September 08, 2002
By Raffique Shah
AS someone who has been on both sides of the "libel fence", I find it strange that ex-Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, his wife Oma, and a number of his front-rank ex-ministers, have not sued all the media houses in this country for tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of dollars. For more than a year the media have repeatedly reported that the Pandays have a $10 million bank account in London, England. And after newspapers made veiled references to Carlos John's meteoric rise from an insurance executive to a multi-millionaire government minister, last week the Newsday dared to publish what the newspaper alleged were details of Carlos's $52 million bank account.
If I were Panday or John or one of the dozens of senior UNC ex-ministers or high-ranking party officials whose names featured prominently in the ongoing Piarco Airport Inquiry (and other alleged scandals), I would be overjoyed at being libeled (or slandered) in this manner. For those who are ignorant of the gold mine public figures sit on when their reputations are wrongfully sullied by the media, let me explain. CCN chairman Ken Gordon felt his reputation was scarred when Panday accused him of being a "pseudo racist", so he promptly sued the then Prime Minister. In quick time the matter came before the courts and Gordon was awarded a whopping $800,000.
In any language, even for someone who has $10 million stashed away, that is not the kind of money you'd reject or leave alone, worse, with someone who offended you. In fact, I have the feeling that the richer one gets the more one hankers after more money. We see it all the time even as we wonder aloud: "But he has so much money, why de hell he running down de poor man for $100?" So if it's not true that John has $52 million or the Pandays $10 million, even if both sums were legitimately amassed, then why not sue the newspapers for a few additional millions?
As I wrote at the start of this column, I have been unfortunate to be on both sides of the libel fence. As managing editor of the Mirror, I was often named in the many libel suits that were filed against the newspapers in that group, mainly for stories that I had nothing to do with. I neither wrote nor edited stories for which the newspapers were sued. But I was nevertheless "named", and I took it in stride since, as managing editor, taking blame for the sins of others went with the "turf". So when I was named in the Charmaine Forde lawsuit, or in Karl Hudson-Phillips's (a two-paragraph story that cost the newspaper $125,000), I did not complain.
On the other hand, when Sat Maharaj's Bomb newspaper, in which I was frequently attacked, crossed the line by stating as fact that I had "stolen the shares" of one co-owner of the Mirror, I promptly sued. I maintain that being a public figure, one must be prepared to face scrutiny, even abuse. But don't ever call me a thief or a racist: I'd sue you for your pants, jockey shorts, drawers, whatever, and everything in between! So Sat was forced to settle with me, for a sum that I considered paltry. I should add that I have a libel suit against the Mirror pending, and in my front pocket I have published statements that will no doubt see the transfer of funds from two UNC MPs and another newspaper to my small savings account. Retirement benefits for a poor man like me.
So I cannot imagine why Panday has not sued all the newspapers in the country, as well as several radio stations and the two television stations. Because by repeatedly referring to a "$10 million London account", the media houses are playing into Panday's hands-if they have their facts and figures wrong. If he takes them to court, he could be awarded millions, which won't hurt him. After all, the man has to keep on educating his children in England. Given the amount of money and time he's spending behind these grown-up "kids", surely all of them should be presenting their doctoral theses to the professors at Oxford or Cambridge one of these good days.
Oma did say she was going to sue over a story the Express featured last Sunday, and I say to her: Atta, girl! Go after them! (or us, since I write for the newspaper). And there are reports that Carlos, too, plans to sue the Newsday over details of his account that that newspaper published. But for all his denial that he knows nothing about a large London account, Panday has not sued anyone. Nor have any of the aforementioned. And even if they do at this point, that is on the eve of an election, one might question their motives, ask if they aren't filing what we in the business dub "muzzling suits". This refers to lawsuits that are without foundation, but which are filed to silence the media houses for a critical period of time (like an election). After that, they fizzle out like the proverbial you-know-what.
In addition to the Pandays and John, many other frontline UNC members, charging that they are being libeled or have had their names scandalised, have repeatedly threatened to sue newspapers. Jack Warner, for example, has sued (by way of mouth) newspapers from here to London. Remember the billion-dollar lawsuit he said he was going to file against British journalist Andrew Jennings and the Mirror (UK)? What has happened to that, Jack? Robin Montano, Kamla Persad-Bissessar (whose name was called in the NLCB story), Ganga Singh-all of them threatening to sue but not actually pursuing the matters.
Now, as we listen to murky scandals unfold before the Piarco Airport Commission of Inquiry, we are being told that other ex-UNC ministers and minions were involved in horrendous acts of dishonesty. Who are we to believe? The witnesses who are publicly alleging gross corruption in the construction of the new airport? Or the ex-ministers and party honchos who are claiming that their names are being scandalised because of an impending election?
If newspapers carry reports that bring the politicians' characters into disrepute, the latter have recourse. They can sue. And they could rake in big bucks. If they do not sue, then we must conclude that the reports are true, that the details of accounts revealed in the newspapers are correct, that what is being alleged at the Piarco inquiry is also true.So Panday and company must stop whining and start suing. Or just shut up!
Copyright © Raffique Shah