I respond to Sir Gerald Watt, KCN, QC on the matter of his recent unjust and false characterizations of The Big Issues, a programme which currently airs on Observer Radio on Sundays at 1:00 PM, and of which I, Kieron Murdoch, have been the current producer and host since January 2021. Sir Gerald’s false and unjust assertions about The Big Issues appeared in a written statement dated December 24, which he penned in response to criticisms directed at him by two guests, Dr. Isaac Newton and Mr. Akaash Maharaj, who appeared on The Big Issues on Sunday, December 19.
The comments of both guests were on the question of whether it was a conflict of interest or in any way irregular for Sir Gerald, being Speaker of the House of Representatives, to have, as an attorney, represented Member of Parliament (MP) for All Saints West, the Hon. Michael Browne in a recent criminal trial. Both commentators said they thought it was a conflict of interest for the Speaker. Sir Gerald, in his written December 24 statement, explained why in his view, there was no conflict. I was delighted that Sir Gerald chose to respond, but unfortunately, and much to my dismay, Sir Gerald then went on to make a number of false and unjust characterizations of The Big Issues programme in his statement which I earnestly felt necessitated a response in writing.
- Most unfortunately, Sir Gerald stated that it was the United Progressive Party (UPP) which “runs” The Big Issues and he further called it “their radio programme”. In another instance he stated that The Big Issues does not cater to “independent listeners unaligned to the United Progressive Party”.
Response: His statements are false and extremely unfortunate. Let me be clear for Sir
Gerald’s sake: Neither the United Progressive Party (UPP), nor the Antigua and Barbuda
Labour Party (ABLP) nor the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), nor the Barbuda Peoples Movement (BPM) nor any of their agents or affiliates set the agenda of The Big Issues, determine who appears on The Big Issues, or compose the questions asked on The Big Issues. That is my sole responsibility as the show’s current producer and host. I do from time to time, consult with the members of Observer’s newsroom and the Editor.
While I take exception to Sir Gerald’s assertion because it is false, I note that it is not the first time, and shall certainly not be the last time, that those who are upset by targeted and critical comments made on The Big Issues seek to be dismissive of those comments by simply claiming that they were in some way orchestrated by one political party or another. Essentially, their objective is to diminish the credibility of the comments our guests make by labelling the programme as being “run” by one party or the other. This sort of pandering to the political tribalism of Antiguans and Barbudans is something which I consider to be
unworthy of Sir Gerald, a leading attorney of high esteem whom I respect and whom I sincerely admire. Whichever political party or boogeyman which Sir Gerald might believe is out to get him has absolutely nothing to do with The Big Issues or its current producer and host.
- Sir Gerald asserted that there was a “failure for the most part to present quality persons of differing opinions on the programme”.
Response: I receive this comment graciously, as I must admit that it is sometimes difficult to find persons to appear on The Big Issues who are both informed and unbiased. Sometimes, we have to compromise on one of these criteria. But I certainly reject the notion that this has been a “failure for the most part”. A lot of effort goes into the production of
The Big Issues and great care is taken to get “quality persons” who represent different perspectives and points of view. For example, Sir Gerald’s most esteemed professional colleagues, attorneys Mr. Jarid Hewlett and Dr. David Dorsett, have appeared on The Big Issues this year. So too, have fellow parliamentarians such as the Hon. Samantha Marshall MP, the Hon. Senator Bakesha Francis-James, and the Hon. Senator Alincia Williams-Grant. Fellow senior attorneys, Mr. Anthony Astaphan SC, and former Attorney General, Mr. Justin Simon QC, have appeared on The Big Issues this year.
Former Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, the Hon. Dr. Denzil Douglas MP, appeared this year. Former Ambassador of Jamaica to the UN, Mr. Curtis Ward has appeared this year alongside Antigua and Barbuda’s present UN Ambassador, Dr. W. Aubrey Webson.
A dozen highly respected medical professionals in Antigua and Barbuda, and in the Caribbean have repeatedly appeared on The Big Issues this year. We have been joined by expert guests out of Canada, the United States, the UK and Switzerland. Indeed, a plethora of highly trained and highly accomplished professionals and academics in Antigua and Barbuda and beyond have appeared this year. I consider them to be “quality persons of differing opinions” but Sir Gerald is entitled to disagree.
It should be noted that locally, one of the greatest obstacles to booking “quality persons of differing opinions” on The Big Issues is the very same political tribalism in Antigua and Barbuda to which Sir Gerald so shamelessly pandered when he characterized the show as being “run” by a political party. Over the years, the number of potential guests who have told our producers that they do not wish to appear on the show primarily because they fear being victimized for speaking critically on issues in Antigua and Barbuda, is staggering. The scale of this problem is enormous and is often underestimated by the listening public. Nevertheless, I am satisfied that quality guests do routinely appear on The Big Issues and that there is a satisfactory variance of views.
However, I ought to state that the producers and hosts of The Big Issues have done their best over the years not to condone “intellectual dishonesty” as Sir Gerald put it. In this regard, I do try to steer clear of potential guests whom I know are intellectually dishonest,
in that they are highly inclined to offer disingenuous views on the basis of their political or other biases and or agendas. I do not always succeed, but I try.
- Sir Gerald asserted that on The Big Issues, there was “the disconcerting habit of inviting a panel to deal with issues involving persons readily available to Observer and allowing the panel to beat up on these persons who have no opportunity to rebut and defend their positions.”
Response: The idea that a person has no opportunity to defend their position is utterly false. While a person who may find themselves subject to criticism on The Big Issues might not be there at that moment to respond, Observer makes a habit of reaching out to such persons to give them an opportunity to rebut, usually in the news. This has been the routine. Sir Gerald was given such an opportunity when he was contacted not long after the show on the same afternoon of Sunday, December 19, 2021, for comment, after Dr. Newton and Mr. Maharaj were critical of him. When he wrote at the opening of his December 24 statement that “my attention has been drawn to certain statements made on The Big Issues”, it was Observer which first drew his attention to the same statements, voluntarily sent him the audio recordings of the commentators, and gave him an opportunity to respond the very same afternoon. He said then that he would respond in the week, which he did in writing. Before he responded in writing, he did ask if he might be allowed to appear on a subsequent The Big Issues to respond there, but he was informed that it was our policy to handle such responses by putting them in the news. He further declined attempts by Observer to interview him for a response after Sunday, December 19, and chose instead to respond in writing on December 24, with which we had no problem.
Sir Gerald used the term “beat up” to describe the manner in which commentators on The Big Issues have dealt with persons who become the subject of our discussions. To be clear,
Sir Gerald was not “beat up” on during The Big Issues on December 19, as I would not have allowed a guest to rabidly attack him or his character. Two guests were asked if they thought it was a conflict of interest for him to have been the Hon. Michael Browne’s attorney. They said they thought it was a conflict. They used phrases such as “most inappropriate”, “perhaps even unethical”, “I frowned at that”, “a bizarre choice”, and “a structural conflict of interest”. Where and when was Sir Gerald “beat up” on? Which statement of the two guests crossed the line of fair and reasonable criticism and strayed into unjust persecution of Sir Gerald? Were there personal attacks made? Or Innuendos? Or criticism so unjust that it ought to have been stopped by the host? The panelists spent fewer than three minutes discussing Sir Gerald’s decision to represent the Hon. Michael Browne after discussing Michael Browne’s case for nearly forty minutes. I have not heard any complaints from the Speaker’s client the Hon. Michael Browne.
Sir Gerald occupies a public office and so too do many of the individuals whose actions are routinely subject to scrutiny on The Big Issues. It should be expected and welcomed in
any progressive and liberal democracy that persons in public office will be subject to the most intense level of public scrutiny, which includes constant, rigorous and critical commentary in the media on their actions and their performance. While as media practitioners, we must at all times try to achieve fairness and balance, we are not here to save anyone from being the subject of criticism altogether. It continues to amaze me, the extent to which persons in public office in the West Indies are almost totally averse to any level of serious debate surrounding their actions and their performance in public office. I often wonder if they could ever survive in a larger, more developed liberal democracy where the level of media scrutiny, public debate, and intense criticism of public officials is so much greater, and yet, is considered totally in order.
As to whether a person should be invited to The Big Issues when an issue may be about them, sometimes we find it suitable to bring them on and at other times we find it more suitable not to do so. Let me explain. This is really a consequence of the aim and format of the show. The Big Issues tries to be about analysis. It tries to be a space where after the news of the week, guests are invited to critically assess important issues. Analysis is the ultimate objective. In order to get analysis of an issue, we often actively seek out persons who are not directly involved in the issue itself, but who are competent and unbiased. I can say honestly, that in the politically tribal landscape of Antigua and Barbuda, it is sometimes extremely difficult to get persons who are both competent and unbiased .
The fact is, we often prefer persons who are not directly related to an issue to come and give us their analysis of it. If we are talking about the actions of Public Official X for example, then we would not get Public Official X to come and analyse their own actions. Chances are, they might already have spoken publicly about it. For example, we might try and get someone in the same professional field, then someone else who formerly served in the same position, and perhaps finally, a private sector individual affected by decisions from Public Official X to give us their analysis. This is merely an example of how we might go about seeking guests. Public Official X always has the ability to respond to any criticisms made on the show by talking to our newsroom or even appearing on another one of our programmes where the format of the programme is more conducive to their appearance. Admittedly, there are often instances where there has been so little explained publicly about a particular issue under discussion that we do indeed have to get Public Official X themselves on, in order to extract substance for our analysis.
- Sir Gerald complained that The Big Issues was “critical and unfair” in nature.
Response: I do not apologize for the show being “critical” in the sense of being evaluative and commentative. Although, I know that Sir Gerald means “critical” in the sense of being overly harsh and condemnatory. But I reject this assertion. Where our panelists have been harsh and condemnatory, it is most often within the realm of fair commentary on the myriad of serious issues that warrant analysis on the programme. We seek panelists who are not
intellectually dishonest. Therefore, our panelists often (though not always) call a spade a spade. Often, they do not pussyfoot. That is an objective of the programme and I do not apologize for it. It would be intellectually dishonest for someone not to acknowledge that Antigua and Barbuda is a country that grapples with a number of social, economic and political challenges which rightly ought to be spoken of in a highly “critical” manner, and I do mean critical in both evaluative and condemnatory senses. If Sir Gerald wants to listen to pussyfoot radio commentators who placate and tip-toe, then I must apologize as he will not find such commentary on The Big Issues.
- Sir Gerald complained that too often the “same old regulars” appear on the show as guests.
Response: Again, this is a complaint I receive graciously, as others do from time to time make the same remark. Yet, I must emphasize that the extent to which different new commentators are willing to appear on the programme is limited by their confidence in speaking openly and honestly about issues in Antigua and Barbuda without fear of victimisation and without fear of being labelled as political. Essentially, persons are often afraid that listeners will label them as an ABLP supporter or as a UPP supporter depending on whether they agree or disagree with some action of the government. This is often why we end up getting so many international guests on The Big Issues. A person reading this might remember an instance when they themselves had been asked to appear on the show, but declined, for fear of being labelled and victimized as being partisan. In this vein, I again state that I found it extremely unfortunate that Sir Gerald chose to label The Big Issues a political party “run” programme, simply because the persons who appeared on the show on Sunday, December 19, were critical of him. This paralyzing and stifling culture of political tribalism is poisonous to Antigua and Barbuda. I sincerely implore Sir Gerald to rise above it.
- Sir Gerald chose to make a number of unfortunate characterizations of some of The Big Issues’ guests. Antiguan political adviser and campaign manager Dr. Isaac
Newton was referred to as “fast talking” but “saying nothing”. Canada-based anti-corruption advocate Mr. Akaash Maharaj was labelled as “intellectually dishonest”, whilst Dr. David Hinds, an academic and a political scientist from Guyana, was called
“noisy” and “boring”.
Response: Although Sir Gerald says he is “tired” of these voices, The Big Issues is pleased that these three persons have been invested enough in what goes on in Antigua and Barbuda to appear often on the show, and we hold them in as similarly high a regard as we hold Sir Gerald, a most esteemed figure in Antigua and Barbuda. While all three men are capable of defending themselves, I must admit that I took particular exception to Sir Gerald calling Mr. Akaash Maharaj “intellectually dishonest”. Truthfully, Mr. Maharaj is actually one of the most intellectually honest people that you will hear on local radio. His analyses are
often biting though fair. Mr. Maharaj has uncompromisingly high standards on governance, transparency, and integrity. This seems to upset some people and I honestly do not know why. I can only surmise that those who are upset by someone who advocates for exceedingly high standards of governance and integrity are the sort of people who enjoy mediocrity. I refuse to entertain the notion even for a moment, that Sir Gerald could ever be counted amongst such a crowd, since he is a senior attorney of impeccable character and unparalleled esteem.
Here is the truth. You will often hear these persons – Hinds, Newton, Maharaj – as we do book them often, and we usually book them for political discussions. However, any lack of variety in commentators on political and governance issues is due to the truly saddening fact that in Antigua and Barbuda, there is a dearth of political commentators who are (a) informed, (b) unbiased, and most importantly, (c) willing to speak publicly without fear of being labelled and or victimized . I must therefore, for a third time, express my dismay at Sir Gerald having falsely referred to The Big Issues as a programme “run” by a political party, likely intimidating prospective guests in Antigua and Barbuda who do not wish to be labelled as partisan merely for offering a critical opinion on matters locally. This is the sort of behaviour which compels us to repeatedly go outside the country or rely on repeat guests in order to provide analysis on political and governance issues. It is a sad reality, and it reflects poorly on our political culture. Alternatively, we could (and do from time to time) simply get commentators of different political biases on the same panel, but this more often descends into lying, pussyfooting, accusations, rhetoric and cheap talk that is unworthy of The Big Issues. I wish Sir Gerald all the best in the new year.
Background to this issue:
Sir Gerald Watt, KCN, QC, who is the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a highly respected senior attorney, was the subject of criticism on the December 19, 2021, edition of The Big Issues during a discussion about the political future of Member of Parliament (MP) for All Saints West, the Hon. Michael Browne, after Browne’s recent acquittal in a criminal trial. Sir Gerald, as an attorney, aided in the MP’s defense.
At the end of the discussion, the host Mr. Kieron Murdoch asked two of the panelists, Dr. Isaac Newton and Mr. Akaash Maharaj, whether they thought it to be either a conflict of interest or in any way irregular for Sir Gerald, being the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to have been actively part of the All Saints West MP’s defense team. Both men disapproved of the Speaker’s decision and said that they thought it to be a conflict of interest.
Subsequently, on that very Sunday afternoon, Sir Gerald was sent the audio recordings of the two panelists, then phoned and offered the opportunity to be interviewed and to respond that afternoon to the comments they had made, particularly as the guests’ comments were to be carried as a story in that evening’s 5:30 PM news. Sir Gerald replied then that he was not in a position to respond immediately but would be happy to do so later that week.
Days later via text, he discussed that he felt the need to respond on a subsequent The Big Issues show, as opposed to doing so through an interview to be featured in the news. He was informed that it would be simpler for him to respond via an interview for the news, as the format of The Big Issues was such, that carving out time for responses was often troublesome. Therefore, if someone wants to respond to something said on the programme, we had always tended to feature their response in the news. It often gets aired on radio twice and is also carried as an article in print. He was also informed that should he wish to respond via a letter, the editorial team might be pleased to publish it.
Sir Gerald did respond in writing, much to our delight. He addressed the issue of whether his being Speaker of the House of Representatives and also having been Mr. Browne’s attorney ought to be seen as a conflict of interest or in any way irregular. His ultimate conclusion was that: “As an attorney-at-law, and a leading Queen’s Counsel, I was entitled to represent the Honourable Michael Browne in any matter, civil or criminal, whether I am the Speaker of the House or not.” He then went on to make some unfortunate characterizations of The Big Issues, to which I have responded in this statement.
Sir Gerald’s December 24 statement can be downloaded here: