12 May 2002

Shame and Scandal

John Maxwell

THE Daily Mirror used to be a good newspaper. When I lived in London 30 years ago, I bought the Guardian and the Mirror because between them I got a fairly balanced view of what was going on round me. In my job at the BBC World Service News (XSND) I got all the papers published in London as well as a few from outlying areas. Copytasters in the World Service were expected to know what was happening everywhere.

In those days the Mirror was Britain's largest circulation daily with about three or four million sales every day. It was rough, relevant, irreverent and accurate.

Now, alas, times have changed. A few weeks ago, the Mirror announced that it was trying to remake itself in the image of the sixties when it was a good newspaper. It even dropped the red masthead and modified its sensational make-up. But, as Tuesday, May 8 proved, it may be harder to be a good newspaper than for rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
"No one can hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist;
For, seeing what the man will do,
There's no occasion to."

-- Anon
English journalism has always been divided by class. At one end are the mandarins, rarefied beings who communicate only with God and the prime minister and at the low end, a stew of bottom-feeding, crotch-sniffing hacks whose basic instincts are to embarrass people by intruding into their privacy and to gain sales by sensational stories which add nothing to the sum of human information or knowledge.

When the Mirror launched its hatchet job on Jamaica on May 8, it was returning to sure-fire circulation grabber -- the Trouble in Paradise story. On a lean week, editors at their wits' end for something with which to shock, horrify or scandalise their readers can turn, as a last resort, to stories of wickedness in paradise, stories of dictators, sex, poverty or drugs in idyllic "destinations" frequented by the new jet set.

Malicious intent

A Mirror photograph of Air Jamaica aircraft is titled, simply, eloquently "Jet Mule: Air Jamaica has nine services a week to the UK".

Now, that's what I call responsible, unbiased, investigative journalism!

The story is headlined:

"On Board with Cocaine Air"

A further giveaway to the Mirror's malicious intent and its desperation journalism may be seen in the fact that Jamaica and its national airline were singled out for attention, although most journalists, even in Britain, are aware that the drug trafficking problem is a worldwide phenomenon which is driving dozens of governments and airlines crazy.

British Airways is just as badly affected by the drug trafficking as is Air Jamaica. Reportedly, KLM - Royal Dutch Airlines, wants to stop flying to the Netherlands Antilles because of the same problem. Airlines flying from Europe and North America to Third World countries are under siege from drug traffickers. In England, the drugs trade is estimated to be worth £3 billion annually - an admitted underestimate. The United States annually spends twice as much on its war against drugs as it spent on the Gulf War. And the international banking industry, in addition to all its other scandals, is the channel for billions in dirty money from the drug trade.

None of this is intended to minimise the scale of the problem faced by Air Jamaica and British Airways, and by the Jamaican and British police. But there needs to be some perspective.

Additionally, the Mirror story is not new. The Guardian and Observer carried long investigative reports on the story in January/February and the only thing new about the Mirror story is the report, on May 9, the day after "Cocaine Air", that a cocaine sniffer machine is to be given to the Jamaican police to detect those who had swallowed or been in contact with cocaine.

As Peter Phillips, minister of national security, admitted to the BBC's Tim Sebastian in January, "the survival of Jamaica could be called into question if Jamaica could not curb the power of the drug lords".

End-of-pipe solutions

The Mirror story, however, seems not directed at finding solutions, but at trashing Air Jamaica. One of the sidebars to the "Cocaine Air" main story was headlined thus:

"Stamp Out These Evil Drug Flights" as if shutting down Air Jamaica would solve the problem.

Politics and Journalism, like Big Business, essentially believe in end-of-pipe solutions. Create a problem, and when it is recognised by the public, try to cure the problem not at the source, but at the place where the damage is being done.

In the Guardian on March 29, Anne Perkins, writing about the British drug problem, reported that the Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank favoured by Tony Blair, had come to the conclusion that the war on drugs had failed and that instead of spending money to fight drugs, the government would be better advised to attack poverty and joblessness.

The report argues that
"soaring drug dependency statistics show the inadequacy of the government's attempt to clamp down, since it focuses disproportionately on the users of soft drugs rather than successfully convicting pushers of heroin and cocaine.

"A majority, 58%, of under 24 year-olds had used drugs, but only a tiny minority became dependent," the report said. "Thousands of people used drugs recreationally without coming to harm. Most grow out of it.

"Government policy was hampered by 'an unhealthy cocktail of acute public anxiety, simple nostrums, tabloid bile, vested interests and political opportunism'.

'The report said: "There is not a single piece of evidence to show prohibition works. Seizures can grow impressively but the quantities of illicit drugs hitting the streets show an unerring ability to keep pace."'
Most rational people are generally aware of the truths contained in the report, yet, just as we defend capital punishment, we defend drug policies which do not and cannot work. We are well aware that certain recreational drugs, to wit, alcohol and tobacco, cause millions of deaths and injuries on a scale that no one has suggested has ever been reached by cocaine, ganja, heroin, methamphetamines, psylocybin and ecstasy combined.

In a globalised world, why should taxpayers be asked to protect the interests of the purveyors of one kind of recreational drug against the interests of the purveyors of other recreational drugs? Perhaps this is a good question for the ginnigogs at the World Trade Organisation.

It is not as if we in Jamaica are innocents. President Clinton, imprisoned within a fundamentalist, punishment-loving society, was forced to admit that yes, he had smoked a joint, but no, he didn't inhale. Ridiculous! In a country where most people have tried ganja and other recreational drugs at one time or another.

I would find it hard to justify the statement that most of the people I know have smoked marijuana, because most of them would most certainly deny it. But in our hypocritical society we find it possible to wink at cops selling ganja and cocaine while locking up their customers.

In Stony Hill, many years ago, there was a man who most people identified simply as "the guy who sell weed for the cops".

Who exactly, are we fooling?

Tackling poverty instead

In a dysfunctional world, Jamaica seems more dysfunctional than most. While ministers of government and leaders of the opposition attend the funerals of people widely suspected to be drug dons, and where MPs and senators routinely ignore their civic duty to report their interests to Parliament, the prime minister can be taken absolutely seriously when he announces a new Code of Conduct for politicians.

Meanwhile, war breaks out in a school in Westmoreland, teenagers contemplate and commit suicide; murder each other, contract AIDS/HIV out of desperation and ignorance, and foolish young women, desperate for "a money" risk their lives, health and families for £3,000 to carry bootleg drugs to Britain.

This is where the rubber meets the road, where the promise of globalisation can be seen to be a curse. When we cannot find the money to build and properly staff our schools, and care for our children we can find the money to build a Highway to Doomsday, financed, not by foreign bankers, but by the poor people's savings in their National Housing Trust and their National Insurance.

We can in this society allow policemen to testify about swabbing dead men's hands for gunpowder residue, without apparently, ensuring that his actions were witnessed by a credible witness. We can connive at all sorts of corruption, in journalism, politics and business, because we don't want to rock the boat.

But I ask you, if rocking the boat will sink it, what use is the boat anyway?

We know, as does everybody else, that a desperately poor country like Cuba, poorer than we are, can produce a well-educated, healthy, well-nourished population of peaceful, creative people. We know that it does not take cash to care, simply informed compassion and will.

The Daily Mirror story is a symptom of what is wrong with Jamaica and the world. We are much more concerned about appearances than with reality, and we care more for the invisible hand of the master criminals than for the welfare of ordinary people.

And -- How many suicidal children have mothers languishing in Holloway jail?