Seeking balance between perspective and fact

By The Editorial Board 03 March 2021, 6:00AM

This newspaper has written, at length, about the need for better transparency from government.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we are in the business of transparency and accountability. 

We write about what is happening in our country, good and bad, and provide as much factual comment as possible. We may not always get it right, but we do our utmost to keep our reporting fair and balanced, without fear or favour.

Over the last seven weeks, issues of transparency and accountability have also been raised in Parliament as Members sat for the last time this term.

We don’t need to rehash the endless political palaver between the Human Rights Protection Party and new kids on the block, Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi. Their exchanges have graced the covers and inside pages of this newspaper since January.

What we do wish to point out is that whilst the top legislative powers have been busy lobbing grenades at each other, we have been busy sifting through the rubble to find bits and pieces to expand upon.

That is our work.

We have written on everything from the big picture stuff of health, education, infrastructure, the recession, Covid-19; to the smaller stories about families with no clean water, missing elevator buttons, bingo despisers and recently, an angry circus ringmaster.

Now after 40 years of service to Samoa, this newspaper has a little experience in dealing with a story from lead to print. Having been through the gauntlet of the dos and don’ts of journalism, we are forever seeking to do better and provide better stories for our readership. 

So when we are faced with a potentially controversial topic, or an issue that may put a few noses out of line, we treat it with even more care.

We do our absolute best to provide an opportunity for every side to comment. It is true; there are always two sides to every story. Sometimes there are three or four. Or 83.  

Seeking comment from relevant parties, reflecting their comments fairly, and presenting a story for our readers to make informed decisions is the basic bread and butter of it all. 

But all too often this newspaper is accused of being biased, or anti, or pro, on whatever issue is in the limelight.

This is of course highly dependent on who is doing the accusing. If you’re a public servant, working in a Ministry and there is a less-than-favourable news item written about your place of employment, then of course you will be defensive.

If you’re a matai and a news story mentions your village in a negative way, you will be defensive.

If you’re a business person who doesn’t like your product or service being written about (outside of the rose-coloured parameters of a press release), you will dislike the news item. 

How information is received and consumed is entirely subjective. What is not subjective, are facts.

Last week the Electoral Commissioner announced, of his own volition, to a group of reporters at a media training workshop that an electoral committee member was under investigation for alleged voter influencing. He also invited the media to cover the entire election voting process – pre, during and post.

“It was so sad that for the first we allowed in 2016 during the final count, we opened up invitations to the media; only two reporters came, and you know what happened, they didn’t even last ten minutes in the counting process.

“But when you read through the papers and hear the radio, the reports were extraordinary…”

As we are only a few short weeks away from our General Election, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio’s office is at the heart of it all. He has chosen transparency in this situation and that deserves a big tick from the local journalists. 

The public seeks independent commentary from this newspaper and to have access and freely report on issues during Election season is movement in the right direction.

A day after the media training, a letter from the Attorney-General’s office arrived, declaring inaccuracies in a news story this newspaper ran that questioned a possible conflict of interest with her husband’s law firm representing Government agencies.

Our reporter had tried to get comment from Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale and her husband Lauaki Jason Annandale, but was unsuccessful. 

The story, “A.G. silent on husband’s firm”, ran in the Sunday Observer and we received a swift response from Savalenoa later that evening.

“You may wish to find the facts of this matter from the Ministry that engaged my former Law Firm to represent it as the Office of the Attorney General could not, due to a conflict of interest of the chief litigator and most members of the team.

“The engagement was done early last year prior to my appointment as AG in July.

“Your less than credible sources have let you down again with inaccurate information.

“Please do thorough research so your stories are at least news worthy and not full of inaccurate information.”

Was there a need for such a biting response? From her point of view, sure. After all, her integrity is being questioned due to the intermingling of family, business, and public service. But from ours, no, there was no need.

She could have simply clarified on Friday or Saturday, before we went to print for the Sunday paper.

Our reporter had tried to get a response from her, and her husband, but was rebuffed or ignored over two days. 

Unfortunately for Savalenoa, we do not operate at the whim of anyone outside our newsroom so the story was run.

The day after the letter from the A.G., we received a response from the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Agafili Shem Leo, claiming our front page story on Sunday’s edition “Cabinet did not act on urgent measles warning” did not accurately reflect his comments. 

After further review of our records, we are satisfied that the news story is accurate.

The C.E.O.’s response is puzzling because he is the Interim Chair of the National Emergency Operation Centre as well as Secretary to Cabinet, so he is probably one of the most qualified people to answer any questions and is one of the most forthcoming Chief Executive Officers in government. 

He has adopted the well-worn mantra of his boss the Prime Minister that heads of ministries should clarify issues to the media and deal with them immediately. 

In our estimation, that is what he was doing – his job.

So why the change of tact?

It is prudent to acknowledge that we are in a pre-election period, which generally means the pressure is high to avoid mishaps and faux-pas. 

But we must be mindful that public servants are not politicians, nor should they aspire to playing politics in their duties. 

The very different responses from government agencies provide you, the reader, with an idea of the challenges this newspaper faces every day as we try to present a balanced story for you to read. 

Where one Chief might be willing and able to maintain open and free lines of communication with the fourth pillar of democracy (that’s us - the press, media, and journalists); another might allow the pressures of the job to affect good judgment; and another might yet come to seek redress by placing the blame on the shoulders of news reporters, who are easy pickings for the blame game.

We probably receive as much praise as we do criticism. Does that become our guiding light?

Absolutely not.

It is not the intention of this newspaper to dance on the graves of public servants, nor run businesses out of town, nor create discord amongst communities.

To be disliked is of no consequence. To tell the truth, the good the bad the ugly of it all, is our only concern.

So if that doesn’t sit well with you – tell us why. Give us your side. 

If we genuinely fail to accurately reflect your comments, then call us out. But to simply react and ignore the efforts that were made to sift through that rubble, is frankly rather disingenuous.

If government wishes to stand by their pledges to the principles of good governance, then public servants should see us not as the enemy, but as a conduit for transparency and accountability. 

The mistake is to assume we are only interested in negative coverage. 

While it might make for a juicier read, it is simplistic to say we are only motivated by failures and state error; we are simply serving our purpose to inform the public of what they should know and understand so they are not mislead by untruths and deception. 

While confidence in government may swing left, right, up or down at any given moment, our role is to accurately reflect what is happening, and to do that we need to balance perspectives with fact.

By The Editorial Board 03 March 2021, 6:00AM

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