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Gale's View - Hurricane Response

September 27th 2017

As one who has spent many years working with the media industries I was inclined to think that “fake news” was a product of the fertile imagination of the President of the United States of America. I still believe that Mr. Trump has a great deal to answer for but on the “fake news” front I believe that he may have a point.

Take Hurricane Irma.

Some time prior to the arrival of the Grade Five storm the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ship Mounts Bay, equipped with a helicopter, highly trained personnel and emergency equipment and supplies, took up station as what used to be known as “the West Indies Guard ship”. She was positioned there by the Ministry of Defence because while nobody knew precisely what damage would be sustained and in what exact location it was clear that the islands that form part of the British Overseas Territories were in for a hell of a battering. As soon as practicably possible after the storm had passed our navy put some very courageous personnel on the ground in Anguilla to conduct the basic clearance that would allow other ships and aircraft to back up the relief effort. The Mounts Bay then moved on to repeat the exercise in the British Virgin Islands. This herculean effort was the subject of armed forces film footage that was supplied to the British Media. Curiously, none of it seems to have made the airwaves but one television channel carried an interview with a woman claiming, apparently falsely, that she was from Anguilla and complaining that “nothing is being done to help”.

A fortnight ago an RAF C17 transport plane, one of the world`s largest, left the UK for France where it picked up emergency supplies which it then flew to the French island of Guadeloupe. This was necessary because France`s own relief capacity was at full stretch and the island needed rapid relief. Again, this was known to our newspaper and television channels but remained unreported.

I have nothing but sympathy for those hundreds of thousands throughout the West Indies who have seen their homes, their possessions, their livelihoods and in some cases life itself destroyed. Our family knows of a delightful man who ran a beach café in Barbuda, an island whose population of some 2,500 has had to be completely evacuated, whose new premises were wiped out in an instant along with his entire very modest business. Through the magic of incredibly still-accessible Facebook he told my daughter that he was alive and waiting to get home to “start cooking up some good seafood again” and there will be similar stories of resilience and determination throughout the Caribbean. These people deserve, and are receiving, every ounce of assistance that we can practicably offer but it is a nonsense that must be changed that because” the computer says no” our Overseas Aid budget cannot immediately and generously be used to help them. This is one instance in which charity ought to begin at home even if that “home” is very many thousands of miles away.

It has been reported that “The French and the Dutch had boots on the ground faster than we did”. For reasons of administration French boots were already on the ground. It not widely understood that the French Overseas Territories are part of what is known as “Metropolitan France”. Martinique, for example, is for legal purposes as much a part of the French “mainland” as Montmartre in Paris or the Departement of Aquitaine. Once you are on a French Caribbean Island you are within the European Union – a source of some concern to those responsible for security, certainly, but a fact nonetheless. There are, therefore, French garrisons and gendarmerie permanently stationed within their Overseas Territories. The administrative difference between those “colonies” and Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands or the British Virgin Islands which are self-governing is very considerable. That also is something that the media could, but has chosen not to, report honestly.

There is a very real danger that, given the demand of twenty-four hour news to generate a “narrative” and the ease with which via social media the voices of malcontents rather than the silent majority can gain dominance, the news agenda will be permanently distorted. We have had, in the Caribbean, and will have for very many months to come, men and women of our armed forces and our aid agencies who will go about their daily business with courage and dedication helping to rebuild shattered communities and lives. They and those responsible for their deployment and management deserve not criticism but our heartfelt appreciation and thanks.

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