why is this little item in IBI's Whispers column such a hot, hot potato?
Six years after the Secretariat for the Pacific Community took a chance on a more vigorous pursuit of media freedoms, the region has its first successful regional email list.
In six short months, Pacific Islands Journalists Online has raised regional industry debate from zero to hero.
A forum where media news is sure of strong analysis, criticism and bags of teasing.
Lots of good stuff, then, as noted in the first half of this post.
But incredibly, even in this private, off-the-record, no-names quoted environment, there has been a somewhat stunning silence in reaction to the first - and only - public mention of continuing controversy inside PINA.
The Pacific Islands News Association is the region's only industry group for media. But PINA continues to suffer criticism from members annoyed at a lack of due process. Three decades of it, truth be told.
NOT ONE WORD
Among PIJO members, debate about PINA has raged via email for months now.
There have been hissy fits galore, threats, members huffily hitting unsubscribe links, personal attacks, some of them probably defamatory, more teasing, jokes, and shared sighs about street food around our island region.
But, so far, not one word about a small item printed in last month's Whispers, a socio-politico gossip column from Islands Business International magazine. And, so far, IBI can also stand proud as the only media organisation to mention the PINA controversy. Here's the item, word-for-word, from the May edition of Islands Business. Yes, May ...
WHISPERS ON PINA
"Media watch: Because, readers, we believe in putting the same spotlight on the media as we do on everyone else, we report the following without comment.
"There’s an almighty uproar going on over the leadership of the regional Pacific Islands News Association (PINA). Three executive board members elected in Honiara last year have changed their roles. Two plan to stand in this year’s Vanuatu’s elections. Prominent PINA members say those involved should follow the constitution and resign. But board members and the Suva-based PINA Secretariat resisted. They said this doesn’t have to happen.
"One leading daily newspaper has already quit PINA membership in protest over the constitution not being followed. Another has said it won’t pay its membership until the board members are replaced and the constitution followed.”
There are three interesting things about this post. First off is the open declaration that IBI carries the PINA gossip item "without comment." In, yes, a gossip column. Rarely regarded as a source of high editorial virtue, gossip columns are a place for otherwise staid publications to be a wee bit daring, to hint perhaps at what everyone else in the regional room is not -ahem- talking about.
Just a bit, mind. Secondly, that it was carried in Whispers at all. Media business is frontline sovereign survival stuff and yet the media itself treats industry controversy as a bit of a giggle - not so bad if you're selling plastic flowers from China. But if you're in an industry that the Pacific Islands Forum refers to as "vital" for informing citizens about future challenges, then perhaps industry coyness about looking in the mirror is getting a little dated.
Thirdly, where are the journalists? Has this item been raised in one newsroom across our region? Or, even, publishers and editors sharing a few laughs over beers? So far, no public evidence of either. Instead an awful, deathly silence, on matters of dramatic urgency for an industry bearing witness to every societal challenge since the printing press was invented 600 years ago.
A month ago, this independent agency advised colleagues in Fiji to grow up.
Similar to the IBI whisper, there was a deathly silence. In hindsight, gentler words could have been more effective. Having elevated media commentary to cheeky new levels, however, this agency will instead attempt to add further insult to injury.
Time to wake up. Not just in Fiji, but across the region. Political leaders are way ahead of journalists, engaging Australia and New Zealand in public debate over our future status as environmental refugees, flooded out by freemarket fundamentalism.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE ?
Journalists need to reclaim respect for the profession by building immediate firewalls between themselves and administrative sides of the media industry. And, do so publicly, via open, public web 2 forums like PIJO.
Journalists need to stop apologising privately for what they proclaim publicly - real-world, real-time transparency and accountability.
Journalists need to wake up to opportunities of advocacy for the world's only industry that - today - they treat with kid gloves - their own. Newsroom whispers are no longer enough. Media can no longer indulge ravages of capitalism by subduing intellectual capital in a manner akin to communism.
A leading UK aid agency recently posed the question: should media independence be a precondition for aid?
Most journalists and media management across Pacific Islands are not aware such debate even exists. Another question might be - how to avoid such an extraordinary notion becoming just another conduit for private sector subsidies?
In setting firewalls, journalists seeking a reputation for independence are rightfully distant towards administrative sides of the media story. But that editorial and ethical reserve has turned into a massive blind spot.