29th April 2001
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Testing the British media

How fair and impartial are the British media today? How zealously do they practise and safeguard the high principles of journalism that the great practitioners of the past brought to this vocation?

These are not rhetorical questions. There are many-certainly in Britain I dare say- who believe that the British media are out of kilter, that they do not practise what they preach, that elementary rules of journalism are ignored, that principles are forsaken for commercialism.

Naturally such negative and damaging conclusions have not dawned suddenly but been forged on the anvil of experience.

While I have my own views about the quality of present day British journalism, I decided to test whether the media actually adhere to the highly principled positions they publicly espouse and even try to pass on to students and us poor cousins from the Third World.

I wrote a letter early last week to the editor of The Sunday Times of London. Even at the risk of prejudicing the readers, might I say that it is a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.

It will find its way to those responsible for handling the letters columns. That in no way detracts from the fact that it is addressed to the newspaper editor.

My concern was the two articles written by Marie Colvin who was wounded during an assignment in Sri Lanka and how The Sunday Times treated the issue.

My intention was to point out some factual errors in the reports, some mis-statements and other inaccuracies in the hope that the newspaper would take the responsibility of accepting its errors by publishing the letter.

I don't know how many of you have read Ms. Colvin's two articles. But those who were privy to the two-paged spread given to her last Sunday would have noticed that on Page 13 there was a grey-tinted double column box at the bottom of the page. While the first two parts of it dealt with some of Ms. Colvin's journalistic exploits, the third part was headlined "Gratitude from Tamils Worldwide" and even carried a brief message of praise for Ms Colvin from a reader in Canada.

In my letter to The Sunday Times, I asked that the courtesy shown to the Canadian reader be extended to me too, not to shower the paper with praise but to point out some factual mistakes and other inaccuracies which had been published.

It is a recognised fact today that the public has a right to reply where factual errors have been committed or the media have been unfair and partial in their reportage. It is also an accepted practice today-at least among respected media- that the media have a responsibility to correct such mistakes made deliberately or otherwise and do so at the first opportunity.

It is because the media, over the decades, brushed aside this public claim to a right to reply and correction that under public pressure they had to set up internal bodies to study public complaints and decisions on such complaints.

It is on the basis of this right and because the newspaper had made mistakes that stood fact and history on its head, that I wrote the letter.

Among the things I pointed out to The Sunday Times was that in the boxed column I referred to earlier, it was stated that Ms. Colvin "went to interview the (Tiger) leaders and was ambushed while trying to walk out of the area".

I don't know whether the English are losing the ability to use their own language or it is a deliberate attempt to distort the truth, but even she doesn't make the faintest claim to having been ambushed.

An ambush, to my understanding, means lying in wait in the hope of surprising a person or persons- or an animal. I dare The Sunday Times to point out any such suggestion of an ambush.

In fact the word ambush is used in the boxed column and also in the caption to the accompanying picture. Moreover, examine the words "while trying to walk out of the area". This is perhaps the work of a facetious sub-editor trying to create the impression that Ms. Colvin had gone for an evening stroll and was shot and wounded by a cruel army.

While Ms. Colvin might have got in and out of trouble spots and earned a reputation, others tend to view a good journalist as one who has a respect for facts and impartially, does not distort events for one reason or another. In her first article, Ms. Colvin says that the LTTE emerged in 1983 after mobs ran amok in Colombo and killed Tamils.

A great pity that having spent three days with the Tiger leadership she could not even find out when the movement was born which was at least seven years before 1983.

Nor did she seem to know that it was the LTTE's killing of 13 soldiers (that was an ambush) and the delay in the bodies reaching Kanatte that initially sparked off the attacks in Borella. I hope Ms. Colvin has no aspiration to turn historian.

I did not write all that to The Sunday Times being as polite as possible. But I did point out two other inaccuracies in her reports, which are important, as she justifies her passage to the Wanni on the basis of this.

She says that the Tiger standpoint on the Norwegian-sponsored negotiations is not known. And this was the only way to interview the Tiger leaders. She could have saved her newspaper some money and herself much pain if she had only contacted the LTTE's chief negotiator who lives in London giving interviews often to the Tamil Guardian (also based here) or read some of our Sunday papers that carry reams about the LTTE and the negotiations.

But will The Sunday Times publish the letter. Lay your bets now.

Meanwhile who in the government was foolish enough to talk of a "secret agenda"?

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