USP Saga Shows Importance Of Media

From the way the media is reporting the different views of the various personalities, it looks like this is going to be a long, bruising, bitter and protracted battle. The USP saga has the potential to drag the Pacific region down on a dark road that polarises us and destroys the greater good that USP has so far achieved.
07 Jul 2020 10:42
USP Saga Shows Importance Of Media
L-R: Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson, Professor Rajesh Chandra, Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia, President Lionel Aingimea
  • Joseph Veramu is Dean of South Pacific Island Countries Institute of Asian Studies (SPICIAS). (joseph,veramu@outlook.com).He has taught at the University of the South Pacific.

The USP Council has agreed that Nauru President Lionel Aingimea who is the Chancellor will also continue in the role of Interim Chair.

This article looks at the very important role of the media in helping to publicise the opposing views of those involved in the USP saga and more importantly helping to shape public opinion and the decisions of the USP Council.

Different perspectives

To be fair, most of the insights on the USP saga that the public has gleaned has been from the supporters of Vice-Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia. The letters and sentiments of support from staff, alumni, and students have all favoured him.

I have seen only one post on social media speaking positively of how PC Thompson as CEO of Telecom Fiji had initially funded the important GIZ degree programme at USP.

We the public have not been provided with detailed responses and deeper insights from PC Thompson’s group. It is not clear whether the mainstream media have been asking the right questions to elicit better insights.

I clarify that I am not acquainted with Professor Ahluwalia or PC Thompson. I had worked at USP under Professor Anthony Tarr and then left to work for UNDP and later UNICEF when Professor Rajesh Chandra came in. Professor Chandra was a pragmatist who also did a lot of excellent work at USP.

It is somewhat embarrassing that no one has yet come forward to highlight his legacy. It is quite disturbing that at a time when Professor Chandra is indisposed, a former academic has continued publishing relentless one-sided vicious and spiteful opinion pieces.

Engage the media proactively

Both PC Thompson and Deputy VC Derek Armstrong have complained about the seemingly unfair social and mainstream media coverage. VC Ahluwalia has the knack of dealing with the media in an affirming way. PC Thompson tends to be more formal and sometimes speaks in a raspy voice that often bounces off as a half-whisper. For the social media crowd overdosed on Netflix movies, this reinforces the notion of the hackneyed villain that fuels their puerile posts on Twitter.

The best strategy is not to be intimidated by the media and to create a rapport with reporters. Public figures should be open to criticism and should expect some negative slants to news items.

The most effective strategy is to continue to engage with reporters and to be as clear and succinct about one’s viewpoint.

PC Thomson’s group appears to take great issue with the leaking of confidential documents because it does not offer natural justice to people named in allegations.

The opposing view from supporters of VC Ahluwalia is that whistleblowing is an effective way for the public to know about allegations of fraud and corruption and promotes greater transparency.

It appeared that PC Thompson began fully engaging with the Fijian media after VC Ahluwalia was suspended on 9 June and this media openness increased when Thompson was asked to ‘step aside’ (not ‘step down’ or suspended as some media seemed to imply) on 19 June.

Low point

The low point was when the media was barred from covering the USP Council meeting. Not only did it not enable Thompson’s narrative to be aired publicly but there was a subtle impression of an air of suppression. In the absence of an open path, some media outlets appeared to have sneaked into Laucala Campus.

They dictated the narrative when they reported, for example, that Acting VC Derek Armstrong left the meeting accompanied by a security guard. They also published a long shot picture of PC Thompson taken from a higher elevation and looking down from behind him as he walked with a stoop in the half-light of a cloudy day towards his car.

The seemingly forlorn picture was the subject of countless comments on social media.

Reporters usually handle a news item from an ‘angle’ and it is part of human nature that the ‘underdog’ in a conflict is treated sympathetically. VC Ahluwalia had built up some goodwill with reporters and the Fijian public was aware of his folksy style on local TV programmes. During the saga, he was approachable and was direct and succinct with his response.

Dealing with reporters

As a former journalist, I recall that what usually happens is that there is usually an informal off the record chat before the official interview is audio and/or visually recorded. It is not clear if PC Thompson had an off the record chat with Islands Business on 16/6/2019.

The transcript read, “Do you want to sack him?” “Yes I want to,” Thompson replied. “But didn’t you head the committee that selected Professor Ahluwalia in the first place?” IB asked.

“Yes, that’s the unfortunate thing,” answered Thompson, before adding: “But this was before this other trait of him was noticed.”

The reporter could have pressed him to explain what he meant by ‘trait.’ Perhaps Thompson was not referring to the allegations per se but to the leaking of the confidential report which he may have felt did not afford natural justice to those named in the allegations. We do not know for sure because there was no clarification.

In highly polarising situations like the USP saga, it might be better for the faction with the least media sympathy to ask for written questions to which carefully considered responses can be provided. This is better than the ‘off the cuff’ comment.

The reason is that most media do not report everything one says. For example, TV media tends to look for sound bites that can be covered in a 3-minute news item.

Some have commented on how PC Thompson has sometimes sounded recalcitrant. On June 23 he said, “I don’t agree with the decision by the council but it has powers to make the decisions it made.”

However, in an article on June 30 in the Fiji Sun it is noted that, “It appears that the Council’s decision to overturn the decision to suspend the Vice-Chancellor and the Council’s subsequent decisions are in excess of the Council’s powers.

“It appears that Mr Thompson had indeed done everything by the books.”

In a situation like this where PC Thompson has a divergent view, it might be more effective to talk directly with Chancellor Lionel Aingimea and key members of the USP Council.

Long protracted battle

From the way the media is reporting the different views of the various personalities, it looks like this is going to be a long, bruising, bitter and protracted battle.

Nauru, Samoa and Tonga for example, have been fulsome in their contempt for the processes followed by PC Thompson. This could create further tensions between these countries and Fiji at a challenging time when we are currently overwhelmed by the COVID 19 pandemic.

One of the difficulties of Pacific conflicts is that although we may not agree with the person we are siding with, we are often forced to his side because of kinship or considerations of being a fellow Fijian citizen.

The USP saga has the potential to drag the Pacific region down on a dark road that polarises us and destroys the greater good that USP has so far achieved.

In light of this, I plead with Thompson to prayerfully consider taking the Christ-like action of stepping down as Pro-Chancellor for the greater good of USP and the Pacific region.

Feedback: rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

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