Jonathan, steel thyself with facts first
Somewhere in the second half of the 1980s, if my memory serves me correct, quite a well-known British journalist wrote some harsh things about Sri Lanka and the government of the day.

The journalist - no need to mention names - stayed at the Galle Face Hotel during his days in Colombo. After the publication of his critical articles in which prejudices replaced facts, discreet inquiries were made about the man and his mission. It came as little surprise when the news on the grapevine was that the LTTE had financed the trip.

But, of course, such clandestine hatched jobs are not always necessary. More than 70 years ago, Humbert Wolfe made this acid remark about British journalists in "Over the Fire."

"You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to."

Wolfe's observations, no doubt, apply to women journalists as well.
Readers might remember Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, London, who was wounded by grenade shrapnel when she secretly tried to cross from LTTE-controlled territory in the Wanni to government lines.

Colvin's articles written after briefings by the LTTE, with whom she spent several days, contained not only factual inaccuracies and innuendo but was also totally one-sided.

At times she was funny too. In one article she said she spent one week with the LTTE and in another she claimed she stayed two weeks. If her journalism was bad her arithmetic (or was it her memory?) was worse.

The Sunday Times of London refused to publish my letter pointing out the errors of her journalistic ways.
But subsequently, the London Sunday Times was forced to eat humble pie when I took the newspaper to the UK Press Complaints Commission which eventually held with me that the newspaper violated two provisions of the newspaper code of conduct.

That was a little over three years ago.
Now there is trouble with another of Britain's 'quality' newspapers, this time The Guardian. Once more I have written a letter protesting at the inaccuracies and misleading comments in an article by Jonathan Steele datedlined Kilinochchi that appeared on December 17.

Judging by the ideological stance of The Sunday Times of London, most would say The Guardian is a liberal newspaper. But rightwing or liberal when British journalism is under pressure or criticism from "outsiders", particularly former colonial societies, the shutters come down, the barricades go up.

Whatever the medium, print or electronic, the colonial arrogance manifests itself. How dare the 'natives' point their fingers at those who taught them journalism to begin with.
If "The Guardian" is the liberal newspaper some believe it is, it will publish my letter on Jonathan Steel's comment piece.

But I rather doubt it. British journalism does not brook criticism from outside its charmed circle. Moreover, journalistic standards and The Guardian's liberal approach have been slipping over the years as I mentioned to Peter Preston, a former editor of the paper, at the last Commonwealth Press Union conference in Sri Lanka.

I have noticed this as a writer for The Guardian from Colombo myself in the late 1960s and 70s. In fact when the 27 April 1973 issue of The Guardian led page 3 with my article on Mrs Gandhi, other by-lines that appeared on the next page included such respected journalists as David Hurst, Eric Silver, Paul Webster and Norman Crossland.

Let me give one example not only of falling standards but also of The Guardian's inability to accept criticism.
On 7 July 1983, The Guardian carried the second instalment of a critical piece on Sri Lanka by an Oxford don, whose name escapes me for the moment.

The article was illustrated with a photograph showing armed soldiers with two captured youth whose hands were tied behind them. The caption said that these were Sri Lankan Tamils caught in the latest round up by the army.

I remembered seeing this photograph somewhere. After a two-day search I discovered where. It was a photograph used with one of my own articles in The Guardian on 12 August 1971, almost 12 years earlier.

What is unpardonable is that it had nothing to do with Tamils, as the newspaper claimed, but Sinhala JVP suspects. The Guardian changed the original caption that read "An armed guard for 'Guevarist' insurgents" into "Tamils". This journalistic sleight of hand would have gone unnoticed had I not remembered the photograph.

There was a flood of protests to The Guardian by Sri Lankans in the UK after the Sunday Observer in Colombo and television news on Saturday evening exposed the journalistic fraud.

More than one month after the original publication The Guardian carried a 'correction' on page 4 or 6 admitting the mistake but quickly covering itself, saying the error was spotted and corrected in a later edition.

Whether it was done or not I had no way of checking then. But the fact is The Guardian was caught out. Even then it was reluctant to admit it.
Jonathan Steele is certainly entitled to his views. But there is no justification for his one-sided piece that is factually incorrect, misleading and inaccurate.

Let me deal with just a few points.
He claims that the Tigers were put on the international lists of "terrorist organisations" because it "pioneered the use of suicide bombing" that killed scores of civilians.

Surely that is not why the US, UK, Australia, Malaysia and India banned the LTTE. Except in the case of India, other countries including Canada cracked down because LTTE front organisations operating out of those countries were collecting funds, laundering money, smuggling drugs and were involved in other crimes to fund the purchase of sophisticated arms that were then smuggled to Sri Lanka.

The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies lists the World Tamil Movement and the World Tamil Association as front organisations of the LTTE.

The UK Charity Commissioner did not raid the offices of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (whose offices in the Northeast were opened by the British High Commissioner Stephen Evans) because the Tiger suicide bombers were killing civilians in Sri Lanka.

Steele is wrong when he says the LTTE "pioneered" suicide bombing. As researchers at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies point out Hezbollah's suicide attacks in Beirut against the Iraqi Embassy (Dec 81) and the US Embassy and Marine Headquarters (April and Oct '83) pre-date LTTE's first suicide bombing (5 July '87) against an army camp by 'Captain' Miller, imitating Beirut.

Suicide attacks go much further back in history, a fact that Steele could easily have checked instead of romanticising the Tigers.
Steele also tries to make out the peace talks collapsed because of disagreements between the Tigers and the Sri Lanka Government.

But we know better. It was the LTTE that pulled out of the talks in pique when the US did not invite them for the donor meeting in Washington in spring last year. They then boycotted the Tokyo donor meeting.

Steele also tries to blame the political parties in the South for the stalled negotiations. But he makes no mention of the vigorously contested ISGA and the Tiger pre-conditions for the resumption of talks.
A pity that this Steele is not made of sterner journalistic mettle.

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