The origins of the new media organisation for St Helena were detailed in a book on local news media. It was published in the UK in March 2012 – in the same week as the launch of The Sentinel and the publication of the final issue of the St Helena Independent. A chapter on media on remote islands – written by Simon Pipe, editor of this website – noted that a new law would allow the island government to close down a newspaper that breached certain standards. It says: ”In reality, the power to close down a newspaper is not needed. The government can simply withdraw its advertising, which almost certainly would have the same effect.”
[St Helena] does now have free journalism – up to a point. In fact, by the early years of the present century it was remarkably well-endowed with local-cum-national media (on St Helena, they’re the same thing). The population was sliding to below 4,000, but the remaining islanders could enjoy two weekly newspapers, and two radio stations. The St Helena Herald and the old radio station were funded directly by the government, but the rival St Helena Independent and Saint FM were set up as a commercial operation. They too came to receive significant income from the government, but in the form of advertising and payment for promotional services – for which The Castle pays a reduced rate.
Their editor, a Swedish exile named Mike Olsson, is un-cowed by this financial connection; in fact, he is proud to have been a thorn in the government’s side. I suspect he is equally proud of having been arrested on one occasion, for receiving leaked paperwork relating to a business in which the government was a major shareholder. He is a self-taught journalist with more than a hint of frontier spirit about him, though not all islanders appreciate his abrasive editorial style. His organisation’s website is candid about its curious editorial situation:
“The relationship between Government and the press has always presented an interesting mix of colonial rules and supposed ‘freedom of the press’. The present St Helena News Media Services is, to a degree, recognised as an organisation independent of Government but ironically remains for the most part, funded by the organisation it strives to separate itself from. The line between a free press and a government-run media is a blurred one on St Helena.”
In Britain, MPs and media commentators have recognised that legal regulation of the Press raises difficult issues. Actually closing down a newspaper would be pretty well unthinkable.
Not on St Helena. The Media Standards Ordinance 2011 allows the St Helena Government to “terminate production” of any newspaper that is deemed by a Media Commission to have breached editorial codes on harmful, offensive or defamatory content.
In reality, the power to close down a newspaper is not needed. The government can simply withdraw its advertising, which almost certainly would have the same effect.
Towards the end of 2011, a new, community-owned media organisation came into being: the St Helena Broadcasting Corporation. It aims to launch a local television news service by 2014. It also plans three radio channels – one speech-led, one for music and entertainment, and the third for the BBC World Service.
Stakeholders in this not-for-profit body include representatives of St Helena’s modest private sector, the Chamber of Commerce, island charities and the youth service, among others. The funding is coming from the government, but under a “service-level agreement”. This includes paying for radio output to be relayed to Ascension Island and the Falklands, where many Saints go to work – commonly leaving home, and sometimes their children, for a year at a time.
Programmes will also be streamed on the internet for the benefit of Saints now living overseas.
There is also to be a new newspaper, though Stuart Moors, a director of the corporation, could not give firm details at the start of 2012: “We are intending to have a newspaper, but not necessarily once a week. We will have an online version – not just a .pdf of the paper, much more of an online magazine.
“How that is charged for is still under discussion. If it’s free it’s a bit difficult to make revenue, but it’s not doing its job if people don’t read it.”
The SHBC came about because the existing media had come to be seen as a problem that could no longer be ignored. Government press releases and reports from island organisations tended to be reproduced word-for-word, and both papers often lifted the same stories, verbatim, from foreign newspapers and broadcasts. Reports of executive council meetings were written not by journalists, but by the Governor – and again, reproduced word-for-word, in the newspapers and on both radio stations. The result was that much of the two papers’ content was identical – and the government was funding both of them.
Many islanders bought copies of both papers.
The Herald and Radio St Helena were left marking time, waiting to be killed off as soon as their replacements hit the streets and the airwaves. “They have never really proved their independence from government, and very few people wanted to work for them any more,” said Stuart Moors.
“On the opposite side, the Independent has not got a great reputation with the government. There are some supporters who feel they are at least questioning the government – Mike [Olsson] has achieved something in that – but it’s gone too far.”
Extracted from What Do We Mean By Local? Grass-Roots Journalism – Its Death and Rebirth, edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves and published by Abramis academic publishing, price £17.95. Visit www.abramis.co.uk.