I was dragged into this campaign financing mess almost 40 years ago when, as a failed candidate for the Tapia House Movement in the elections of 1981, the person I asked to deliver my campaign expenditure declaration confessed he had forgotten all about it. I later received a stern letter from the EBC advising of a breach of the Representation of the People Act (ROPA).
I cannot remember what the expense reporting form looked like, but there was quite a lot of empty space when I was finished. The father of a friend of mine had given me $600 and a friend of my father’s, $500. The Tapia printery did a few (single-colour) posters and someone donated a loud-speaker system which I outfitted on the roof of my car. Suffice it to say, after the election, I had no change left from the campaign donations and I gave a friend the audio system. Revenue minus expenditure equalled zero.
Five years later, and completely out of politics, I was witnessing a multi-million-dollar campaign and an opaque trail left by benefactors some of whom later emerged as high-profile political beneficiaries. Judging from the ease of operation, this had already been as securely entrenched as the legendary gifting of rum and roti.
I am not making the point that people who do not put themselves up as elected representatives ought to be disqualified from holding public office. But elections are not meant to be marketplaces for the buying and selling of power and control, especially by invisible non-combatants.
Having recognised the undeniable fact of electoral financial investments—often expressed as altruistic campaign contributions—what then should be done to minimise the influence of political investors?
This is being addressed by proposed amendments to the ROPA. Regulations such as these in larger, more developed countries have however not always proven effective.
But there are smaller states such as ours that have witnessed some change. Long story short, in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), UK colonial authorities moved in forcefully in 2012 to impose a Political Activities Ordinance administered by that territory’s Integrity Commission.
Some TCI measures closely resemble what is currently before our own parliament as proposed amendments to the ROPA. In effect, they call for a much higher level of accountability on the part of political parties in the conduct of their internal affairs.
The TCI ordinance is considered to be a regional best practice. Like our amendments, it places a heavy responsibility on political parties to account for money matters. The OAS has been championing similar legislation and Jamaica is moving to adopt most of its provisions.
In the process, the question of mass media expenditure naturally arises. This is addressed in TCI and elsewhere by focusing more on party behaviour than on media practice.
That said, and to the disdain of some media industry leaders here, I have often proposed that a discussion on election campaign financing is meaningless in the absence of a sidebar on the money spent on media by political parties and their proxies. Though, even so, regulations should not have the effect of interfering with media as a business or as a place for editorial decision-making.
The imposition of regulated quotas on either content or political advertising revenue is inadvisable. It is a natural responsibility of the media industry to voluntarily ensure there is fairness in the allocation of airtime and space. There should also be greater due diligence especially when it comes to political advertising funded by groups and individuals that do not explicitly represent political parties.
Enter social media. Platforms operated by the “big tech” multinationals neither pay taxes (as our media houses do) nor do they purport to play a developmental role in the political affairs of countries such as ours. The Cambridge Analytica affair exposed such deliberate indifference.
Hopefully, a global alliance including strong elements committed to freedom of expression, will emerge to ensure these companies take greater corporate responsibility for the services they provide.
In the meantime, the targeting of private media in the exercise of business and editorial judgment would do nothing but serve as an effective restraint of trade and jeopardise freedom of the press.