The following anonymous article has been sent to this website via Vince Thompson, columnist on the St Helena Independent. A response from the new St Helena Sentinel will be welcomed.
The Empire Strikes Back?
The island’s only private-sector newspaper, The Independent, announced this week that it has to close. Its reasons centre around its inability to compete with the new government-funded newspaper that is supposed to launch sometime soon.
This all seems a little odd, and more than a little worrying.
During the years of decline in St. Helena, the government undertook many functions that more properly belonged in the private sector, simply because the private sector could not do them. The costs were too high and the consumer base too small (and shrinking) to make them profitable. The functions needed to be done and the government, quite rightly, stepped in. But in this there was an implicit agreement that if, at some time in the future, the private sector were to find itself able to take over these activities, the government would support it doing so and would gracefully exit.
The 2011 airport announcement should have heralded the arrival of that time.
And yet, in an area where the private sector has already established itself – broadcasting and the production of a weekly newspaper – it seems the government has deliberately pumped a vast amount of money into setting itself up in direct competition with the private sector provider, forcing the latter to close.
This is perverse, in two ways.
Firstly, we have yet to see anyone try to defend the government’s new media organisation in terms of public need. If there is no public need, why is the government spending money on this? Couldn’t it have been spent on education or health? Or if all this money wasn’t needed by the government, maybe a tax reduction?
The Independent wasn’t perfect, but it did the job as well as any newspaper could. There is nothing of value to the people of St Helena that a government newspaper can offer that the Independent didn’t.
But the converse is certainly true. The Independent often upset people – usually people in government – by asking them to explain the decisions they made. It frequently exposed muddled thinking, contradictory policies and downright incompetence. Surely nobody can believe the new government-funded newspaper will seriously challenge anything done by its paymasters, and maybe here we find a clue as to why The Independent had to be silenced.
Governments in free countries expect a level of scrutiny from the media and this acts as a necessary regulation on what they decide to do. When the Independent launched in 2005 it asked these questions for the first time, which came as rather a shock to some. Its level of scrutiny was mild compared to the newspapers in Europe or America, but maybe the government of St Helena feels even that is more than it can tolerate.
And if that was all, it would be enough to call the decision into question, but there is another more worrying consequence.
How can the island hope to attract inward investment if the government is willing to act in this way with private sector businesses.
“What will they do next?”, the investors – existing and potential – will wonder. Government-run hotels? Government-operated tours? Government-run coffee shops and restaurants? We already have government-owned shops competing with the private sector ones, so it isn’t that difficult to imagine.
Everyone agrees that St Helena needs inward investment to help it make the most of the airport, and one of the weighty concerns such investors have is political stability. That means more than just whether the government is about to be overrun by militant separatists. It also means that government has a settled direction of policy. Investors looking at St Helena right now will be taking due note, and may well conclude that if growing the footprint of government represents a settled government policy, putting money into an island where the government may decide to kick the stool out from under you is not a good plan. Others may conclude that policy seems to change on a whim, with the same result.
The Independent, as we’ve said, had its faults. It occasionally scare-mongered and sometimes got it wrong (though it always apologised). But killing it off to replace it with a government mouthpiece, and in the process scaring off the inward investors the island so desperately needs, seems to us to be a serious mistake.
(Guest articles are welcomed on this website – it is to be hoped that this is the first of many. In normal circumstances, anonymous articles from unknown sources will not be used. However, this piece has come via a trusted source, addresses a matter of very strong public interest, and accords with other opinions already expressed by other readers. See more comments here).