WEEKLY LEAKS SYNDROME!
FIRST IT WAS EBOLA . . . THEN IT WAS THE KILLA ZIKA MOSQUITO . . . NOW IT’S
Several weeks ago I took a call from an Atlantabased Looshan friend. He wanted to know what was so extraordinary about a particular late-evening event that it had dragged me away from my “endless hibernation.” Like most local dispensers of may pwis, my friend quite obviously has a penchant for hyperbole. (You can take the man out of the country . . . ) At first I pretended he’d been misinformed, that I had spent the day in question, and a good part of the evening, writing a story for this newspaper.
He would have none of that. He assured me he had indisputable proof (a local euphemism for gossip!) of my presence at a particular hotel on a particular evening. No, he did not have a photograph; he had something better: a mental image. Clucking like a chicken that has just laid an egg, he proceeded to provide details of what I’d worn to the event, down to my beige tie which his eyes on the ground had beheld as yellow—and the precise moment I left the venue’s ballroom for a pit stop at the pissoir.
Notwithstanding my faux protestations, my friend was on the button. I couldn’t help but wonder who had been his source and why I had been paid such close attention more deserving of the evening’s speaker. There had been absolutely no one else in the vicinity while I was using the hotel’s urinal. Something else concerned me. I mean, I knew leaking papers had all but replaced cock fighting as our most popular secret sport . . . but leaking a leak?
Now don’t understand me too quickly: I’ve always shared Theodore Roosevelt’s view that the citizen’s first duty is to ensure, by whatever means necessary, good governance. And since some public servants are as close to government as, to borrow a Norman Mailer line—as close as a crab louse to the conceiving of a child!— why shouldn’t they expose via the media what they, as model citizens, consider inimical to the nation’s best interests?
During his interview on the final TALK of 2016, Prime Minister Allen Chastanent referenced the controversial DSH project and the issue of leaked documents, ostensibly by public servants. I wasted no time reminding him that as a journalist I was grateful to public sector employees who, from time to time, and only in the public interest, had turned whistle blowers. As unaccountable as have been successive Saint Lucian administrations, I half-jokingly suggested special awards be handed concerned public servants who surreptitiously pass on to the press information that elected officials are dutybound to release to the public but seldom do.
A cursory glance at the Standing Orders reveals: “On appointment to the public service, every officer whether permanent or temporary shall be required to make and subscribe to the oath of or affirmation of secrecy in the approved form.”
There also is the rule that speaks against public officers and employees passing on to unauthorized individuals “information relating to the business of the public service.” Also: “Confidential and secret correspondence and documents shall always be kept under lock and key and separate from open correspondence and material.”
It is up to the public servant, then, to decide which will be the heavier psychic burden: to break an oath or to permit his country to go down the toilet without setting off alarm bells. Then again, when was there ever a free lunch?
Journalists are not required to take oaths. But the self-respecting more serious ones would rather spend time behind prison bars than finger a reliable source. As I say, I could not have written my biggest stories without someone betraying someone else’s confidence—inspissated truth, regardless of how this may sound in some ears.
A source literally places at enormous risk his life (livelihood?) and the lives of dependants when he hands to a journalist official documents entrusted to his safe-keeping. My personal style whenever vulnerable sources are involved is to reveal neither names nor the fact that I am quoting from a confidential document. Usually, the effect I’m after can be attained simply by publishing key facts—with a factoid or two to confuse the hounds. Not so long ago I threw out the bait that four Arabs had arrived here by private aircraft “all carrying Saint Lucian passports,” although I knew full well that one of them had Lebanese papers. The rats I planned to trap never went close to the cheese. But a ravenous cockroach did—alas with somewhat controversial, not to say regrettable results.
I could’ve revealed from the onset the identities of the passport holders. But my intention was to draw out certain officials, perchance they would also explain how the cited Arabs came by their Saint Lucia nationality when the CBI program was then not yet in effect.
To this day I have not revealed the sources (yes, more than one) that had furnished the papers that helped me bring to light the disturbing secrets of Grynberg. Speaking of which reminds me of the time I passed on a letter to an MP who then permitted himself to be provoked into making it a document of the House, in the process exposing and embarrassing my source and turning me an angry shade of blue—even though there was nothing confidential about Dame Pearlette’s letter to the then leader of the House opposition.
Any other journalist could for the asking have accessed it from the opposition leader. But it might just as easily have been a confidential document, traceable to a particular source. Which is why on the occasion I publicly blew my stack. My greatest fear has always been that through my own fault I should cause trusting past and future informants to lose faith in me.
For the most part, the documents currently being disseminated on a weekly basis hardly fall into the category of leaks, certainly not in the sense associated with the escapades of a certain prime minister with a schoolgirl not yet sixteen. Such as have been on social media for the past several weeks may have been released to the public earlier than officially scheduled, but that’s just about it. The issues they represent would have come before parliament sooner or later. Indeed, I wonder how many who latch on to anything they hear, depending on the perceived color of the transmitter, understand what’s read out to them, often quite badly.
Another possible fly in the ointment: will public confidence in the government’s ability to keep their correspondence confidential be eroded by the seemingly unstoppable leaks?
But lest I be misunderstood—better to say conveniently misquoted— permit me this repetition: without sources the quality of our work as journalists would suffer greatly. And I speak not only of official documents. We also depend on reliable sources to help us keep the nation informed and entertained—as Juk Bois would doubtless attest!
It was the legendary American journalist Walter Lippmann who said: “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.” On the other hand that would not be possible without the cooperation of right-thinking citizens serving as reliable sources.