media.
It said: “One of the images was photographed in the most clandestine manner, from the gallery between the benches. The person obviously knew that he/she was doing something wrong.
“It is most disturbing that a stranger would come inside this House, surreptitiously photograph the proceedings and then post the terrible images on the social media. This is indeed regrettable.”
Indeed it is – but the irony seems to have been lost on whoever drafted the letter.
Of course, the idea that it is acceptable to disguise certain aspects of the behaviour of paid public servants, specifically so as to portray them as more decent and honourable than they actually are, did not originate with this speaker.
Part of his job is to uphold the official standards of the House of Assembly, and those standards, as is the case across the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, retain a Victorian respect for appearance over substance in official life.
Thus, the rules Dr Major found in place insist that broadcasting of the House present “a dignified, accurate and consistent image” – taking it for granted that a dignified image will always be accurate one, and vice versa.
Of course, the kind of consistency desired can only be guaranteed by the inclusion of such rules as “The cameras must not focus on the reactions of members during any time” and “In the event of unparliamentary behaviour or a disturbance by strangers on the floor of the House, the camera has to focus on the chair to ensure the offending incident is not shown.”
But the fact that parliaments across the Commonwealth are just as committed to selective honesty as ours is seems entirely beside the point.
In this day and age, why must the Bahamas continue to follow blindly?
In our approach to all kinds of vexing problems, from crime to education reform, Bahamians have displayed a distrust of foreigners which runs so deep that we’d prefer to re-invent the wheel rather than learn from the success of others.
Why then, must we continue to abet the idleness and incompetence of our elected officials, just because other countries do it? Why can’t we be better?
Certainly, there is no legal impediment to our speaker presiding over a parliament – perhaps the first of its kind – that has replaced privilege and elitism with transparency and accountability
Dr Major is a member of the much-touted new generation of politicians, who, for all the noise attendant upon their arrival in frontline politics, have yet to make a lasting mark. They certainly won’t do so by preserving the archaic standards of generations past.
So what is to stop the speaker making a change?
His fellow MPs for one thing, and the leadership of his party, who no doubt will want to maintain the status quo.
In many Commonwealth countries, the speaker’s role is little more than ceremonial. At the end of the day, he remains a member of a hierarchical political organisation, and in Dr Major’s case, as junior one at that.
But God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.
I believe that Dr Major’s personal feelings on these matters are much more progressive than the stance tradition expects him to uphold.
He should take the opportunity that has been presented him to become a real leader in parliament. To change the rules. To blaze a trail.
What do you think?