POLITICAL partisanship is nothing new in journalism. No one is surprised when London's Daily Telegraph supports Margaret Thatcher's Tories, Toronto's Daily Star backs Prime Minister Trudeau's Liberals or the New York Times plumps for a New England Democrat. But political advocacy has rarely approached the single-minded tenacity of Jamaica's Daily Gleaner to unseat former Prime Minister Michael Manley during last autumn's national elections.
Only eight years earlier the Gleaner's support helped vault Manley's People's National Party into office after a decade of rule by the Jamaica Labour Party. However, Manley's entente cordial with the pro-free enterprise Gleaner soon fell apart as the pellmell growth of the 1960s gave way to global economic gloom in the 1970s. For Manley the world-wide recession threw Jamaica's economic problems into bold relief. His solution was democratic socialism: more state run businesses, better prices for basic commodity exports like sugar, bauxite and bananas, land reform and co-operation with other Third World countries demanding a New International Economic Order.
For the Gleaner the Prime Minister's volteface was tantamount to handing the country over to communism. Within a few short years of Manley's 1972 election the newspaper's highly-skilled columnists were taking daily potshots at the government's policies. Nothing strange about that. Politicians change their stripes and newspapers change their minds. Except in the island's highly charged political atmosphere the Daily Gleaner is not just another newspaper. It is considered to be the voice of Jamaica - a 145 year old cultural institution whose reach is so wide and authority so ingrained that travelling Jamaicans sometimes ask for a New York or Toronto 'gleaner'.
Deserved or not, the Gleaner also has status outside the country. In fact, the newspaper's views and interpretations of events in Jamaica are accepted without question by major North American and British journals. Gleaner publisher Oliver Clarke has been an active member of the US-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA) for years. The IAPA is also linked to the Cabot Prize Committee which awarded the Gleaner a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism special citation of merit in 1979. The award boosted the paper's public image and self-esteem just as it was preparing for a full-fledged attack on Manley's administration.
Publisher Clarke told New York Village Voice reporter Andrew Kopkind, 'the business community here feels it is under siege from the government and it looks to the Gleaner to be its advocate for free enterprise and a Western style of life'. In last October's election the Gleaner pulled out all the stops to protect those two pillars of Jamaica's middle and upper class. Columnist John Hearne, one of the most vociferous Manley detractors, told Kopkind: 'It would be idle to pretend that there has not been a systematic attack on the government by the Gleaner. For myself, my one intention is to get this man Manley out of office by any means at hand.'
It was the 'systematic' aspect of the Gleaner's barrage that began to rouse suspicions among Manley supporters and those to his left. Recalling revelations of the CIA's use of El Mercurio to create an atmosphere of fear and instability in Chile prior to the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende's government, critics looked at the Gleaner's tactics.
At the invitation of the Press Association of Jamaica, analyst Fred Landis of the Washington-based Cover Action Information Bulletin pieced together a series of startling parallels with El Mercurio. Gruesome stories of murder and terror were featured prominently in the Daily Gleaner alongside pictures of Manley or his ministers illustrating another article. A typical Gleaner front page would include a four-column photograph of a blood-spattered policeman. The photo accompanied a story headed 'Policeman slain by gunman'. To the left of the photo was a smaller one-column article entitled 'A Cadillac for the PM'. 'The idea,' said Landis, 'is that while all this mayhem is taking place, the most the Prime Minister can think of it is to get himself a Cadillac, the theme of the PM fiddling while Rome burns.'
The presence of 200 Cuban doctors, engineers, teachers (and probably a few intelligence officers) was puffed up into a 5000 strong fifth column - brainwashing school children, threatening Jamaica's sovereignty and ready to fight to defend Manley's form of 'communism'. The Prime Minister's personal friendship with Fidel Castro was exploited whenever possible to back up the supposed Cuban threat. The Gleaner charged Manley with plotting to suspend elections under a state of emergency to maintain power. The Jamaican Labour Party leader Edward Seaga followed by accusing Manley of planning a 'military solution' to the elections.
According to Dr. Landis the similarity in style and method of attack between El Mercurio and the Gleaner was not just coincidence. Behind it all he saw the not-so-subtle machinations of the US Central Intelligence Agency. At the same time dissident ex-CIA staff revealed the names of 15 CIA members at the US Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica. The station, they said, was 'undoubtedly the largest in the Caribbean and perhaps the third or fourth largest in Latin America'.
The Gleaner for its part was unflappable, dismissing the charges as 'outrageous and unfounded allegations'. Taking the Gleaner's lead the foreign press amplified the stories of creeping socialism, economic chaos and unpredictable violence. Liberal newspapers like the Washington Post made unsubstantiated claims of Manley's intention to 'declare a state of emergency and suspend elections'.
Linking Grenada, Cuba and Jamaica, the Los Angeles Times warned of 'Socialist Trade' spreading chaos in the Caribbean.
The Miami Herald, US News and World Report, the Journal of Commerce, the London Daily Telegraph and other major newspapers all played up the disastrous consequences of Jamaica's flirtation with socialism. In fact, there was a certain amount of self-fulfilment in the Gleaner's dogged denigration of Manley's government. The tourist trade plumetted during the 1979/80 season as news of the island's political violence spread. In fact it was confined almost entirely to Kingston's squalid shanty towns, not the north coast tourist-strip. After Manley's landslide 1976 election victory major multinational corporations, including the linchpins of the economy the American and Canadian bauxite companies, refused to extend their investments. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced strict conditions on loans to the Manley government including wage controls and currency devaluation. By the time Manley repudiated the IMF the economic damage was done - more grist for the Gleaner's mill.
The upshot of it all was Manley's thumping defeat last fall at the hands of Jamaica Labour Party leader Edward Seaga. What Manley's supporters referred to as the Gleaner's 'destabilization' tactics had turned the tide.
Virtually overnight Jamaica's pariah image was shed. Prime Minister Seaga was welcomed as a lost sheep back to the fold by corporate investors, multinational bankers, the IMF and US President Reagan. Seaga's first step after assuming office was to order Cuban Ambassador Ulises Estrada to leave the island. His next was to visit Mr Reagan in Washington. Talks with IMF officials were initiated even before the Jamaican Labour Party's victory.
Rewards were quick to follow for the pro-American, pro-capitalist Seaga. The US announced $60 million in new aid to Jamaica including a $1.5 million military sales credit. A recently concluded IMF agreement requires neither wage controls nor a currency devaluation. In addition, a $103-million foreign debt with 100 commercial banks was successfully renegotiated - a year earlier Manley was turned down flat by the same banks. According to the Washington Post, Jamaica's finance secretary Horace Barber says 'the whole atmosphere has changed. The business sector is more bullish'.
The alleged CIA manipulation of the Gleaner to destabilize the Manley government may never be definitely proven. Apart from Dr. Landis intriguing testimony no hard facts have emerged. But the Gleaner's role in forming public opinion, both nationally and internationally, is not disputed. What seems obvious is that the paper's political assumptions were shared by some extremely powerful people with the ability to make or break the economy of a small Third World nation. It may be just a chance convergence of interests. But that seems unlikely.
Wayne Ellwood is based in Canada and is a co-editor of The New Internationalist.