There have been times when, in my capacity as a freelance journalist, I have found myself in press conferences where I knew nothing and nobody. Not long after we arrived in Suriname, there was just such an instance.
Picture the scene: a dark room like a small theatre, with rows of seats filled with local journos. The photographers and TV cameramen, for whom seats are not appropriate, are setting themselves up around the sides and at the back. Presumably they have been banned from the front, because otherwise that’s where they would be, hogging the spectacle at the expense of everyone else. You can hear them thinking, “You pen and notebook people can use your ears, but this camera needs to be fed.”
We are here because one of the political parties that made up the coalition has been ditched, accused of making trouble in the ranks. It leaves the government with a tiny majority with which to push through matters that come to a vote.
That is as much as I know as I go into the conference, and it’s as much as I know when I come out too, because, although I recently gained a diploma in Dutch at beginner level, that means I know slightly more than someone who knows nothing at all. And since the proceedings are, understandably, conducted in the official language of Suriname, I am effectively deaf. What I do know is that my presence has been noted. Because I look different and he hasn’t seen me before, the MC glances at me as he welcomes the “international press”.
TV reporters in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) tend to be female and pointedly, deliberately attractive. While the technicians and producers labour to keep up with technology, it is true of every small community that its visual presenters’ minimum requirement is to talk when prompted and not fall over. That’s how it is back home in the Channel Islands and it’s how it is here. You even find it on the less conspicuous parts of the BBC, CNN and so forth. The best people get the high-profile positions at home, while the others are parked in front of cameras of departments transmitting to the rest of the world.
That means that enthusiastic young people who started off in the local media before getting lucky at an interview and being fast-tracked to the world stage are doing their chirpy stuff out of context. It’s all very well being bright and breezy, emphasising every word to make the annual village flower festival sound interesting, but when you apply the same approach to more serious matters, it makes you look and sound like an airhead.
A print journalist such as myself can get away with youthful incompetence because there is a barrage of people between your raw words and the finished article. There is probably a sub-editor, whose job is to make sure it reads okay, and perhaps a proofreader, whose obsession is with weeding out grammatical and spelling errors. Your 200 lamentable words don’t immediately find themselves exposed to the general public.
Radio is much the same everywhere: you can either do it or you can’t, “it” being to keep talking for as long as necessary. That might sound easy but in practice it quickly sorts out the men from the boys, the parrots from the budgies. The life and soul type who is loud and hearty in social situations can find himself powerless, like Samson after a haircut, when it is just him and a microphone, with no one to bounce off. He may end up as a newsreader – still a broadcaster and doing a worthy job, but not one requiring much spontaneity or joie de vivre.
All over the world the jingles, links and station ‘idents’ all sound like they were recorded in the same studio in Miami and issued like off-the-peg suits, with just the station name different. Radio ‘insert your name here’, such-and-such a number FM, the voice of ‘……’
It is important for the expat to catch a bit of local media in order to keep abreast with what’s going on in his or her new home, but radio is a hard way of doing it, even if they broadcast in English. Most stations have regular news bulletins, but what comes between them are inane pop songs, the same current ones over and over again or easy-listening blasts from the past, and home-made attempts at entertainment. On a Saturday afternoon in Paramaribo as you trail from shop to shop in one of the two malls, the radio that constitutes the aural ambience is occupied by a deep-voiced, intense man who covers every aspect of personal relationships, from awkward courtship and infidelity to divorce, but without any of the happy bits.
What qualifies him to pontificate in this way? To find that out I would have to concentrate, and quite frankly I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
Small media operations, particularly the broadcast variety, don’t have the luxury of specialists. Nor do they have the luxury of a big budget, which makes the viewer aware of how good the real pros are. The recent local coverage of the European football championships made me pine for the big broadcasters, with their privileged studios overlooking the pitch and their batteries of well-known experts, while the local boys seem to have been allocated a broom cupboard with some shiny plastic to hang as a backdrop that reflects the lights. In place of the high-profile ex-professional giving his expert opinions, the less fortunate outfits wheel out a guy who used to play at a reasonable level in their small part of the world and is now a taxi driver but has managed to get the afternoon off to be a pundit.
You’ve got to start somewhere, though, and there are obviously plenty of good, competent and talented people at small stations working their way up or happy where they are. There’s a guy on CNN, now a respected business correspondent, who I remember hearing on BBC Guernsey in 1996, filling an afternoon with bits and pieces about the snow that had brought the island to a standstill (it doesn’t snow there often and always catches people out – oh, wot larks!) And there’s a female presenter on BBC Radio Four’s influential early-morning Today programme, who gritted her teeth through an apprenticeship that included Channel Television, where she was regularly obliged to have a bit of banter with the station mascot, a soft toy called Oscar Puffin. If anything were ever needed to get her out of bed at two in the morning to go to work, that thought must surely do it.