IT’S HARD TO talk about a terminal illness. It’s even more difficult to discuss it when it involves a relatively young person. And when that individual is a pre-eminent public official whose authority and influence hinge on being healthy enough to carry out his/her duties, it is even more challenging. For anything one says or writes can be misconstrued or deemed a partisan attempt to undermine confidence. It can also be misinterpreted and labelled as insensitive to the individual and his/her already traumatised family. This has been the minefield that the local media have been meticulously tiptoeing through in dealing with the illness of Prime Minister David Thompson. On reflection, did our actions serve the national interest, as our mandate demands we do? Before answering this directly let’s briefly recount the events leading up to the present. • On May 14, Thompson, accompanied by his personal physician Dr Richard Ishmael, before a gathering of some of this nation’s top journalists at Ilaro Court, announced that he had been experiencing stomach pains since March and would be travelling to the United States for medical attention. No questions were allowed. • On July 1, at a televised media conference at Government Headquarters, Thompson announced that he would be taking two months’ leave. His weight loss and emaciated appearance suggested something was seriously wrong with him. Again, no questions were allowed. Several church denominations and organisations staged prayer sessions on the Prime Minister’s behalf. And though it was quite obvious that he was facing a major illness, the media – generally speaking – shied away from discussing his condition and pushing for full disclosure. Instead, we passively accepted what was said. • On August 30, Thompson returned home and took over from Acting Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. • On September 7, the Prime Minister returned to New York because of a complication in his condition. • On September 16, Ishmael disclosed that the Prime Minister had pancreatic cancer and gave details about his treatment regime. The media never once questioned Ishmael’s assertion then that the Prime Minister, though ailing, could still manage the country as “his mind, brain and intellect are as sharp as ever and from a medical standpoint there is no reason why he cannot continue to perform his duties as Prime Minister, albeit at a reduced pace”. We immediately got specialists to speak on the implications of Thompson’s diagnosis. They were forthright and told us it was a grim prognosis and explained why. The public lambasted us for that. We revealed some of the political manoeuvrings within the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announced infirmity. For that too, we were pilloried. We never once sought to examine whether being on strong medication could impair one’s judgement, even if one is lucid. We never spoke about the British experience in 1962 when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had an incurable prostate condition but from his hospital bed sacked 13 of his colleagues, setting in motion a Cabinet reshuffle involving 52 people and affecting 39 of the 101 ministerial posts. The British media critically examined whether he was fit to carry on as leader, given his actions. He was later forced to resign. The mood in Barbados was on praying for Thompson’s recovery and his return to office. So when we began speaking about his condition in relation to the severe malaise affecting our economy, Government’s unspecified pledge to help CLICO depositors which could cost the depressed economy more than $300 million, and other political matters, we were likened to circling vultures, impatient to take advantage of his weakened body. l On September 30, Thompson reshuffled his Cabinet, placing the critical jobs of Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs in the hands of Chris Sinckler. Most importantly, he shifted Dr David Estwick, the man who took the fight to the Barbados Labour Party Government on economic matters, from the Ministry of Economic Affairs to the Ministry of Agriculture. l On October 4, Thompson again left Barbados for the United States to continue medical treatment. Given this chronicle of events, did the media serve the national interest in the manner we handled Thompson’s sickness and the impact it has had on the country? I think the media failed to ask the tough questions about the Prime Minister’s condition and the direction of the Government during the early period. Generally speaking, we have been more than accommodating in dealing with our Prime Minister’s plight. Media personnel were not as strident as they should have been. If this illness was about another Caribbean leader or even a world leader, the public would have expected to get full details. But because it hit so close to home, we shied away from demanding answers. Put another way, just as a society gets a government it deserves, it can influence the media’s approach by its timidity. The media unfortunately danced to the society’s tune. • Sanka Price is the SATURDAY SUN Editor.