An interesting debate has been raging in Barbados in recent weeks. Since the Tourism Minister stormed out of the studio after the moderator read out an e-mail asking about the minister’s financial situation, there has been a wave of support and criticism for the line taken by the journalist. Some other journalists and newspapers have pointed to a reluctance on the part of Bajans to see or hear their politicians subjected to questions about their financial or sexual affairs, no matter what it may imply for their abilities to govern free from compromise.
One aspect of “globalization” is that small countries and economies like Barbados, and really most of the Caribbean region, have to dance to different tunes, and cannot really sit content with arguments that say that local practices will have to be accepted, even though a wider world opinion argues for a change. In the area of good governance, the arguments rest on the actual and the perceived problem. The general public should know some real things about elected officials and public servants: if they are honest, if they misuse public money or goods and services, if their personal lives pose problems in terms of the fairness with which they fulfill their jobs, and so on. The general public also needs to deal with the perception about its public officials: if they seem fearful of public questioning, if they conduct themselves in a way that may cast suspicion on the correctness of their actions, and if certain officials repeatedly appear to be associated with questionable activities, etc.
The real and the perceived can be good or harmful for a country, and can be as important as ratings from Moody’s or Standard and Poor’s. The index produced by Transparency International focuses on perceptions, and they will no doubt look carefully at the current discussions to see if indeed the reputation that Barbados has for good governance and lack of corruption needs to be revised. The world is judging Barbados. It is not Barbados judging itself.
It’s worth looking at the recent press discussions about the president of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz (the former US Deputy Secretary of Defence), who is caught in a public scandal and internal investigation concerning his girlfriend, who was a World Bank staff member. While the right thing seems to have been done in moving the lady to job with the US State Department soon after Mr. Wolfowitz took charge in June 2005. The wrong thing might have been done when he arranged for her to be promoted and gain a large pay rise before she moved. Press interest in this is very legitimate, not least when Mr. Wolfowitz is trying to push an agenda for tougher standards on governance (including corruption and nepotism) inside the World Bank and in countries who borrow from the Bank. Press reports indicate that he may be forced to resign.
Journalists have a legitimate right to investigate and not just accept the text of press releases or words from “spokespersons”. Where politicians have the cloak of parliamentary privilege to protect them they can and do use that to defend themselves and attack others. But they should be aware that they may be challenged to substantiate their remarks and positions outside Parliament. Other public officials should take on their jobs and conduct themselves in a manner truly in keeping with being a public servant, including not using the public’s money and public property as if they were private assets. If some members of the general public feel that a certain type of journalism has crossed a certain limit, the free press should allow them time and space to air their contrary opinions. If what a journalist does is not illegal then the media need some licence to do their work properly, always being mindful of good taste and agreed bounds of what is seen as personal life. That last aspect can itself be thorny. But that freedom to pursue what appear to be legitimate avenues of investigation is an important part of democracy at work.