Published On: Fri, Oct 26th, 2018

The Accountability of Journalists

Hilbert Haar

By Hilbert Haar

Interesting that debate on our island about the accountability of journalists. Andrew Dick seems to be at the centre of this storm in a glass of water.

I happen to know Andrew – for a short time when nobody else wanted him I employed him at the Today newspaper. Everybody deserves a second chance. Unfortunately, Andrew screwed up.

I know from personal experience that Andrew is not a journalist – he is an opportunist. That’s okay, and it is not my intention to make this personal, because the debate is about the accountability of journalists.

When I worked as a journalist on St. Maarten, as a journalist I did just that – I plied my trade. I never got involved in financially attractive deals with third parties who could have benefited from my writing skills. I and never ventured into side activities that could compromise my integrity as a journalist.

If you really want to be a journalist you have to protect your independence like it’s the Holy Grail.

I don’t know exactly what Andrew did to upset people but it obviously conflicted with his role as a reporter for the only print paper left on the island. I don’t even care.

What I do know is that you cannot play funnyman and then expect that people respect you as a journalist. You’ve gotta make a choice – you are one or the other. Obviously Andrew has not been able to make that choice yet and that’s what got him into trouble. Maybe he’ll come to his senses after reading this. Who knows?

So let’s get away from the personal stuff and focus on the responsibilities of journalists. They are, first and foremost, held accountable by their readers. They buy your shit or they don’t.

But that’s obviously not the whole story. As a journalist you have to be truthful. You should not lie; you should not steal information. And if you write something that is blatantly wrong, you have to fess up and apologize publicly.

The one thing you should not do if you want to be a journalist is to accept lucrative side jobs from companies or government agencies. Why? Because by doing so you are selling your independence.

If you write, say, stuff for the harbor group of companies for good money how will you be able to write with a clear mind about the harbor if the shit hits the fan there? How can you look unbiased at, say Mark Mingo, after he has paid you royally for years for your writing?

How can a journalist even think that accepting well-paid side jobs from local companies or government agencies is okay?

My point is: if you really want to be a journalist you have to stay far away from those lucrative offers. Don’t sell your independence to the highest bidder. If you do, that’s fine, but don’t pretend that you are a journalist

If you want to play funnyman on a TV channel hardly anybody watches, go ahead. But most of those programs are sponsored by advertisers and that way you are selling your independence again.

The public is entitled to pure journalism. To writers who tell you what’s what. We hear a lot about fake news these days; there is probably no greater threat to democratic societies than that. The fight against fake news requires the support of journalists the public is able to trust.

At the same time, those journalists should be held accountable for what they write as well. I fully agree with that. As writers, we live in a glass house because everybody is able to see what we are doing. If we derail, there should be a mechanism in place to correct us.

Fortunately, that mechanism exists: the independent court. That is the place where journalists have to account for their work if an injured party chooses to take them there.

It happened to me once, quite some years ago as the editor of the Today newspaper. I did not fear that lawsuit – I was looking forward to it and I have never held it against the party that sued me. It was an interesting case that could have gone either way. I’m not gloating over the fact that I won that court case, also on appeal.

I would have accepted any court ruling and lived up to it, even though, in my heart, I knew beforehand that I was right. Had the court ruled otherwise, I would have accepted its verdict graciously.

Accepting court verdicts is one way for journalist to acknowledge their responsibility.

I would not want to have it any other way.