The Island’s press will always have a vital role to play in shaping and strengthening democracy in Sark
“If I had an ulcer, it would have an ulcer” – I’d like a pound note for every time I’ve muttered those words whilst sat staring at a blank computer screen wondering how to pull together the pages of the 308 editions of The Sark Newsletter and 417 editions of The Sark Newspaper that I’ve published over the past 12 years. As I sit writing this piece, I find myself in a somewhat reflective mood. This edition will be the last hard print copy that I’ll produce and distribute across Sark and beyond. As of next week, future articles will be published online on a brand-new digital website, sarknews.com.
Why do you do it? That’s a question that might reasonably be asked of me. My response would be a simple, why not? In all truth, writing and editing a small local publication has been a remarkable and, at times, exhilarating experience. However, it was certainly not something that I ever envisaged I would be doing when I came and set up home on Sark in July 2007. At the time, I hadn’t quite grasped the seismic events that were about to unfold on the Island and the impact they were to have on everyone who lived here.
This was, at the time, the last feudal state in Europe; in simple terms, if you owned sufficient parcels of land and property on Sark, known locally as tenements, you had an automatic right to a seat in the Island’s parliament. Merely by being a land and property owner you had the power to shape and pass the laws under which each and every Islander had to live. Yes, there were a handful of elected ‘Deputies of the People’ in the government, 12 in total, but they were hopelessly outnumbered by the dozens of feudal Sieurs and Madames who dominated Chief Pleas for no other reason than they were land and property owners of significance.
In December 2008 this was all set to change. Thereafter, securing a seat in Chief Pleas could only be achieved via the ballot box. The feudal right of landowners to have an automatic seat in government disappeared overnight. The 28 seats in Chief Pleas were to be populated by Islanders who had been elected to govern via the ballot box. Democracy had arrived in Sark.
What could possibly go wrong?
If any of us living here at the time had thought to consider the historical facts, and indeed a few may well have done so but chose to hold their own council, they would have understood that no jurisdiction the world over has ever made a smooth transition to democracy at the mere flick of a switch. We were never really going to go to bed one night as citizens of the last feudal state in Europe and wake up the next morning in a fully representative 21st century democracy. In truth, December 2008 was merely the beginning of a journey for Sark, which was then, and remains today, the youngest democracy in Western Europe. In fact, history shows us that having fought for democracy, those who had battled so hard to achieve their goal invariably started fighting amongst themselves to determine just how democracy is going to work. Sark was to be no different and, as we know now, many years of political and social turbulence were to ensue.
I was one of 57 candidates who stood in Sark’s first democratic election. I was unsuccessful. Over the following months it began to dawn on me that the new Chief Pleas didn’t appear to be that much different from the one it had replaced. The same people seemed to be continuing to wield power. Most importantly, anyone who disagreed with the new government was invariably labelled a dissenter, someone who posed a threat to the Island and its traditions, but surely, if challenges to the way we were being governed were being closed down, weren’t we in danger of finding ourselves trapped in a political echo chamber where the government could never be held to account for making mistakes or doing anything wrong? From this basic premise, my publishing career on Sark began. Much has changed in the intervening years. We have a more diverse and representative Chief Pleas than ever before. Indeed, I am now a member, albeit a humble backbencher. We have a professional civil service. We have a judiciary headed up by an independently minded female judge.
Now is the time for the press in Sark, the fourth estate, to demonstrate that it is prepared to mirror the progress of the Island’s legislature, executive and judiciary. Sarknews.com, of which I will remain Editor, will focus on policy rather than personality. In keeping with the rest of the Bailiwick’s mainstream media, sarknews.com is set to extend its coverage to include a far broader range of local and Bailiwick-wide news and views than have been published in Sark to date. It will launch online over the course of next week.
This article first appeared in the Sark Newspaper : June 13th 2022