One of the main functions of a responsible press is to help clarify public issues by exposing the real issues involved in particular situations. When this function is properly performed, the society as a whole is in a better position to evaluate and to demand rational decisions. The scope for arbitrary decisions is thereby reduced.
Throughout the “banana war” and subsequently, The Dally Glener editorials provided no enlightenment and its reporting of events has been, on the whole, loose. Its editorials generally supported the Board’s (or rather Elder and Fyffes’) policy even though it reproduced some enlightened statements from the British press. Two examples will illustrate. In an editorial prior to the October conference, The Gleaner of October 7 stated that:
“The Windward Islands have already expanded production and reduced costs while Jamaica has not. And any agreement to control production and maintain prices would benefit that country (sic) more than it would Jamaica. Under the present situation we would not be able to dictate terms but would be dictated to.”
And after the talks broke down and a crisis loomed, a Gleaner editorial of November 17 had this to say:
“This (Windward Island) expansion has already affected Jamaica’s market since autumn this year, the green-boat price has been decided largely by the Windward Island agents in the U.K. Jamaica has been placed in the humiliating position of merely holding on.”
The Gleaner, it would seem, regarded dominance of Jamaica in the market as a primary objective. For what purpose, it ls difficult to say. From an objective point of view, this line of reasoning would suggest that we return to the horse and buggy because this was the dominant form of transportation before the corning of motor cars!
Not once did The Gleaner itself suggest that so far as West Indian growers are concerned the conflict was an artificial one created by a struggle for market control by two private firms. Not even after it published the following excerpts from a Times’ (London) editorial in its January 4 issue. The Times, commenting on the oversupply situation which resulted in a late December price decline to £39.5 a ton, had this to say:
“The glut has now produced an all-in-fight with Fyffes and Jamaica against Geest’s and the Windwards While the Jamaican producer faces ruin, Jamaica itself would suffer only a minor cut in its exports if the Windwards won! Is the fight necessary?” (our emphasis).
This quotation clearly reveals that most of the points made in retrospect in the present article were obvious to any careful observer at the time. And that the British press showed greater awareness of the issues involved than The Gleaner, a West Indian paper! The Times’ editorial was precise in putting the marketing firms in the forefront of the battle while The Gleaner continued to interpret the conflict as one between the two groups of growers. The Times foresaw “ruin” for the producer if the fight continued while The Gleaner was promoting further oversupply so long as there was more Jamaican fruit than Windward fruit on the market. “Is the fight necessary?” asked The Times. Not once was this question posed by The Gleaner.
The contrasting postures of the British and West Indian press in the discussion of the crisis is further indicated by the following enlightened excerpts from Lynceus of The Economist as reproduced by The Daily Gleaner of January 20, 1965:
“Since the beginning of November banana prices have slumped sharply and recently British housewives have been able to buy them at 8d a pound, the cheapest for more than 20 years. The facts behind this seemingly insignificant event have shown how consumers come out strikingly on top when newcomers burst into fields where there is near monopolistic control and when this leads to a period of cut-throat competition. In many sectors of industry and commerce there is ample scope for greater competition, but in the food industry some regard should be paid to the primary producer.”
This statement is adequate in so far as it goes. However, it does not take cognizance of the fact that in this case the primary producers in the West Indies have some formal control of their destinies since the competing firms art! contracted by the West Indian industry to market the fruit. And that, therefore, the West Indians have themselves to blame for allowing the market situation to get out of their own hands.
The same report continued to give a much more factual picture of the market struggle than The Gleaner or any other West West Indian publication, except for New World Fortnightly, It stated that the banana battle involved “two (sic) West Indian islands, the British Elders and Fyffes’ subsidiary of the mighty American-based United Fruit Company and the Dutch-born Geest brothers ….” The report continued:
“Before the last war and in the immediate post-war years the Elders and Fyffes’ subsidiary of United Fruit shipped in about 80 per cent of all banana eaten in the United Kingdom. The bulk of this crop came from hundreds of small plantations in Jamaica …This was a virtual monopoly and so it stayed until 1952 when the Dutch-born brothers, Leonard and Jan Van Geest decided to play David to Fyffes’ Goliath and signed a contract to buy and market every exportable banana grown on the Windward Islands.”
Such a statement of the real market conflict would have set the stage for making the appropriate inferences, had The Gleaner been at all responsible to the public.
In the West Indies, only one publication (so far as I know) gave a true picture of what was happening. With its small circulation and limited resources and long before The Times and The Economist, New World Fortnightly (Issue No. 4, 15th December, 1964, p. 20) reported on the crisis and concluded as follows:
“The real tragedy of this all is that what is essentially a struggle for control of the British market between the two private interests that are contracted to market fruit – Van Geest for the Windwards, and Elders and Fyffes for Jamaica – has been transformed into a struggle between Windwards’ and Jamaica’s growers The case is clear but the Jamaica banana bureaucracy can only see through the eyes of United Fruit. Come Mr. Tallyman! Day deh light!”
This was a most significant statement at the time. But it perhaps went unseen, given the limited circulation of New World Fortnightly. It does, however, indicate that there are possibilities for incisive and enlightened reporting here in the West Indies if we develop such publications as are committed to uncovering the truth and exposing the real issues confronting West Indian society.