Transparency in Gov't's advertising expenditure

Canute Thompson

Sunday, April 15, 2018

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There is public concern about how the Government engages the media. It is accepted that this concern is not of recent vintage nor is isolated to the current Administration. But the fact that the concern has been around for some time does not mean that it should be dismissed as being unworthy of discussion, examination, or action.

It has, unfortunately, become a kind of stock response for defenders of the current status quo to defend the questionable actions of the Government, not by appealing to the extent to which the action advances the public good, but often by saying the previous Administration did the same thing. The effect of this mindset is that the country's democratic institutions and processes have been weakened.

Over the Easter holiday weekend, a series of tweets highlighted concerns about the seemingly close relationship between the Government and Nationwide News Network. The issue raised was that the Government seems to have a favourite for its advertising spend. A number of tweets also highlighted a recent article by in the Jamaica Observer by CVM-TV's Ashley-Ann Foster which drew attention to a Media Day hosted by Jamaica House to which only three media houses, namely: RJRGleaner, the Jamaica Observer, and Nationwide were invited. Foster notes that was a few days after the three media houses had had their special treatment that the Press Association of Jamaica raised a red flag.

This 'three media house fest' is an act of selective treatment by the Government. That fact that cannot be disputed.

I had an opportunity to discuss the issue of apparent selective treatment of media houses by the Government with Cliff Hughes and found it instructive that one of the arguments he raised was that his station had been victimised by the previous People's National Party (PNP) Administration. Hughes further stated that he was curious about the fact that, while this was happening, the current voices of consternation were silent. Hughes' assertion confirms at least one thing — favouritism media houses takes place.

I am not certain whether Hughes is of the view that this is happening now. Hughes, however, insists that his station is not being treated any better than any of the other stations.

Based on the assertion by Hughes that his station was victimized in the past, and given suggestions of favoured treatment being meted out to some others now, it is clear that a real problem exists that warrants public discourse and policy decision. If anyone denies that the Government is showing favouritism in how it relates to the media I ask you just to look at the fact that only three outlets were invited to the Government's media day. It places an unusual strain on common sense for one to accept that the favouritism shown in the media day fest does not translate into how Government spends its advertising dollar.

The larger question we must ask is whether there ought to be a system of public disclosure concerning how Government spends its advertising funds. Does the public have a right to know, without having to make a request for information, the amount of money the Government spends with media houses? I think we have a right to know. The principle involved here is no different from that of companies being required to disclose their campaign contributions. While variables such as listenership and cost would be obvious bases on which an advertiser, including the Government, would choose one or another media house, because public funds are involved there should be transparency how the selections are made.

Government, whether a PNP or Jamaica Labour Party Administration, has no legal or moral right to favour one media house over another, and the best way to remove the appearance of conflict of interest, nepotism, victimisation, or any other vice is to put the information out in the open.

Another issue that was raised in the series of weekend tweets was whether a Cabinet minister was a part owner of Nationwide News Network. In my conversation with Hughes he confirmed that Minister Fayval Williams was an owner, but ceased to be an owner when she entered representational politics. (Some people had asserted that she was still an owner). While the clarification from Hughes was helpful, it is curious that he needed to have held discussions with Williams prior to making the disclosure, as he stated. Firstly, anyone may have ownership in any lawful business and a Cabinet minister giving up interest or disclosing interest in a company which does or seeks to do business with the Government is standard operating ethical practice. So why would it be necessary to have discussed with Williams before making public her past and present status?

In the same way in which transparency is applicable to how much and with whom Government is spending advertising funds, and the amount of campaign contributions companies make to political parties, transparency should be applicable in relation to businesses in which parliamentarians have an interest. Thus, in the current case of Williams and her being a former owner of Nationwide News Network, that information should be easily accessible on the website of the Companies Office of Jamaica.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or




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