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Independent closure claims dismissed as ‘nonsense’ – but new book foresaw what would happen

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Allegations that St Helena Government brought about the closure of the island’s only privately-run newspaper have been strongly refuted.

Cover of book "What Do We Mean By Local?"
BROUGHT TO BOOK: Islands chapter said losing adverts would kill the Independent

In a second statement on the affair, the government says its plans to help set up a state-funded rival “did not include any intention to see the Independent newspaper close down and it is nonsense to suggest this.”

But the threat to the St Helena Independent was foreseen in a book published only three days before the paper’s final edition appeared. It said withdrawing advertising – as the government has now done – would almost certainly kill off the Independent.

The government decided to switch its advertising from the Independent to the state-funded Sentinel, which was published for the first time on 29 March 2012. The  Independent put out a farewell issue on March 30.

SHG also decided not to renew a “service” contract with Saint FM, the Independent’s sister radio station – though owner Mike Olsson says this contract did not relate to the newspaper.

In the book, contributor Simon Pipe – editor of this website – referred to a new law that could force the closure of a newspaper.

“In Britain,” it said, “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.”

Click here for an extract from Media on Remote Islands book chapter

In an interview on Saint FM, Mike Olsson said that former governor Andrew Gurr had advised him to accept a buy-out offer from the new media organisation “or they are going to run right over you.”

The government’s new statement was issued amid ongoing disquiet over the way in which the new media organisation came into being. It said much of the comment on the issue had been distorted.

It began by praising the Independent’s “contribution to stimulating debate and comment on St Helena.”

It said councillors had approved the setting-up of the new community-owned media service – known as the St Helena Broadcasting (Guarantee) Corporation.

And it said it “could not continue to pay SHMP (the Independent and Saint FM) a very substantial sum each month to air certain material, under the terms of an arrangement made in 2009.”

The government said it had been paying Mr Olsson’s company an average of £1,690 each month, plus “many thousands of pounds” for advertising. It had also been funding the St Helena Herald, which closed in March 2012, and Radio St Helena, which is expected to be replaced by three new stations in the summer.

“This level of financial exposure could not continue indefinitely,” it said, but “SHG considered that it had a responsibility to ensure that Saints were served by a high quality and independent media, with less Government subsidy.”

The new media organisation aims to become self-supporting “in the short to medium term” – depending on how quickly the island’s economy grows, with an airport expected to bring tourism cash from 2015.

Mike Olsson challenged the government version of events in a statement, and in an interview on Saint FM with presenter Vince Thompson – who had also been a columnist on the Independent.

He said the contract with the government was not a subsidy, but involved a payment for services – including broadcasting to Saints overseas, and being able to broadcast emergency announcements within five minutes at any time of day or night.

He also said that the contract did not relate to the Independent, which survived on income from advertising and sales alone.

He also complained that he had not been allowed to see a report by former official John Styles, outlining his ideas for the new rival, “Like we are not stakeholders in the media at all in St Helena.

“The next thing I saw was Mr John Styles in my living room saying, ‘Can we send in
Cable & Wireless to value your equipment?’ He was shown the door quite quickly.”

A third source has said that Mr Olsson refused to consider “generous” offers to buy him out.

Mr Thompson also questioned the validity of claims that the new media service would be financially “sustainable” if it did not have to repay start-up funding – including the cost of refurbishing its new base in the Castle Gardens.

Full details of the financial arrangement between SHBC and the government have not been released.

But Mr Olsson attacked the government for publishing details of its payments to Saint FM. “What would normally be classified as ‘commercial-in-confidence’ has been dragged out in the public domain,” he said in a statement.

He also referred to a 2007 audit report, which he said established the principle that “as a subsidised organisation you cannot go out and compete with the private sector.”

That was the basis on which The Sentinel’s forerunner, the St Helena Herald, was banned from accepting paid advertising – which made it impossible to generate income it needed on top of its government funding.

  • Simon Pipe contributed a chapter on media on remote islands to an academic book about the state of local journalism. What Do We Mean By Local? Grass-Roots Journalism – Its Death and Rebirth, is published by Abramis, price £17.95. www.abramis.co.uk.

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