By Mat Oakley, of Pacnews
During his time at the University of the South Pacific, Journalism Coordinator David Robie endured numerous attacks from some senior sections of the Fiji press and one Pacific media organisation — PINA. What was behind it and why were they so intent on getting rid of him? Just before Robie left Fiji after five years last Friday [June 2002], he told his side of the story and why he believes personal agendas are corrupting media in the Pacific.
David Robie, the University of the South Pacific’s former journalism coordinator, left Fiji last week after five controversial years.
It’s the end of an era of sorts for Pacific journalism education, an often stormy era in which Robie has been both praised and vilified for his efforts.
The bare facts would appear to speak for themselves. For much of the time, Robie has been running the entire programme alone, away from his family in New Zealand, designing the course, teaching the course, supervising the students’ newspaper Wansolwara, operating websites, and — as USP Vice Chancellor Savenaca Siwatibau said — “living in his office”.
In between holding the programme together, he sat on committees overseeing media training in the Pacific, published books and articles and lobbied the university, eventually successfully, for funding to expand the programme.
Under his guidance, the student newspaper and website won 10 awards or citations in the regional Journalism Education Association’s annual Ossie awards.
Robie says his work at USP has helped produce a cadre of journalists with a broad, and most importantly ethical, grounding in journalism across multiple media disciplines, something that, with the exception of Papua New Guinea, he says was previously lacking in the Pacific.
“In the region, mostly journalists have had minimal training and usually short-course training if they’re lucky — many of them have not really had much training at all.”
55 graduates from USP
USP has produced 55 graduates from its journalism programme since its inception in 1994 — 49 of them under Robie’s tutelage. Two-thirds of those graduates are now working in the media industry itself, Robie says, and most of the others are in media-related jobs with NGOs and other organisations.
Robie heads to New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology leaving the USP programme in much better health than he found it — though perhaps the legacy of routine 16-hour days and seven-day weeks has not been so kind to his personal health. The university has just agreed to start work on a new F$250,000 building for the journalism school to replace the current “ad hoc” facilities. There are also two new full-time lecturers.
Vice-Chancellor Savenaca Siwatibau told the student newspaper Wansolwara this month that “the beginning of the programme and the funding were on shaky grounds. It was David who ran with it and now, of course, it’s working. We need to thank David for that”.
Even though the programme is working, there is no doubt it has suffered to an extent from being, for the most part, a one-man show. Robie is not Superman and some students say certain modules of the course were under-taught. Until now, attempts by USP to find colleagues for Robie have been short-lived. One student has put this down to personality clashes between lecturers, though Robie dismisses the suggestion.
But Robie sees the new building as a vote of confidence in his work and he seems to have repaid the confidence USP showed in him in the face of sustained attacks from specific quarters of Fiji-based media.
The latest attack came just last week in a story marking Robie’s departure broadcast on Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat programme. In an interview with reporter James Panichi, Robert Keith-Reid, publisher of Pacific with Islands Business magazine, delivered a bitter assault on Robie. The attack was largely personal and Keith-Reid did not offer any specific criticisms of Robie’s work. But he did complain that before Robie came along, his company had enjoyed a good relationship with the USP programme.
That might seem strange, since there had only been six graduates out of USP Journalism before Robie arrived, but Robie himself said he was not entirely surprised by the tone of Keith-Reid’s comments.
‘Enemies’ and no secret
It’s been no secret in Pacific media circles that Keith-Reid and other senior Islands Business staff, current and former, have been enemies of Robie since 1988, when Robie resigned as an Islands Business correspondent after Keith-Reid and editor Peter Lomas published an attack on him by New Caledonian right-winger David Los, who objected to Robie’s perceived sympathy for the Kanak independence movement.
To Robie’s dismay, Islands Business offered him no right of reply, and Robie’s lawyer forced the magazine to publish an apology in the following issue. Islands Business then hired Los, a teacher with no experience in journalism, as a correspondent, which dismayed Robie enough for him to resign and join rival magazine Pacific Islands Monthly.
Robie then published a story criticising the personal agendas he believed were controlling regional Pacific media. Islands Business was apparently deeply stung, as it reprinted the entire article in breach of copyright and ran three separate opinion pieces — from Keith-Reid, Los and Lomas — devoted to rubbishing Robie. The entire exercise took up five pages. Pacific Islands Monthly labelled it “an embarrassing reflection on the state of Pacific media” and even former Islands Business editor John Richardson slammed it.
Robie launched a F$135,000 defamation suit. Indeed, what would appear to be a fierce vendetta against Robie on the part of Islands Business and the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) — which shared staff and still share the same central Suva building — has made Robie’s tenure at USP much harder than it needed to be.
Robie was not allowed to come quietly. In late 1997, the Daily Post published a series of articles expressing alarm that USP was considering hiring Robie. In a turn of phrase implying a certain remoteness between the Post and PINA, the newspaper said PINA was “understood to support” another candidate, Sarita Singh, who had impressive qualifications but no experience running a university course.
The newspaper published lengthy devotions to Singh’s CV, but offered only a clipped appraisal of Robie’s achievements, which include three decades of work as journalist in the Pacific, Europe, Africa and Australia/New Zealand, plus a five-year stint running the journalism programme at the University of Papua New Guinea.
The articles painted Robie as a left-wing troublemaker opposed to the Rabuka government.
Articles from PINA
One senior Daily Post staff member at the time has since told Robie the articles arrived through the newspaper’s fax machine on PINA letterhead! Editor of the Post at the time was Laisa Taga, who a few months later joined Islands Business. She was also treasurer of PINA.
Peter Lomas, who Robie believes is the orchestrator of the attacks on him, worked for both Islands Business and PINA.
USP refused to be bullied and went ahead with the appointments, but the Rabuka government nevertheless delayed issuing the work permits for both Robie and fellow appointee Ingrid Leary, also a New Zealand journalist, leading the Journalism Students Association to deliver a petition to Rabuka saying: “As students we are gravely concerned that the university’s academic independence appears to be compromised by outside influences”.
Though Robie eventually got his work permit, those “outside influences” apparently refused to give up. Later that year, the Fiji Times reported that the government was investigating “complaints” that Robie was breaching his work permit by publishing articles outside USP. It was referring to his website Café Pacific, which Robie had set up as an educational project at the University of Technology in Sydney in 1996 and continued to run as a hobby.
SVT senator Filipe Bole even raised the issue in the House and for a few weeks it was uncertain whether Robie and Leary’s work permits would be revoked.
USP vigorously defended the pair, saying outside publication was part of their job descriptions and neither lecturer was being paid for their extra-curricular work.
Reporters Sans Frontieres, the international media freedom organisation, protested strongly to Bole. The New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation fired off a letter. Pacific Media Watch and Tahiti Pacifique Magazine complained on Robie’s behalf.
Where’s ‘code of ethics’
Even Jone Davukula, former press secretary to Rabuka, wrote to the Daily Post saying “local journalists were involved in these complaints, which seem to be based mainly on these persons’ disagreement with either the views of David Robie or Ingrid Leary, or the fact that they have been lawfully employed by the USP.
“Where is the Fiji journalists’ much vaunted Code of Ethics?” he concluded.
Already, the Fiji Journalism Institute and Fiji TV had complained about the attempt on the part of the same media organisation to block Robie’s appointment.
Few within the industry seemed to be in any doubt over the real source of the campaign, even though Robie says his real enemies never came forward, preferring to work behind the scenes influencing others to attack him.
Phillip Cass, a former USP journalism lecturer from the UK, hinted at the curious source of the attacks in a letter to the Daily Post in February 1998 when he said: “That kind of antipathy towards us (Europeans) cannot be entirely because of the colour of our skin because, the last time I saw that critic, he was a great deal whiter than I am.”
Ironically it was the Daily Post, now under the editorship of Jale Moala, which followed up with an editorial pointing a rather more direct finger at the alleged culprit.
“The saddest thing is the deafening silence from the Pacific Islands News Association and the Fiji Media Council. By failing to support the rights of journalists — whether they be teachers or students or whatever — these organisations are helping to destroy the very freedom of expression they have so often said they protect,” he wrote.
‘Nobody actually investigates’
Robie was even more direct on the subject.
“You only have one or two people like that, who are mischievous, who make these false statements, and everybody else laps it up. Nobody actually investigates.”
When contacted, Lomas would not comment, and referred all questions to current PINA president Johnson Honimae, of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, who was not in the post when the campaign against Robie was taking place.
PINA did release a response though, attributed to Honimae.
“PINA members have said it is critically important that qualified Pacific Islands trainers and educators get the opportunity to train and teach in their own region. That was PINA’s position on the appointment of Mr Robie and remains unchanged where Mr Robie’s successor is concerned.”
So what was the motive behind this campaign? The settling of old scores would not seem to account sufficiently for the venom of it, and Robie says PINA’s “jobs for qualified Pacific Islanders” mantra is not credible, considering that the PINA secretariat is run by Lomas, a New Zealander who has taken a Fiji passport, and his common law wife Nina Ratulele, who was hired as PINA Nius editor and administrator without any experience in journalism. Neither went through a transparent appointment process themselves, Robie says.
“Does it have something to do with attempts to corner the lion’s share of journalism education and training funds for the South Pacific? Independent university courses don’t fit comfortably with this grand scheme because they teach critical thinking as well as vocational skills,” Robie wrote on his Cafe Pacific website in September 1998 in response to attempts to get his work permit revoked.
In an interview a few days before his departure, Robie said he is still baffled by the sheer malevolence of his critics, who he said inhabit “a whirling cesspool of intrigue and backstabbing”, but believes their motives go beyond personal differences.
“I think there’s a fundamental mindset among people in key positions in the media — editorial executives, management people — that is 15 to 20 years behind the times. Many seem to think that the world hasn’t moved on and it’s surprising in many respects because some of the people who have that mindset come from countries that have made some major changes to their whole approach to journalism training and education — Australia and New Zealand, for example.
“But many in the most influential positions in the Pacific don’t seem to have caught up with that. And I think that’s because there’s been a pattern of donor funding in the region, which is a very cosy sort of arrangement. For 25 years that’s worked very well, but it’s also created a dependency mentality in the media.
“[The attacks] were the result of petty jealousies and a sort of territorial thing. Some of the people that are behind these attacks fit into this cosy network and someone like me has different ideas. It’s a very different approach than what these people are used to and I think they see it as a threat.”
That threat may stem partly, he believes, from the possibility that the USP course’s productivity throws a sharp light on a short course approach to training that he says is largely fruitless.
“There’s a lot of misrepresentation of our programme. We use methods that are used very widely overseas. We use problem-based learning. A lot of our work is very much based on projects and the outcomes of those projects. It’s very focused on practical outcomes and when you compare that to some of the short course training around the region, where there are no real outcomes and basically anyone just attends a course, we have a very structured system on assessing the progress and abilities of the people that go through our programme.”
Donor funds are being routinely wasted in the Pacific on short course training, Robie said, and his attackers were possibly afraid that the USP course posed a threat to the steady stream of donor money on which they rely.
“PINA members also believe there is a place for both entry-level education and training and continuing training and education. PINA agrees that in some situations where short form training has been driven by outside interests and not driven by the needs of the Pacific it has been a waste … this is why PINA is seeking more of a say in determining trainers. It is also why PINA members feel strongly that more of this training should be conducted by trained Pacific Islands trainers,” PINA said in a statement.
Robie said this demand for “more of a say” amounts to political interference, and he is convinced PINA’s Suva bosses want a compliant face in the USP Journalism programme who will not pose a threat to the interests of its secretariat.
“There are many people who benefit from the short course gravy train and they’re quite happy for that system to carry on.
“I’ve been on one of these major training advisory groups for six years and I leave it thinking it has not made much of a contribution to the region.”
His critics are probably delighted that he has gone, but does that mean the ugly machinations will disappear? Sadly, probably not, for it seems that as long as there are personal fiefdoms to defend within the regional media — and donors willing to fund them — there will always be someone new to attack.
Published as a full page article in the Fiji Daily Post on 30 June 2002. Also distributed by Pacnews (Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association) news agency throughout the Pacific to radio stations and newspapers, 28 June 2002.