Saturday, 24 November 2007

Making Sense of Noise and Hubris

Public relations advisors to the Jamaica Labour Party can be excused if they express some discomfort over the candour of their party’s General Secretary and Minister of Industry and Trade, Karl Samuda.

The spin doctors like keeping matters of strategy on the down-low, just in case. Just in case …

However, at a November 22 discussion on political advertising in 2007, hosted by the Mona School of Business, Samuda seemed to tell all about the party’s plan during the recent general election campaign to, among other things, clinically isolate People’s National Party leader, Portia Simpson-Miller, from the flock and then proceed to slit her political throat.

The strategy appeared to work.

“Timing was everything,” he said to a gathering of political pundits, a group of PNP partisans, pollsters, journalists, students, lecturers and other not so innocent bystanders.

I wondered then whether post-election Trinidad and Tobago had not meanwhile been preparing for similar introspection and open discussion on the conduct of the November 5 elections. I rather doubted it then and continue to do so.

By the way, none of the T&T party strategies of 2007 appeared to match the sophistication of the JLP campaign so that there would be no cohesive plan to reflect on in the first place.

The Congress of the People with all its MBAs and MPhils never thought that both Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday could have been extracted from their flocks for special treatment.

Panday, for one, is a far easier target than Portia. The PNM campaign which projected the “leadership” of Patrick Manning stretched his neck way out onto the chopping block. But the axe never fell at the hands of a highly vulnerable UNC, with its eyes on the Opposition benches and nothing else, and a faltering COP armed mostly with Excel spreadsheets and competently designed Microsoft Project files that told them they would win convincingly.

But who is leading the effort to collectively look back and reflect? To disaggregate the political advertising and attempt to make sense of what actually happened?

Who is measuring the contribution of state-funded media advertising to total advertising spend?

Will the media industry get together to discuss the ethical dilemma it confronted when media houses were invited to share in dubious partisan largesse? If it does not do so, media owners and managers will have great difficulty explaining to reporters that they cannot accept free phones or lunches in exchange for favourable stories.

An effort by John La Guerre and Selwyn Ryan of the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies back in 1996 sought to explore some of these issues following the election of 1995 (in the process granting me space in a subsequent UWI publication to write about Journalism and the Political Process during the General Election.).

Even so, the political parties had then sent low-level functionaries who clearly did not sit with the strategists who designed the respective campaigns. By contrast, in Jamaica last week, Samuda was there, together with Sharon Haye-Webster who was at the forefront of election planning for the PNP.

I am not sure a similar attempt is being made in time to analyse and record the ins and outs of campaign 2007 in Trinidad and Tobago. We have long moved away from reason on such matters. Radio and television noise and hubris undoubtedly prevail. But that is hardly an “analysis” of what happened.

This is not to say post-election “cas cas” has disappeared in Jamaica or that the “ro ro” of St Lucian elections almost a year later is done or that bacchanal is not about to reign in Grenada when they go to the polls next year. That’s par for the course.

But the Jamaicans certainly led the way last week in conscientiously trying to get to the bottom of pertinent issues excavated by a long, contentious election campaign.

I was not entirely impressed with the research presented by the Mona School of Business as it attempted to describe the nature and impact of political advertising during the campaign and I was very uncomfortable with the remote but distinct suggestion that such information be used to advise some kind of official policy on political advertising.

If as societies we need to intervene officially in such matters, we certainly need to be equipped with far better qualitative outputs than were presented at last week’s seminar. Otherwise, political advertising would lose the protection of free speech it needs to be effective.

But, who cares, really?




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