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Towards a better political discourse

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I woke up on August 31 to the rather surreal event of The Royal Gazette having published an op-ed column by Khalid Wasi dedicated to a personal attack and slander of myself. While such may be expected in the to and fro of unmoderated comment sections or Facebook, to have an entire personal attack published as an op-ed in the daily was quite astonishing.

Political commentator: Khalid Wasi

In this ad hominem op-ed, I am referred to as a “yuppie”, and it is insinuated that I’m in the implied employ of the Progressive Labour Party, if not the Premier, in the sense of a Rasputin or an éminence grise. Mr Wasi goes on to essentially call me a race traitor who has no right to advocate for social justice. He also makes quite a big fuss of his belief that because — according to him — I’m a government worker, I should not be voicing any political opinions.

I think it is worth bringing clarity to a few points; others simply don’t dignify a response.

Let’s address his argument that I’m a government worker — or, more specifically, a public officer — and should have no political voice.

I am employed by a quango (quasi non-governmental organisation). I became employed there by applying for an advertised position. I don’t know how many others applied, although some friends of mine did and told me so subsequently. I interviewed twice for the position and was successful. I certainly did not, to my knowledge, receive the position by ministerial largesse, political favour or similar. And, indeed, it would be inappropriate political interference for a minister or a premier to interfere with such an HR decision of a quango, then and now.

Having said that, let’s turn to the Election Guidance Notes for Public Officers Serving the Bermuda Government. This is essentially the bible for public officers on all matters political. For reference, I am using the May 2017 edition; I’m unaware if there is a more recent one.

Jonathan Starling

The key section is Section 2 “Application”, and specifically subsection 2.5: “Employees of government quangos are not considered public officers unless specific provision occurs in the relevant legislation to provide for public officers to be seconded to a quango.”

In other words, there are zero restrictions on me as regards anything political. I am free to voice any political opinion I wish, to canvass for a political party, to be a political party officer, to run for Parliament for any political party, and even, in theory, to sit in Parliament, regardless of which party, and still hold my job. I could even write a regular op-ed column.

Having said that, have I actually taken a political stance — more specifically a pro-PLP stance — in my comments prompting this personal attack by Mr Wasi? I’m sure readers unfamiliar with the online comments section are no doubt confused what prompted this fixation of his on me.

The genesis of this stems from two of Mr Wasi’s most recent op-eds. In the first he wrote about how the PLP elects its leader; in the second he basically argued that party leaders — he mentioned only the PLP, however, it stands to reason the same should apply to all political parties, such as the One Bermuda Alliance — should be elected by the entire electorate and not just by party members.

To his first op-ed, I simply pointed out that his description of the PLP leadership election process was wrong and misleading. I referenced the PLP’s constitution, which is readily online, to point out how the leadership is actually elected. My point there was that if we’re going to criticise something, we should actually criticise what really exists and not a straw man version. That is not a pro-PLP position; it is merely a position for honest political discourse.

To his second op-ed, I simply disagreed that non-members of any political party should decide on who that party wishes to be its leader. While I am certainly in favour of constitutional reforms, and am on record calling for proportional representation, recall votes, absentee voting, campaign finance laws, voting reforms relating to prisoners, an elected Senate or a unicameral parliament, and a republic, taking a position that I don’t feel non-members should determine who leads either the PLP or the OBA is hardly a pro-PLP position.

If Mr Wasi wishes to have a debate on such issues, that’s fine. However, a disingenuous personal attack is not debating the issues.

What was particularly surprising to me was that the paper would allow such an op-ed to be published.

To be frank, it has a chilling effect on political discourse that the country’s only newspaper allows such an ad hominem op-ed. Why should anyone engage in discourse if doing so opens them up to a similar personal attack?

I do feel that, as a society, we really need to reflect on the abysmal state of what passes for political discourse.

Essentially, it is incredibly shallow and tribalistic to the point that simply not criticising the PLP and instead relying on factual evidence is enough to be personally attacked and accused of all the various insinuations of “singing for my supper”, as anonymous RG commentators are wont to say.

Beyond that, there is an overreliance on personal attacks and straw man arguments and a distinct lack of reasoned discourse.

In this I do feel that, beyond contamination from America’s slow-motion second civil war and the capture of the British Conservative Party by the populist far Right, the media environment in Bermuda plays a key role.

It seems that, in the face of media competition — at least online — and the corrosive influence of social media, there is an increasing tendency to move away from quality journalism and op-eds and to replace them with sensationalistic clickbait, a cut and paste of press releases and the de facto encouragement of unmoderated comment sections through the failure to actually moderate and apply their own rules. Which, among other things, prohibit personal attacks. Why even have a moderation policy if you don’t actually actively moderate?

To be clear, we have some fine journalists. They are simply underpaid and overworked.

My criticism is more at the editorial and managerial level that presides over such a decline in journalistic standards. This is not, of course, a phenomenon unique to Bermuda, even if media here are somewhat insulated by monopoly status. Journalism is, quite frankly, faced by a structural economic problem under the existing paradigm of dependence on advertising revenue. Quality journalism may be a public good in ensuring an informed citizenry and holding power accountable, but confronted with digital advertising and AI, it is an increasingly unprofitable commodity.

I get it from a cynical profit perspective.

However, in chasing after pieces of silver, it seems we are content to profane the temple of honest discourse and replace it with all manner of vulgarity and mob mentality. All that is sacred is profaned. And with this decline in journalism, we also see the decline of democracy, surrendering to base populism and the tyranny of the bottom line.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can, collectively, say “no more” and demand — backed up by action — better of the media, of the RG, of op-ed writers, and of ourselves.

I don’t have any allusions that such a plea will have much more effect than one crying in the wilderness; however, like Isaiah, hope springs eternal.

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Published September 06, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated September 05, 2022 at 8:05 pm)

Towards a better political discourse

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