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The St Helena report and the gap in media

The last post: as the Independent closes, writer Vince asks how the government is spending public money

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The St Helena Independent is due to close on Friday, 30 March 2012 – on the day the government-subsidised St Helena Sentinel is launched.

The government has told this website the new media organisation – which will eventually include three radio stations and an online news service – has an “exciting” role to play in island life. Read more here.

Independent columnist Vince Thompson has sent through a message to flag up what he’ll say in his final piece:

“In tomorrow’s A Funny Thing Happened, renamed A Voice in the Wilderness for the last issue of The St Helena Independent, I compare the amount SHG are spending on their new government funded media with the dire need for more money in Education and Health.

“SHG seldom take their priorities seriously, any priorities they have change like the wind and getting the basics right is still a thing SHG need to learn to do.”

In a front-page editorial, here, Independent editor Mike Olsson says the paper is being driven out of business by unfair competition and withdrawal of St Helena Government (SHG) advertising.

John Styles, founder of the new paper, has countered suggestions it will be controlled by figures in The Castle in Jamestown.

Will you miss the Indy? Why does it matter to you? Please read the comments, then add your own below.

Don’t the Indy’s readers matter any more? Comment:

The Laws of Media and Private Enterprise:

  • When a newspaper is no longer useful to readers it will no longer be purchased.
  • If readers are no longer important to the advertisers, they will not advertise.
  • Government no longer advertises in the Independent.

Is it because the Independent’s readers are no longer important to the government?

Anonymous, South Africa

At a time when even politicians in London call to fill the “democratic hole” in the overseas territories, the SHG virtually eliminates a basic element of democracy: the free press. In the 21st Century you don’t need to print your own newspaper as there’s a place called the “internet” where a modern government can instantly publish any relevant information at lowest costs. Doing so may even result in something called “transparency” which can prevent misconceptions in the media. Instead of destroying one of the island’s few sound sectors by establishing a state monopoly, taxpayers’ money should better be used to increase internet penetration; thus anybody can easily access all relevant information and form their own opinion. Provision of internet access in contrast is a market that obviously requires government intervention as the private sector has been failing to supply demand in an acceptable manner.

Bernardo, UK 

This is very worrying, but perhaps I am being naive. HMG will be acting on the basis of what it perceives as British interests: pluralism and democracy on St Helena will be very low on the list of priorities, and in fact might be counter-productive to the attainment of Government objectives. If as many expect the airport fails to make the island economically self sustaining, and/or the Government finds a military use for the airport leading to continued loss of population, an independent newspaper would simply make the island harder to govern. I hope I am being overly pessimistic.

John Tyrrell, UK

It’s certainly a concern if the actions of government result in individuals losing their livelihood. And it’s particularly puzzling in this case because there seems to be no public interest reason to justify the government publishing a newspaper, when there is already one being produced by the private sector.

John Turner, St Helena

You said, “Can you live without the smutty jokes?”. Of course, it had no place in the publication.

“ggatian”, California

(note, an earlier version of this web post asked, “Will you miss the Indy? Can you live without the smutty jokes?”)

Simon Pipe, editor of this website, has sent the following message to Saint FM, the Independent’s sister radio station – which is to stay on air.

I was shocked – but not surprised – to read the news that the St Helena Independent is to cease publication.

Through the Indy, Mike and his team have probably done more than anyone to connect the world’s most isolated island with the rest of the planet – and of course, with the many Saints who have relied on the paper and Saint FM to keep them in touch with their homeland. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else who’s taken on this work – not even the people whose job it was.

The Indy has been an amazing achievement, but it could not last forever. In the UK, I can’t believe anyone would have attempted to do what the St Helena Independent has done so brilliantly – if sometimes infuriatingly. No one could say the Indy didn’t have character.

On Tuesday, I will go to London to attend the launch of a book about the future of the local newspapers. One of the chapters is about media on remote islands, and in particular, about the Indy. It speaks of the paper having a “frontier spirit”. One can almost imagine Mike sitting in his office with his feet on the desk, newsman’s hat titled forward, with a loaded pistol in the top drawer to face down anyone who threatens his editorial independence – with Tammy there to keep him in order when needed.

I did not always agree with the paper’s editorial line. I don’t believe all officials are self-serving bunglers. But the paper has made St Helena a much more open society – a fact acknowledged by one of his new rivals when I interviewed him for the book. This is important work that is not yet finished.

A free, open media, able to challenge government and things that just aren’t right, is vital to democracy – even at the most local level, which is where most people live their lives.

Sometimes, it takes awkward, pig-headed people to protect that. Just telling people what’s going on is just as important.

I wish the best of good fortune to my fellow journalists at the Sentinel. With the loss of the Indy, they now carry an even greater responsibility.

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