<p>Gagged: TV and print journalists could be censored under the proposed Media Council Act 2010. <em>*File photo by Kageaki Smith</em></p>

Gagged: TV and print journalists could be censored under the proposed Media Council Act 2010. *File photo by Kageaki Smith

The proposed Media Council Act 2010 surprises me. It is a huge, unwieldy legislative sledgehammer trying to hit a tiny Bermudian ant.  

The Act seems driven by a Government that has acquired a recent deep paranoia about the Royal Gazette and its reporting.

I am no bosom friend of the Royal Gazette. In 18 years of writing, I have never written for that newspaper.

That is my decision. The background to my decision is in my autobiography, Fine As Wine: From Coloured Boy To Bermudian Man.   

However, my personal feelings do not turn the Royal Gazette into a giant national villain.

In 1991, when I began selling my first book, The Other Side (Looking Behind The Shield), Mr. Walter N.H. Robinson, a former leader of the PLP and, at the time, a Puisne Judge in Bermuda’s Supreme Court, came to buy a copy.

Criticised

On buying, he said he had “heard you are being critical of the Government” and I should “watch out” because “they” would “get” me.

I started writing a column in April 1992. In 18 years, I have written under two Governments — six years under the UBP and 12 years under the PLP.  

I have written under six Premiers — the UBP’s Sir John Swan, David Saul, and Dame Pamela Gordon and the PLP’s Dame Jennifer Smith, Alex Scott and Ewart Brown.

In my 808 columns, I have criticised and commented on all eight entities. This is my 809th column.

I believe — and believe strongly — in the freedom of the press, freedom of the broadcast media and the freedom to make fair comment and criticism if necessary, of the kind that I and many other columnists in the free world do make. I believe in an unfettered press that does not libel or slander and delivers fact and information.

I believe Bermuda’s press is too small, too hamstrung by infrastructural difficulties directly related to its small size and small market and too limited in its ability to report fairly and accurately.

I believe Bermuda’s media is already structurally chained by these local factors.

The proposed Media Council Act, in its existing form, will make that problem worse.

It will further limit and repress free expression. In its current form, it is exactly the kind of reaction that Justice Robinson warned me about almost two decades ago.

The irony is it is a PLP Government that is proposing legislation that will further limit and curtail the already limited and curtailed free expression that exists today.

The most serious flaw in the Act is the appointment of six Government appointees to the proposed 12-person board.

These six, as a bloc, can always outvote the other five representatives. If there is to be a 12-person board, why not have four from the governing party and two from the statutory opposition party?

That simple change would make the proposed 12-person board nationally and broadly representative rather than the narrowly appointed, and thus politically biased, board that is currently set out in the draft. 

That simple change would immediately produce a fair and unbiased board.

The second serious flaw is that the Council must be funded by the media, who must all be members of the Council.

This means that the media — ranging from the 4,200,000 circulation Royal Gazette, put out 300 days a year, to the 42,000 circulation Worker’s Voice, put out 26 days a year — must each bear a portion of the Council’s full costs.

How, in Heaven’s name, will there be a fair as well as reasonable apportionment of a cost when media entities are so hugely disparate?

Also, if Government orchestrates the administrative criteria — as can easily happen with a biased board — for the stipulated executive officer, and if Government follows its already well-established patterns of employment, the cost for the Council’s administration will likely start at about $250,000 per year.

This cost will have to be borne by Bermuda’s existing media that, today, ranges from the Gazette to the Voice and includes the radio and TV stations.

The third serious flaw is that the Act will allow — even encourage — persons to lodge all kinds of complaints against the press in all its forms — with each complaint having to be dealt with in a laborious inquiry.

Surely a sensibly drafted Act would consider a small, recoverable complaint filing fee so as to eliminate frivolous and non-serious complaints.

Lastly, buried in Section 15, there is a pair of clumsy clauses that will permit and enable complete censorship on a subject. 

Ironically, in 2010, this style of censorship is being mooted by an elected Government in what is supposed to be a modern democracy.

For this 65,000-inhabitant town on this coral atoll at 32N, 64W, this massive Media Council Act 2010 is an attempt to create a cumbersome and unwieldy sledgehammer in order to try to hit what somebody considers a pesky ant.

There is a simple solution.

Re-write the Act. 

Put the task of executive officer and so on to Bermuda’s seriously under-employed Ombudsman.

Use a recoverable Complaint Filing Fee system and have a board that is fairly and broadly composed.

Get rid of the censorship clauses and please, Government, get back to the far more important matters of dealing with crime and killings and managing the national economy.

To my knowledge, nothing that Bermuda’s media has done or has not done, or has been accused of doing or not doing, has caused the kind of problems that successive Bermuda Governments have caused by their inactions (education and tourism), wrong actions (tourism and education) or bad actions (national finances).

Fear-filled   

This draft Media Council Act reminds me of the arithmetically flawed and badly drafted Workplace Equity Act of 2007.

I note that Government has even decided to disband CURE, who were the progenitors of that stupidly drafted though well-intentioned Act.

This Media Council Act 2010 is another badly drafted and badly thought through Act. It needs re-drafting.

In its current form, this draft Media Council Act 2010 goes against all that I cherish. 

It would take Bermuda back to those fear-filled days that the late Walter N.H. Robinson and an older Bermuda generation knew so well and that I, as the 1996-1998 co-chairman of the PLP campaign committee, thought I was helping to put forever behind me and all the rest of us in Bermuda. Re-write it.