Radio Australia did an interview with the new manager of the Fiji Times. Sounds like he's pragmatic and will be cautious about stepping on egg-shells.
Returning Fiji Times publisher to negotiate a different Fiji
Updated September 24, 2010 08:48:31
The newly sold 141-year-old Fiji Times has a new publisher, Dallas Swinstead, a former publisher of same newspaper from 1976 to 1980 and several Fairfax mastheads in Australia. One of the dictates of Fiji's media decree is that the country's media outlets must be ninety per cent owned by Fiji nationals, and in accordance Fiji's oldest newspaper was sold by the Australian-owned News Limited to the Motibhai Group of Companies for an undisclosed sum earlier this month.
Mr Swinstead explains how Motibhai chief Mahendra Patel came to select him for the position.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Dallas Swinstead, publisher of Fiji Times
SWINSTEAD: I was here as the publisher in '76 to '80 and I had my time and the paper flourished. It was owned by the Herald and Weekly Times then. So move the clock forward to September 3 , I am having lunch with some people and this call came. It was a sort of noisy cafeteria type place and I could not really get the name and I thought it was an insurance call from Bombay or something like that, and I heard the name Mahendra and it was Mahendra Patel. Mahendra Patel is the chief executive and driving force of Motibhai who now own the Fiji Times. And we had a great relationship then because again he was a member of the board which was made up of some expatriates and some locals, but even then Mahendra was a standout and he asked me simply 'would you come to the Fiji Times if I am successful in buying the Fiji Times'. And I thought for around five seconds and I said yes.
COUTTS: So obviously there were not any reservations given that you are a long time journalist, a seasoned journalist and writer. But you didn't have any reservations about the current state of the media and the restrictions and censorship there?
SWINSTEAD: Well obviously I am very much aware of it. Reservations, no. I see it as a challenge. We talked to the staff here yesterday and we talked about a lot of things and I did say that the elephant in the room was the relationship between the press and the government. And someone said 'well, what do you think of the government?' Your question - how will you live with the government? And my reply was that by nature, and I stress by nature and not by profession, that instinctively I believe people have got a right to free speech. And I was born with that attitude and my parents nourished it. When I stepped out of line they gave me a whack, both of them - although not at the same time. So I understand the values and the responsibility enjoying the right to free speech and the cost of putting my foot in my mouth. So there is two ways to go here. One is to demand free speech and you can ask News Limited about that. And the other is to try to work with local ownership, with the people and with the government to get this country to where it wants to be. Now it sounds a bit precious, but that's the reality and I am a pragmatist.
COUTTS: I am not quite sure what that actually says - as whether it will be the status quo that you'll pursue, or whether you will pursue the desire and the need that a free press is required and therefore there will be stories examining the workings of the government?
SWINSTEAD: No what I said is that I understand free speech better than most and I understand its value, but here it is not possible under some circumstances. What you have to understand is that 95 per cent of our paper - whether it is Fijians, Indians and whatever is happening here - it's sport results, it's commerce, the whole thing. And inevitably there are going to be stories that will cause the government embarrassment and I hope to be able to find a way to negotiate with good people down there and people here who are somehow or other able to keep some conversation going. I make no promises, and if we have to close our mouths or be shut down, I have no option but to walk around it. Now that's pretty simple.
COUTTS: So if you get a directive not to do a certain story, you will abide by that?
SWINSTEAD: I beg your pardon?
COUTTS: If you get a directive from the government or the censors not to do a story that you think is important and in the public interest, you'll sit it on it yourself? You'll choose to do that? You'll censor yourself?
SWINSTEAD: Well with respect to you, that is a pretty dumb question. Of course, I will. What's the point in having a newspaper shut down?
COUTTS: Well then going back to the original question, what is freedom of speech?
SWINSTEAD: Freedom of speech - my original answer was my parents gave me a pretty fair idea of what you can say and get away with, and when you stepped out of line and they ran the show they knocked you over. So, I mean, I don't like that happening. I am tenacious, but I am a good mediator and a facilitator, and I will be trying to talk to people in government to lead them to understand how valuable a free and open press is. But look, it is a developing country with lots of problems and I am sympathetic to them and I am not angry about censorship or anything else. That's life.
COUTTS: But when it comes to human interest there is the tragic story that availed itself this week where a Fijian came to a grievous end and that wasn't actually covered too well in the local press, so on a human interest level that was still being censored.
SWINSTEAD: As far as I know, we covered it. As I say, I have been here five minutes. I only found out where the toilet was yesterday and I think we covered it and I can't see any reason why we wouldn't.
COUTTS: And staffing levels, will you maintain the level of staff that is there currently?
SWINSTEAD: Too right, yes. I aim to grow newspaper. Look, News Limited left a fabulous paper here and they had no option. I am not critical of them. It is a great newspaper organisation, or media organisation. They have a worldwide obligation to freedom of speech and to stick to their principles. Here, they really had no option in the end to be thrown out.