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Annie Paul | Contextomy and other sins of omission

Jamaica Gleaner / The recent kerfuffle about Prime Minister Holness and his response to Daniel Thomas of the Love March Movement at a recent OPM Live Youth Forum is interesting. I sought out the unedited footage and watched it, but could find little in it to justify the outrage I had seen expressed widely on social media. The atmosphere in which the question about the proposed National Identification System (NIDS) was asked and the answer given, with follow-up comments from Thomas, was quite civil.

At one point, the prime minister raises his voice as he becomes impassioned with what he clearly perceives to be the unfair nature of the question/complaint. But this is after a full minute and 20 seconds during which he patiently explained the history of NIDS and its origins, with the PNP Government’s application for a loan to start the process of instituting the ID system. That portion of the video was neatly excised, making it seem as if Holness had started his response to the rather lengthy question by raising his voice and forcefully saying, as he did, “I REJECT the view that somehow you have a higher moral authority on this than I do.”

Now you can fault Holness for viewing young Thomas as a stand-in for the PNP, which he seemed to do, although the line of reasoning was close enough to that of the PNP to justify such a mistake. But was it “completely inappropriate”? Was it unnecessarily aggressive? Was it arrogant? Did it display “raging anger”? I hardly think so, and can only conclude that those who have used such words to describe Holness’ response have political motivations.

The doctored video that was circulated is a classic case of contextomy, or manipulative editing. According to Wikipedia, contextomy is the selective excerpting of words from their original context in a way that distorts the source’s intended meaning. The problem is not the removal of a quote from its original context, per se , but the quoter’s decision to exclude from the excerpt certain nearby phrases or sentences that serve to clarify the intentions behind the selected words.

A TV Tropes article explains some common forms of Manipulative Editing:

“Missing or misused context is the single most common type of manipulative editing … . At the most basic level, it creates a relationship between two unrelated events, or removes a connection that should have been there. This one is much, much older than television, as people have been quoting their rivals out of context to make them look bad since time immemorial.”

 

DEFAMATORY VIDEOS  

The spliced video took me right back to 2011 when defamatory videos were circulated by the Labour Party’s G2K, in which they cobbled together a number of clips, some of them out of context and doctored to fit, depicting Portia Simpson Miller as a raging virago. One of them played on a quote from her 2007 election campaign in which she said, “Don’t draw mi tongue!” No one now recalls what this was said in response to and it’s impossible to tell from the cunningly doctored video.

Of course, “don’t draw mi tongue”, in itself, is a harmless Jamaicanism broadly meaning ‘Let me hold my peace, don’t make me get too candid’. This was widely used against Portia in 2007 and was resurrected during the 2011 election campaign, interspersed with images of the candidate in full demotic mode, with clips from various speeches and interviews collaged together to give the impression of someone violating all the norms of respectability and decorum so beloved by Jamaicans.

In case you’re inclined to think that contextomy and manipulative editing are examples of local bad mind and restricted to our shores, only let me remind you of the 2010 firing and subsequent rehiring of American civil servant Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod had allegedly made ‘racist’ remarks in a two-minute video clip posted by blogger Andrew Breitbart that later turned out to have been edited in a way that removed the context of her 43-minute speech.

To return to the “don’t draw mi tongue” contextomy. The Jamaica Observer at the time actually came out with an editorial chastising the JLP for the ad on grounds of “civility” and “decency”. But these are highly subjective measures. What is decent to me may be indecent to you. What about the legality of broadcasting a doctored video in which clips are neatly arranged out of sequence, with crucial segments missing to give a certain impression?

Is it accurate and ethical to splice disparate bits of video and audio together like this? Is this not a violation of Regulation 30 (f) of the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission, which rules that broadcast content should not “contain any false or misleading information”?

At any rate, such manipulative practices by both parties are to be condemned. We’re not fooled by them, just disgusted. Stop it!

n Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net).

Email feedback to [email protected] or tweet @anniepaul.

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