Championing the people’s watchdogs
Last Friday in the House of Assembly, Curtis Dickinson, the Progressive Labour Party’s newish finance minister, and I marked our mutual anniversary. Friday was exactly one year since we were both elected to Parliament in by-elections held on June 7, 2018.
Recently, I wrote an article about my first year in politics. But for my actual anniversary in the House, I decided to speak about something more substantive than personal reflections.
The House heard how, one week earlier, I attended a conference for the Caribbean Ombudsman Association, with delegates from various Caribbean islands and elsewhere coming to Bermuda.
It’s an unusual word, “ombudsman”. Hard to think of another Scandinavian word so embedded in the English language — Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream, was actually a word coined in the United States. Yet how many of us actually know what our ombudsman does?
Well, if we don’t, we really should because the role is extremely important in our Bermudian community.
The ombudsman is the people’s watchdog, keeping an independent, watchful eye on public authorities, possessing powers to investigate public complaints, and recommending what should be done to resolve those complaints.
The idea of the people’s watchdog originated in Scandinavia. Hence the Nordic term, which is Swedish for “representative”.
Not all jurisdictions use the name “ombudsman”. Some use “public protector” or “public guardian”.
But the idea is broadly the same: an institution, wholly independent of government, keeping watch over public authorities, able to take up the people’s cause when asked to do so.
One session at the conference was arranged by Bermuda’s ombudsman, Victoria Pearman.
She brought to the stage the Information Commissioner, Human Rights Commission and Centre for Justice.
Each performs an essential role in our community, safeguarding individual rights. Together they help to level the uneven playing field between citizen and state.
One speaker at the conference memorably described these collective watchdogs as our “integrity institutions”.
To me this description underscores their fundamental role in our community. Giving voice to the voiceless, these institutions enhance the integrity of the whole system.
Integrity institutions help to ensure that the Government’s considerable powers are held in check against abuse. Checks and balances.
Also on the stage at the conference were representatives of Bermuda’s media.
Like “ombudsman”, the word “media” is unusual when you stop to think about it. A shortening of “mass media”. The plural of “medium”.
Our media serve as intermediaries, gathering information to convey to citizens. And an independent media is also essential to maintaining integrity in our community.
All Bermudians should therefore be concerned when, Bermuda’s Attorney-General sought last week to muzzle the media, scolding the press for doing their job. Critical that the media would dare ask the questions that must be asked.
No doubt many politicians feel the media are against them, particularly when they serve in the government of the day.
Yet people watching carefully know that blaming the media distracts from the question that was asked.
More importantly, blaming the media distracts from the answer never given.
No matter what your politics, think twice when you hear a politician attack the media. Like Bermuda’s other integrity institutions, a free press helps to empower individuals. After all, knowledge is power.
And, remember, it was the media who helped to shine the light on the allegations of neglect and abuse of Bermudian children in the care of the Department of Child and Family Services. Without the media, would these allegations have become known to the public?
The questions posed to the Attorney-General last week by Bermuda’s media, concerning the allegations against the DCFS, must be asked of the Government. Our media are right to ask.
If the integrity of our community is to be maintained, these questions must also be answered.
• Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs and the MP for Paget East (Constituency 22)