This article originally appeared in the March 21, 2019 print edition.
During two social media interviews this month, newly elected Speaker of the House Julian Willock repeated his longstanding claim that he has no control over the articles published by his website Virgin Islands News Online.
“Five or six years ago I divorced myself from the editorial control,” he told JTV reporter Cathy Richards, a former VINO employee who did not ask who is now in charge of the site. “I have no editorial controls. I don’t write stories. I don’t tell anyone what to write.”
But last week, Mr. Willock declined to tell the Beacon who does oversee the content on VINO, which has published dozens of unbylined articles in recent months.
Asked on March 18 to identify the site’s editor, Mr. Willock said he would need to ask the “new chairman” of VINO’s parent company, Advance Marketing & Professional Services. Then he declined to name the chairman as well.
“He will call you,” he said. “I am not at liberty to be spurting out people’s names. I don’t know if they want their name to be public.”
Such denials are not new for Mr. Willock, who was elected speaker of the House by the new government on March 12.
Since VINO was launched in 2010, he has repeatedly denied or downplayed his involvement in the site even as detractors have accused him of making irresponsible editorial decisions while hiding behind employees and a “general manager” whose existence has been questioned.
Most media outlets publicly identify their reporters, editors, publishers and owners in order to ensure transparency.
But when this reporter asked Mr. Willock on Monday if the identity of VINO’s editor is public information, he said, “Well, you can go on the website and see what it says.”
However, as of Monday morning, the VINO page titled “Our Team” listed vacancies for an editor-in-chief, a marketing manager and reporters.
Only Mr. Willock’s name appears on the page, which states, “Marketing Manager – Vacant, but you may contact Mr. Julian Willock.”
When this reporter told him that no staff information appeared on the website, he responded, “Then maybe nothing’s available.”
He then promised to call the chairman the following day and “ask if he wants his information out there.”
He added that the decision to “go public on the new names who are associated with VINO” was “not up to” him.
Pressed on the name of the chairman, he then instructed this reporter to look it up in “the registry.”
“You can go to the registry and find out the new persons on the directorship. Those are public information you can go find out,” he said. “So you don’t have to take my word: You and I back and forth wasting time. Do your research.”
However, a search at the Registry of Corporate Affairs last week found no record of AMPS or VINO. Department of Trade and Consumer Affairs officials said last week that they could not provide the names on trade licences to unaffiliated parties.
This reporter also asked Mr. Willock on March 18 who writes VINO’s unbylined stories.
He responded,“Sure, I’ll get you in touch with someone,” and added, “I don’t have that information in front of me. They have changed reporters, editors. I think one guy’s living in Guyana. They have changed a lot of stuff.”
About four hours later, he said in a text message, “The new chairman say [sic] he wish [sic] not to give his name.”
In another message, he said that the reporters are listed on the website.
“All reporters are listed on site,” he wrote. “According to them.”
He added, “If it’s not there, then I will try and get them for you.”
This reporter then asked to clarify if the chairman had declined to give his own name or the name of the editor-in-chief, and requested the names of the reporters again.
Mr. Willock did not respond as of the posting of this article on Monday morning.
After VINO was launched in March 2010, Mr. Willock, who was then permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communications and Works, told the Beacon that he acted as a “consultant” to the site but declined to elaborate further on his role.
The Beacon published an article in July of that year that included allegations that VINO had hired reporters without work permits and paid them salaries from AMPS, which at the time was co-owned and operated by Mr. Willock and long-time VI journalist Angela Burns, who is no longer involved with the company.
Some of those reporters alleged that Mr. Willock was intimately involved with the site’s daily affairs.
They provided dozens of emails to the Beacon suggesting that Mr. Willock contacted them at all hours on everything from editorial changes to selling advertising, and recalled that he held VINO-related meetings in his government office.
“Let us ensure that stories or blogs can be pull [sic] only after it is agreed on by both Angela and I,” he allegedly wrote in an email to VINO’s first employee, Christin Senior.
Multiple employees also told the Beacon in 2010 that Mr. Willock sought to publicly distance himself from the website.
Boston journalist Matt Byrne recounted receiving instructions to refrain from mentioning Mr. Willock’s involvement in VINO on the day he signed his contract in Mr. Willock’s office in the Central Administration Building on June 17, 2010.
“On the way out, we were shaking hands, and they said, ‘Oh, one more thing: Confidentiality is really important,’ and that I should not be mentioning Julian’s name in connection with VINO, and if anyone asked who the new service was owned by, I should say Angela Burns,” Mr. Byrne told the Beacon at the time. “I was flabbergasted … that they were asking me [to] not be truthful so directly, because, in reality, [Mr.] Willock was day-to-day, hour-to-hour, story-to-story, our point of contact.”
Andrew Edwards, a journalist from Seattle who said he worked for VINO for about nine days in late May and early June of 2010, recounted a similar experience.
“They told me not to tell anyone that [Mr. Willock] was involved — if I was ever asked who was in charge, to say Angela. It felt sketchy from the get-go,” he said.
Ms. Senior recalled that while Ms. Burns published an editorial introducing herself as CEO, Mr. Willock was reluctant to associate himself with the site.
“They told me because they had these [other] responsibilities, they wouldn’t be able to work on the website per se, to handle it on their own. I got the impression that [Mr. Willock] sort of wanted to be behind the scenes and didn’t want to be associated with the website,” Ms. Senior said.
In December 2011 a statement from VINO said Mr. Willock “fully left the company well over a year ago,” despite the fact that Mr. Willock and Ms. Burns were both listed on the AMPS trade licence at the time, according to the Department of Trade and Consumer Affairs.
By April 2012, however, Mr. Willock was the sole person listed on the trade licence.
In an email to the Beacon on Tuesday, Ms. Burns said she helped establish VINO and wrote stories for it, but she described her relationship with the site as a “business venture gone bad.”
She wrote that she left the company after less than ten months “because the business was being run in a manner contrary to professional standards and I could not compromise my reputation as one of the leading journalists in the Caribbean at the time.”
She added that her journalism in the VI, Montserrat and Jamaica has been carried by international outlets including the Associated Press, BBC and the VI Daily News.
‘John E. Leonard’
In January 2012, VINO announced that a Canadian named John E. Leonard had joined AMPS as general manager and marketing executive after “the departure” of a VINO founder the previous year.
When the website came under fire for the quality of its journalism in subsequent years, the website would often attribute its responses to Mr. Leonard. In VINO press releases, he was frequently quoted defending the site’s actions.
During that time, the Beacon’s attempts to contact Mr. Willock often followed a pattern.
After leaving a message by phone or email, this newspaper would receive an email signed by John Leonard. The email would state that Mr. Willock was not affiliated with VINO, and would demand that Beacon reporters cease attempts to contact him.
Meanwhile, all of this newspaper’s attempts to interview Mr. Leonard were unsuccessful. During that time, Beacon journalists never spoke to him or to anyone besides Mr. Willock who confirmed meeting him in person.
Over time, the emails to the Beacon signed by Mr. Leonard grew heated and profane.
“Why the [expletive] would you be sending me an email for mr. willock you [expletive] racist [expletive] [sic],” stated one response to a request for comment from Mr. Willock in January 2014.
The same year, questions arose about whether or not Mr. Leonard even existed.
In July 2014 Lorna Smith posted an “open letter to Mr. Julian Willock” on the Facebook page of her husband — then Premier Dr. Orlando Smith — in which she accused him of “hiding behind the pseudonyms.”
A few weeks later Mark Vanterpool, then the minister of communications and works, addressed Mr. Leonard directly in a lengthy tirade against VINO during a House of Assembly debate.
“A newspaper whose editor we can’t find. Deceased. John Leonard. Editor, come forward man, stop hiding behind John Leonard name.”
Meanwhile the website continued to publish unbylined stories maintaining that Mr. Willock had “never written a story” for VINO.
In November 2014 Mr. Willock’s attorney Jamal Smith said that to his knowledge Messrs. Willock and Leonard weren’t involved in writing VINO’s articles. He declined to say if he had met Mr. Leonard, but said that he had seen his passport.
In 2015 the site claimed that Mr. Leonard had left the company.
In subsequent years, unbylined articles on the news site continued to call Mr. Willock “esteemed” and “prominent” while labelling VINO critics with derogatory terms such as “desperate” and “corrupt.”
Some of those articles reported on Mr. Willock’s controversies, often quoting him extensively.
In July 2016, police said he had been taken to prison after allegedly missing court dates.
Days later, a VINO article quoted him as saying, “If you look at history and our inspirational leaders who have helped shaped their countries and the world and who have fought for justice, bringing people together, away from divisive politics, and who were all imprisoned for political reasons like Nelson R. Mandela, a freedom fighter, and Dr. Martin L. King Jr., I think the country will understand that one always has to make sacrifices for a cause.”
The article was published with a photo of Mr. Willock between photos of the two leaders.
While VINO articles compared Mr. Willock to the likes of Mr. Mandela and Dr. King, his critics got the opposite treatment.
After then-Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn criticised Mr. Willock in the House of Assembly, a March 2016 VINO article titled “Shame on Myron V. Walwyn” quoted Mr. Willock.
“‘We must also look at history and what happened to evil politicians like Idi Amin, Ivan the Terrible of Russia, Muammar Gaddafi, Adolph [sic] Hitler, Napoleon and Joseph Stalin, and most recently the likes of Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al-Assad, and check their history and see how they started out,’” he reportedly told the news site.
For much of the period between 2012 and 2018, Reuben Stoby acted as editor-in-chief of VINO, but he repeatedly declined to comment on the site’s operations during that time.
He told the Beacon on March 19 that he made the final call on all editorial decisions during his time as editor-in-chief, but didn’t comment further.
After he was elected speaker, Mr. Willock answered questions about VINO during interviews with Jovan Wilson for 284 Media and Cathy Richards for JTV.
“It’s about eight years now that I have separated myself from the editorial board,” he told Ms. Wilson. “That is run by an editor-in-chief. That person has all the power.”
In his interview with Ms. Richards, he provided a slightly different timeline, saying he had divorced himself from VINO “five or six years ago.”
Neither Ms. Wilson nor Ms. Richards asked Mr. Willock to identify the current editor-in-chief of the website, and both declined to comment for this article.
Though he denied making editorial decisions, Mr. Willock did say that he plays a part on the business side of VINO.
“I still have a small part where I deal with revenue,” Mr. Willock said during his interview with 284 Media. “If someone has an ad they’ll probably call me up, and I don’t see that changing. And I will declare that as per the laws of the country in my new role now as Speaker of the House.”
Mr. Willock went on to promise that he will not leak any information to VINO that he receives in his role as speaker.
“We live in a democracy. People have a right to want their speaker of the House to be transparent, to be upright, to be upfront. And it will be unethical of me to be leaking stuff to any, whether VINO, or any news site,” he said. “So there is nothing to worry about. As I said, it is now seven going on eight years that I have not exercised zero editorial control of VINO. That will not change in my capacity as speaker.”