A debate on St Helena’s media could affect the future of the government-funded SAMS Radio 1 – and possibly boost the fortunes of “the people’s radio station”, Saint FM.
SAMS Radio 1 and its sister newspaper, the Sentinel, have received at least £240,000 of taxpayers’ money since the paper launched in March 2012. Meanwhile, the relaunched Saint FM Community Radio has struggled to get by on donations and fund-raising events.
Now that imbalance is to be addressed in a debate by the island’s Legislative Council on Monday, 14 October 2013 – the first opportunity to confront the issue since the July general election.
Its sponsor, Brian Isaac, has called for creation of a “level playing field”.
No unfairness was intended when the idea of a new media organisation was first floated. It was formally set up by Attorney General Ken Baddon.
The plan, devised by consultant John Styles, was for it to replace the independent media as well as the government-funded St Helena Herald and Radio St Helena.
But discussions with Mike Olsson, then owner of both the St Helena Independent and Saint FM, broke down. He closed the paper but later relaunched it with outside support; and then closed the radio station at Christmas 2012.
The ethics of funding SAMS in competition with a private sector rival became further complicated when Saint FM was revived by its own listeners as a community enterprise.
Councillors applied pressure behind the scenes for the new Saint FM Community Radio to be given a broadcasting licence, despite previously voting to set up the rival South Atlantic Media Services (SAMS).
When SAMS was launched, initially as the St Helena Broadcasting Corporation, there was a promise that it too would be “community owned”.
But there has been little public evidence that it has been run in that spirit, and minimal transparency about its operations.
It is understood there is no intention to launch a third radio station that was promised in return for state funding, alongside SAMS Radio 1 and another channel that relays the BBC World Service.
Chief executive Darrin Henry has set out to demonstrate the organisation’s editorial independence, and St Helena Online has praised it for its achievements.
But there have also been serious errors of judgment – most recently when it failed to report the decision to move forward on building a permanent wharf in Rupert’s Bay, apparently in a fit of editorial pique.
Instead, in ran a front-page story about being refused an interview with DFID – and withheld key facts that would have presented a very different picture. The wharf was not even mentioned.
Its own story made it clear that its opening claim was untrue – that visiting officials from the UK’s Department for International Development “will no longer be allowed to be interviewed directly by the media”.
The closing quote clearly said they could go on the radio. On this occasion, an interview had been cancelled because of time pressures.
And the story did not mention that far from being denied the chance to interview officials, SAMS had been invited to a media briefing on the wharf plan – and failed to attend.
That failure meant one of the most important stories of the year was reported only by Saint FM and the St Helena Independent, despite the fact that SAMS had received tens of thousands of pounds to provide a news service for the island. The story was eventually covered by the Sentinel, a week late.
The paper also published a vitriolic attack on councillor Bernice Olsson, the wife of the Independent’s publisher – despite the fact that she was receiving stressful medical treatment at the time.
A few weeks later, she was re-elected to serve a record fifth term on the Legislative Council.
The Sentinel has also failed to cover significant community events, such as a high-profile fund-raising climb up Jacob’s Ladder by supporters of New Horizons – even though it saw a new record being set for the challenge.
At one point, it was observed on Facebook that without the island’s independent media there would be no coverage of New Horizons, a key civil society organisation on St Helena.
Despite its public funding, the Sentinel has also failed to send reporters to cover meetings of the island’s Executive Council since they were opened up to the public – abdicating the media’s role as a public watchdog.
Instead, it has relied on reports from councillors, who would not be expected to reveal details of any dissenting arguments in the council chamber.
The motion before Legislative Council does not call for funding of SAMS to be stopped, and nor does it say that Saint FM or the St Helena Independent should be funded – either directly or through advertising.
It says simply: “That this council calls upon the government to take immediate steps to create a level playing field, both financially and otherwise, for all local media organisations.”
It is understood that advice is being sought about funding models for media elsewhere – and the ethical issues involved.
In a separate initiative by a private individual, all 12 members of Legislative Council have been sent a letter calling on them not to fund any media organisations.
Editorial note: SAMS has not been approached to respond to the points in this article, even though this is accepted good practice. This is because the article has been written only shortly before the deadline for re-publication in the St Helena Independent. However, SAMS has consistently failed to respond to emails from St Helena Online, despite the obligations that would normal hold for a publicly-funded body. SAMS is welcome to respond publicly or in confidence.