Media houses do not have to be politically neutral. This simple statement represents journalistic heresy to many Jamaicans. But is it so? On what basis, whether in law or otherwise, are Jamaican media houses obliged to be politically neutral?
Neither The Constitution nor any law regulating media in Jamaica obliges political neutrality by media houses. The Constitution confers “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, belief, and observance of political doctrines” on all persons inclusive of companies and media houses[ Section 13 (3) (b) of the Charter of Rights]. There is special carve out in Section 21 (2) of the Broadcasting and Radio Re-Diffusion Act that mandates equal time for political broadcasts under certain circumstances. That apart, there is no statutory imperative for balance. A media house can pick a side. Commercially, it might be a disaster, but all persons, legal or corporate have an unfettered right to lose money. Does anyone remember the Daily News newspaper, once described by the late C.S. Reid as “a political rag” for the PNP.
The old Public Opinion newspaper was decidedly left of centre. So much so that some styled it as the newspaper for the PNP.
Jamaica is a fairly mature democracy. Universal Adult Suffrage was granted in 1944. Almost 80 years later, Jamaicans have had, and exercised the right to vote as they please in periodic general elections. In mature democracies media houses can exercise their constitutional rights to support the political party or leader of their choice. A few examples will suffice.
In the 2019 General Elections in the UK The Telegraph, The Sun, the Times and the Daily Mail newspapers all publicly endorsed the Conservative Party. Similarly, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror newspapers both publicly endorsed the Labour Party. The Economist is an avowed left of centre news magazine whilst the Spectator magazine is equally an avowed Conservative supporter.
In the 2020 elections in the USA where Donald Trump ran against Joe Biden, the following were some of the public political endorsements by newspapers. The Washington Time, The Boston Hearld, the New York Post, and the New York Sun amongst others all endorsed Donald Trump. On the other hand, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer among others all publicly supported Joe Biden.
In the 2015 general Elections in Canada the Toronto Sun, Calgary Herald, The Globe, and Mail amongst others publicly endorsed the Conservatives while the Toronto Star, the Burlington Post, the Hamilton Spectator, and others all endorsed the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau.
Why should we be any different here in Jamaica?
I believe that those who wish to give endorsements or to pick a side must do so openly, publicly, and transparently. By so doing, they retain their integrity and give the advertising and reading/listening/watching public clear choices.