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Serpent in Parliament ?

Could Serpent find his way into the Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda? The United Progressive Party seems to be hoping that will be the case at the next general election. Algernon ‘Serpent’ Watts has been named as the party’s caretaker and candidate for the St. George constituency. In so doing, the party may be hoping to bank on his household name as a popular radio host and political pundit to secure it victory in that constituency.The choice of Mr. Watts is yet another indication that the United Progressive Party seems to be looking to remedy one of the deficiencies that were noted in the last election – name recognition. 

Let’s face reality, in politics (as in life really) name recognition does carry with it a tremendous amount of weight. People seldom tend to trust, let alone vote for, those who they do not know. 

This is why it is important that political parties field new and ‘unheard’ of candidates early so that the public, and more importantly, the constituents get enough time to endear themselves to them. As for ‘Serpent’, while he might be new to running, he is definitely not new to Antiguan politics nor to the Antiguan and Barbudan people. 

It may be fair to say he is one of the most well-known, if not the most well-known radio personalities in the country. His radio program ‘The Snake Pit’ is well listened to by a wide range of individuals from across the length and breadth of Antigua and Barbuda. The appeal is obvious. He brings to the party two important qualities: his popularity and his energy. Certainly, he is also unafraid to take on the Browne Administration as demonstrated by his brash and at times quite harsh criticisms of the Government on his show. 

In fact, the ‘Serpent’ and the Prime Minister have had live on-air clashes in the past in which he seemed unnerved by the PM’s rather tough demeanor.  He is also another ‘movementeer’, who brand themselves as a ‘patriotic organization’ advocating to protect democratic values held sacrosanct in the country.

Already, regional pundits and political scientists have hailed this as a wise choice. One, Dr. David Hinds, is reported to have said, “These are not the days of ideological differences, that’s gone. In a sense it’s really about celebrity politics that has come to the Caribbean and probably will be here to stay; and in that sense this is a good catch for the UPP.” Celebrity politics indeed. However, with celebrity also comes intense focus and scrutiny. 

The difference between a talk show and running for parliament is that the latter is usually taken more seriously. People will be listening more intently to things that ‘Serpent’ says going forward. It may not be enough to be popular if he is felt wanting on critical issues of public policy. Being incendiary and controversial does have its place but people (some people) will be wanting a bit more substance. Not to mention the fact that should he win, and the UPP be returned to office it will mean also that he will be more than likely given a ministry to run. 

Already the party has begun to put in place a shadow cabinet and spokespersons for various ministries, it will be interesting to hear him speak on the brief he has been given and what his ideas are. However, there is something far more troubling about the ‘Serpent’ candidacy. One fact that is often not mentioned is that he isn’t just any old regular talk show host but part owner of the Observer Media Company – a media house in Antigua and Barbuda. 

The conflict of interest should become immediately clear. Under the Derricks, the Observer Media Group(OMG) now Newsco had branded itself as the only ‘non-partisan’ media company in Antigua and Barbuda. This really should be a redundancy because we expect ALL media houses by principle to be ‘non-partisan’. Alas, this is Antigua where we have political parties directly owning media houses, quite obviously to push the party’s own agendas. it’s fair to say, now, Newsco can kiss that adage goodbye once and for all. 

For years many Antiguans thought that Observer was solidly UPP leaning despite the company’s attempts to maintain neutrality during its ten-year reign. In some instances, very critical articles of the UPP were ran in the media. Will the same hold now that one of its new owners has decided to run for politics? If the UPP wins again – can we expect that same level of scrutiny? 

Obviously, Mr. Watts will have to recuse himself and step down as owner from the company if it is to maintain any integrity. At least, so we would hope. While no-one can fault nor deny media practitioners their democratic right to run for politics (indeed we have had several:  Shawn Nicholas, Dr. Jacqui Quinn to name a few) they were well aware of what that meant for their journalism career the moment they became overtly partisan (they would need other work should politics go south). 

The Media stands as the fourth estate – a vanguard against corruption, nepotism and public financial mismanagement. The moment it is seen to be in bed with the political class – at least openly so – all faith and trust is lost. ‘Serpent’s’ candidacy may have been a huge gain for the UPP, but it may singlehandedly killed the notion of an ‘independent’ media in Antigua and Barbuda. The question is – can any enterprising soul step-up and fill this glaring and saddening void?

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