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Prime Minister, Lord, have mercy

Chris Burns
Monday, March 12, 2012


OH Lord, have mercy! Perhaps we have to send for Percy, but beg him not to serve too much cerasse! All right, enough of that, and before anyone thinks I am crazy, Percy is short for Percival. He is a former prime minister of Jamaica, known for his brilliant quips and sage advice on the value of silence. He once advised that "Silence can only be misinterpreted; it cannot be misquoted."

Apparently, not all his students took him seriously. For, as bad luck would have it, and in a remarkable ironic twist, the minute his successor broke her silence, following a weird talking spell, her spoken words have been creating waves. This reminds me of something my grandmother would say whenever she couldn't manoeuvre her wheelchair the way she wanted. She would say, "Larks, mi son, every weh mi tun macka jook mi."

Seriously, though, and as a good friend pointed out last Saturday, when news of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's supposedly off-the-record "Greek-style bailout" comment hit the airwaves: "Sometimes it is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubts." But hold on a minute, neither one of us thinks the prime minister is not sharp. Nevertheless, when someone, particularly a prime minister, speaks extemporaneously, he or she ought to be duty-bound to think carefully about what is being asked and be even more judicious in responding. Furthermore, speaking extemporaneously requires more than peripheral knowledge of a subject, because follow-up questions can take a speaker into dangerous waters.

Therefore, in situations such as these, "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure". For it is always better for the questioner to become impatient with the slowness of the respondent's answers than for the person replying to provide responses that are either poorly phrased or that can open a "can of worms". The truth is, taking back a comment is never easy, especially in today's digital world where social media is king in disseminating information, good or bad. One's words are always par for the course. Therefore, anyone can draw whatever inferences they wish, whether or not the speaker intended to say what was said.

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Additionally, once a headline hits and has created an impression in the minds of the market, there is hardly any retraction that can dislodge the initial impression - herein lies one of the dangers of "engaging the mouth before engaging the brain". Suffice it to say, however, reporters have a responsibility to be fair and accurate in their reporting, and news editors should exercise due care by discouraging the use of misleading headlines. My mother, up to this day, refuses to repeat or accept a news banner as gospel without first reading the complete story. It is her fundamental belief that headlines are often misleading; and when they don't mislead, they tend to bear little relevance to content, particularly when the media outlet or news

source is in the business of promoting sensationalism.

This brings me to the JLP's affiliate group, Generation 2000 (G2K). G2K pre-empted my regular reading of the Bloomberg Online News by sending a rather disgusting celebratory-styled summation of present-day maladies it claims is hovering above Jamaica since the December 29, 2011 general election. In its e-mail, G2K also included the Bloomberg report, dated March 2, 2012, filed by Eric Sabo and headlined, "Jamaica Seeks Greek-Style Bailout to Aid Growth, Leader Says" alongside the prime minister's "Lord, have mercy" quip. G2K's political motive was palpable, but the stunt forced me to access the story faster than I normally would. Reading the article for myself corrected previous assumptions that made a huge difference. Such a pity political tribalism causes people to stoop to such low levels just to sing songs of doom and gloom without regard for the damage their actions could cause.

But back to Eric Sabo's article. While the prime minister's responses were less than "crisp", any reading of the article and tame juxtapositioning of its contents with the a headline would show that the PM said no such thing, and his verbatim quotations betrayed the headline. Furthermore, without inclusion of the questions posed to the prime minister, it is hard to evaluate and contextualise her answers. Context is always important, so too is the text on which the context is being constructed. Madam Prime Minister, don't answer hypothetical questions!

Now, it is no longer a matter of what she said, or did not say — happily the markets have not responded to the Bloomberg report -- but the focus must be on how to limit these occurrences, given the symbiotic relationship between market confidence, accurate dissemination of information and the capital markets, especially as interest rates are concerned. The prime minister has an obligation to be adequately apprised of current international and domestic issues. She might well be far more abreast of these matters than we may think, even so, "loose lips sink ships".

Norman Manley hardly spoke without prepared notes for a reason - he was aware of the consequences of "misspeaking".

However, the section of the article that I found troubling, because it confirms my point about "misspeaking", was the PM's response to the question about increased criminal activities due to harsh economic measures. In response to the question, the PM was quoted as saying "Criminals will be allowed to survive..." Perhaps I am being pernickety, but her choice of words in this quote was clumsy. Saying, "Criminals will be allowed to survive..." instead of "criminals could survive..." seems to suggest a defeatist approach to crime fighting. One hopes the PM's response to this specific question was unintended, and does not reflect her administration's approach or else, "Lord, have mercy" on us.


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