By Tiffany Grant
Drivers dressed in red or yellow repeatedly strike their horns to excite supporters. Speakers blare slogan songs, “PLP, what ya say? (So said, so done)” and “Vote them out,” from the back of flat bed trucks. The motorcade rolls pass streetlight poles with campaign posters. One man leans his head out a car window and shouts to the crowd on the street, “Ain’t long now!”
This is what elections look like in the Bahamas, where people take their politics very seriously.
“Here in the Bahamas our only rock stars, super stars are our politicians,” said Paul Turnquest, Tribune reporter.
The Bahamian obsession with politics is evident from the large number of people that attend political rallies, to the high percentage of voter turnout. This obsession is also reflected in the political coverage by the Tribune, one of the country’s daily newspapers. The Tribune’s local news coverage spans from party politics, to government policy stories to socializing with Miss Universe.
Branville McCartney, minister of state for immigration and Free National Movement member of Parliament, was asked when he picks up a Tribune newspaper what type of news stories does he normally see?
“Sometimes I see my photo, [and] I say oh God,” McCartney said. He then bursts into laughter.
McCartney, directing his attention back to the question, said, from a political point of view, you would normally see what is topical, what’s going on, especially if the House of Assembly is in session. You would normally see the arguments put forward by the governing party and the opposition.
“I think the Tribune would cover as much as possible regarding politics and regarding governance. It makes good news, and the Bahamian people like politics, they talk politics all the time,” he said.
Even children rally for candidates
Eva Pratt, a Bahamian political party’s team captain, has political stickers on her jeans and holds pom poms in her hands as she and volunteers go from door to door handing out flyers and getting feedback from the public.
At one of the homes, even a child was geared up to vote when he is old enough.
Pratt said the boy, who was about six years old, told them, “When I can vote, I ain’t ga vote for grammy party, I ga vote for you’ll party, me and my mommy. “
They gave him party paraphernalia, however his grandmother told him, “Now you can put that in your room, but you ain’t putting that in the front room for nobody to see,” recalled Pratt.
Arthur Foulkes, a former Bahamian politician and currently director general of the government’s news agency, said, “We are one of the most politicized people in the world.”
“We are keenly interested, and that’s a good, that’s a healthy thing,” he said, pointing out that in the Bahamas, election turnout is routinely 80 percent. In the 2007 Bahamas general election, 92.1 percent of registered persons voted, reported the Parliamentary Registration Department.
In the Bahamas, the two major political parties are the Free National Movement (FNM) and the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). When someone says,”PLP all the way,” there is no doubt who they are voting for. On the other hand, when someone shouts out, “Fire! Fire!” they are referring to the FNM’s torch, and not something burning.
“Politics is tightly and intricately woven into our psyche and our experience,” said Foulkes.
“We know our politicians better than the average person in a bigger country. We have small constituencies and people know their MP,” added Foulkes.
McCartney noted that the FNM is half way its administration and “people are still talking politics.”
Defending public’s right to know
Newspapers and live radio talk shows play a crucial role in the Bahamian obsession with politics. Political parties have a website to disseminate information, but the people of the Bahamas depend on the local media as an independent source for political news.
The Tribune is one of the Bahamas’ newspapers. Its motto is “Being bound to swear to the dogmas of no master,” which is boldly painted on a wall in the newsroom for people to see.
Paco Nunez, news editor of the Tribune, said his aim is to “defend the public’s right to know.”
Nunez explained that most politicians spend a lot of their time trying to hide information about what they do, where monies are going and how certain situations are handled.
“They often claim these are for national security or other reasons, but if the public wants to know about it, it’s our job to do our best to find out about it and to inform them about it,” said Nunez.
Tribune’s political reporting: excessive?
In a two- week content analysis of The Tribune, from Aug. 17 to 29, the percentage of local news stories that dealt with Bahamian politics, policy or some governmental matter accounted for 24 percent of stories. During the same period, 14 percent of stories mentioned a politician or government.
Stories focused on the highly political, such as MP Fred Mitchell endorsing Philip Davis as a candidate for the deputy leader of the PLP. Another story focused on rumours of a cabinet shuffle. There was also a government policy decision story about a ban on the harvesting, possession, purchase and sale of sea turtles. Then on the front page, there was a five- paragraph story about a fender bender which damaged four cars, including the parked crown car of Minister of Culture Charles Maynard.
Currently, one the biggest issues in the Bahamas is a proposal to change rape laws to recognize that sexual assaults happen inside a marriage.
In the same two-week span, the Tribune did seven stories on the proposed amendment. There were stories in support of it, such as Amnesty International backing the proposed amendment, but in the same story the voice of an opponent to the amendment was also heard. Another story featured Loretta Butler-Turner, state minister for labour and social development, who tabled the bill in Parliament to amend the act, saying the proposed amendment “will strengthen family values.”
The Tribune also ran a statement by Glenys Hanna-Martin, national chairman of the PLP. Its focus was on the life and legacy of Lynden Pindling, former PLP prime minister. The paper also ran five pictures of Pindling along with the story, in recognition of the ninth anniversary of his death. The story ran on page 17 of the newspaper.
More than just words illustrate the Tribune’s focus on politics. Pictures along with text pair up on the pages of the Tribune.
The Aug. 20 edition of the Tribune carried two pictures of Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and his wife returning from holiday. One shows them walking off a cruise ship and another shows them with the deputy prime minister, minister of national security and cabinet secretary, who met them at the dock.
Although the pictures ran on page six, the fact that the Tribune ran two pictures which involved politicians, but had nothing to do with politics, further hits home that there is immense interest in the lives of Bahamian politicians.
There are also head and shoulder shots of politicians that coincide with a story. While flipping through the Tribune’s pages, readers are sure to see a photo of politicians at an event, such as the photo of members of the cabinet posing with the new Miss Universe the night she was crowned at Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.
The Tribune conducted a media survey to find out what readers want. People were most interested in crime then politics.
With this in mind, Nunez said that the focus they place on political stories is warranted.
“If I were to be pushing politics or crime or anything onto the public despite their lack of interest in it, then it would be excessive. But because we do our best to make it coincide with the level of interest that exist I don’t see that [as] excessive,” he said.
Filling their boots with political stories
In comparison to Bahamians, Canadians do not seem as enthralled in their country’s politics. In the Bahamas, nine out of every 10 voters showed up on election day. In the last Nova Scotia general election, only 58 per cent of electors voted.
Dan Leger, director of news content at The Chronicle Herald, was asked how he would change coverage of Canadian politics if Nova Scotia had the same voter turnout as the Bahamas. If people were that interested, they would just do more coverage, he said.
“People, if they express an interest in topics, we tend to go and do more research or do more work in those areas,” said Leger.
The Tribune’s reporting reflects what their readers want. Leger said it is right for newspapers to try to be sensitive to readers’ interest.
Really talented and successful editors are people who have a good sense of proportion and balance between what the people are interested in and the publication’s public service duty, he said.
“If people in The Bahamas are really interested in crime and really interested in politics, well, fill your boots man, do lots of stories on it and obviously you’re going to be speaking to your audience,” said Leger.