ANALYSIS: By Dan McGarry, The Village Explainer
I wasn’t invited to the inaugural Vanuatu media awards a couple of weeks ago. Nor was I asked to participate.
Instead, I spent the weekend preparing the final draft of the Media Association of Vanuatu’s Code of Ethics and Practice. I am proud to say it was adopted by the MAV executive last Friday.
If I had been there, and if I had been asked to say something, this is what I would have said (seriously: when did I ever wait for someone to ask me for my opinion?): Journalism isn’t just a profession; it’s a public service. It consists of sharing, broadcasting or publishing information in the public interest.
That’s the first paragraph in the new preamble of an updated Media Code of Ethics and Practice.
This code is integral to our work. It guides us from day to day. It tells us what we must do, what we should do, and what we should aspire to. It will help us serve the community better.
By describing how we should report the news, it helps us to decide what is news, and what’s not.
I agreed to help with this final draft because I know how important it is to think carefully about these things. Agonising over each word of this code has been an invaluable process for me. It’s taught me new things. It’s reinforced others. And it’s led me to do the one thing required of every reporter:
Challenge every single assumption.
Reporting starts with asking questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why?
Socrates, one of humanity’s most famous inquiring minds, reportedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The professional journey of every reporter begins with that phrase.
The Media Association of Vanuatu awards 2021. Image: MAV
In that spirit of examination, I want to take a moment to consider where we are as a media community, where we’ve come from, and where we need to go.
Vanuatu’s media can congratulate themselves for a number of things:
Our populace has a more nuanced and subtle understanding of the law and governance than many others. We joke about bush lawyers, but our interest in the law — and respect for it — is a product of how we in the media portray it.
We are bound to defend and protect the truth. The truth is the seed we sow. And from that seed, we reap a better democracY.
— Dan McGarry
The same is true of our understanding of politics and Parliamentary procedure. Vanuatu follows Parliament the way some nations follow football. Our society is more engaged with the process of government than a great many others. The media plays a role in that, and we should be proud of it.
The status of women has advanced by leaps and bounds, both in media industry, and in society at large. Of course, the lioness’ share of the work has been done by two generations of fearless women who have campaigned tirelessly, selflessly to improve their lot.
But we have been there to mark their progress, to celebrate their wins, and to shine a light on the countless obstacles that still impede their progress.
The number of prosecutions and convictions for spousal abuse, sexual violence and other gender-based crimes is rising. These crimes are still happening far too often, but we can fairly say that the new, tougher sentences being handed out are a result of an awareness that we helped raise.
Our nation’s environmental awareness has been assisted greatly by the media. Again, we aren’t the ones saving the planet, but we are celebrating the people who do.
By giving space to the wisdom of kastom and the knowledge of science, we can exercise our right and our duty to protect this land.
The list of our achievements is long. I’m grateful that we finally found time to recognise and celebrate them. We have much to be proud of, and we should take this moment to applaud ourselves for a job well done.
About our failures
Now… let’s talk about our failures.
The Code of Ethics requires that we be frank, honest and fair. It also instructs us not to leave out any uncomfortable facts just because they don’t fit the narrative. But we cannot ignore the fact that we could do much, much more, and we could do far, far better.
Fear still dominates and diminishes us. Don’t pretend it’s not there. And don’t you dare tell me it hasn’t made you back off a story. Every single press conferences reeks of faltering confidence.
We’re all guilty of it. Every single one of us. Back in 2015, I made sure my ABC colleague Liam Fox was in the room when Marcellino Pipite announced that he had exercised his power as Acting Head of State and pardoned himself and his cronies.
I made sure he was there because I knew he would ask the one question that mattered: “Aren’t you just trying to save your own skin?”
I’m grateful to Liam for stepping up. But now I wish I’d been the one who had the courage to ask.
We have to find a way past our fear, and we can only do that together. If we all enter the room ready to ask hard questions, it’s easier for each one of us to quit wishing we could and just do it.
Stand up for each other
We have to learn to stand up for each other. Ten years ago, media pioneer Marc Neil-Jones was savagely assaulted by a minister of state.
That bullying act of injustice upset me deeply. It’s also what inspired me to take Marc’s place when his health forced him to step aside.
But what upset me even more was the failure of the media community to say one thing, and say it clearly: Violence against the media is never OK.
The only way we can be sure that those days of violent intimidation are past is if we hold that line, and condemn any act of coercion or violence loudly and in one voice.
To this day, I’m ashamed that we didn’t do at least that much for Marc.
Where is Marc’s lifetime achievement award? How much longer are we going to ignore his bravery, his leadership? Is his courage and determination going to be forgotten?
Not by me, it won’t.
Standing up to threats
I know how hard it is to stand up to disapproval, verbal abuse, threats of violence, abusive language, rumours, lies and prejudice. I know how hard it is to stand up to my own peers, to take it on the chin when I find out I’m wrong, and to refuse to bend when I know I’m right.
I’ve learned this lesson: They can take your job. They can take your livelihood. They can stab you in the back. They can grind you down. They can attack your dignity, they can shake your confidence.
But they can’t change the truth. Because it’s not my truth, or yours, or theirs.
You can find another place to work. You can find other ways to ply your trade. You can bear up under pressure, even when nobody else believes you can. You can learn to carry on.
You can do all of that, if you’re faithful to the truth. The truth is what we serve, not the director, the producer, the editor.
The truth is our republic. We have a duty to defend it. All of it. Not just the bits that please us. All of it. All the time. Even when it costs us. Especially when it costs us.
We are bound to defend and protect the truth. The truth is the seed we sow. And from that seed, we reap a better democracy.
Holding power to account
Democracy unchallenged isn’t democracy. The people can’t rule if they can’t ask questions.
This principle underpins the media’s role in keeping democracy healthy, and rebuilding it when it’s under threat. The role of the media is to hold power to account.
In Vanuatu, this basic idea needs to be better understood by the government and the governed alike. We can do this by helping journalists better understand their role, and helping them get what they need to fulfil that role more effectively.
The revised Media Code of Ethics and Practice is a milestone on that road. But it’s meaningless if we don’t stand by it.
To my media colleagues, I say: Forget your jealousies, your rivalries. Reject pride, collusion and corruption wherever you see it, even in yourself. Especially in yourself.
Stand with MAV. Uphold this code, and we will stand together with the truth. Because the truth is our republic.
Dan McGarry is former media director (pending an appeal) of the Vanuatu Daily Post / Buzz FM and independent journalist and he held that position since 2015 until the government blocked his work permit in 2019. His Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.