Debunking Channel 4’s sloppy journalism

RANDOM THOUGHTS By Neville de Silva

Recent news reports said that Channel 4's video on Sri Lanka was screened in the premises of the New Zealand parliament. Apparently the screening was organized by the "Green Party" in parliament which a New Zealand diplomat described to me as a not very significant political group.

That might well be. But I doubt this was at the sole initiative of the Greens. It appears to have been inspired and urged by other elements including pro-LTTE Tamil groups in New Zealand and the international NGO troika -- International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International -- all three acting in concert or singly.

Another even more recent report said that Gordon Weiss, a former UN spokesman in Colombo and author of "The Cage", a book extremely critical of Sri Lanka's war against the terrorist LTTE and the country in general, is to address a meeting in Canada organized by a Tamil lobby group. The report did not say whether Weiss is paying his way for the meeting he is to address or he is being sponsored by the organisers.

Be that as it may, the point is that the anti-Sri Lankan publicity is being sponsored in countries which are polar opposites. One can understand such heightened activity in Canada which is host to by far the largest number of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin overseas.

Presenter Jon Snow in a grab from the Channel movie Killing Fields

But the fact that it has spread to New Zealand's parliamentary premises indicates not only the reach of the lobbyists but also how modern technology helps to carry such messages swiftly across oceans and continents.

There is an even more important issue for nations and individuals who are the victims of such virulent advocacy as that practised by Channel 4 (C4 for convenience), an issue that should not only concern Sri Lanka but even those countries in which the media oversteps established and respected codes of conduct.

Britain which preaches media freedom to others is now feeling the pinch of such media excesses and the David Cameron administration has appointed a committee headed by Lord Justice Leveson to advise what should be done to curb the exuberance of unrestrained media.

Complaint to Ofcom

There is a fundamental issue here. How does an offended party respond/reply to reports/programmes broadcast by the electronic media, particularly television. I suppose the same argument could be raised against websites and internet-based media especially if they are outside the jurisdiction of the country concerned.

The C4 video on Sri Lanka is a case in point. The only way Sri Lanka could have reacted to it was to reply to C4 in writing and lodge a complaint with Ofcom, the British body that oversees the electronic media, pointing out bias, errors of fact and lack of evidence to buttress some of the charges made.

But how effective can a written reply be to an audio-visual programme that is punctuated with unnamed sources, with visuals that are spliced together in such a way as to create a dubious narrative, that has factual mistakes, that is dependent on uncorroborated statements and conjecture, dependent on identifiable persons whose antecedents and stories have not been checked and authenticated.

But who is to know the shoddiness of its journalism if there is no effective way of debunking some of its central allegations? Not every viewer of such a telecast is fully acquainted with the issues involved or is sufficiently knowledgeable in the history of the conflict.

At most that programme broadcaster would carry a short printed statement by the Sri Lanka Government on one of its newscasts/ programmes as it did on one occasion quoting a couple of paragraphs at the tail-end of the telecast.

Lies Agreed Upon: The Defence Ministry video documentary on the last stages of the war is a fitting response to Channel 4’s lies and damned Lies

But that is hardly adequate to compensate for the damage done by a visual broadcaster that has disdainfully cast aside the ethics and practices of journalism for an unsubstantiated and unchecked story told by unnamed and dubious sources, some with axes to grind.

Some might recall the initial salvo by Channel 4 telecasting what it called the executions of Tamil prisoners by Sri Lankan soldiers. This must surely have shocked many of those who saw it as it did me.

What is hardly known is that Channel 4 submitted this so-called 'scoop' as an entry to the television segment of the "One World" Media Awards held in London in May this year.

Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that veteran journalist Jon Snow who was the presenter of the 'execution' story was also the compere at the One World Award ceremony.

If sections of the audience that saw the C4 report swallowed it wholesale as an example of good investigative journalism, obviously the judges of the television awards were not that gullible.

The C4 report failed to win an award, a fact that those in London surely reported immediately to Colombo or should have. The judges selected a report on the Philippines over this particular C4 entry which was not at all surprising to those better acquainted with good journalism rather than with journalistic sharpies who are much in evidence these days.

This failure of the C4 piece to gain recognition at one of the foremost media awards events in Britain is a point that Sri Lanka should have picked on in its rejection of the later and longer C4 'documentary' on Sri Lanka.

A couple of months after the C4 airing of its main programme, Sri Lanka's Defence Ministry produced a video rebutting much of what the British media network claimed did happen according to its unnamed sources.

No right of reply on TV

Now even if that video rebuttal was sent to Channel 4 as a reply to its own programme, would it have screened the reply? Of course not and therein lies the crux of the problem. When the print media is presumed to be guilty of gross error, falsity or misrepresentation those impugned often insist on a right of reply and the newspaper concerned publishes the reply or is ordered to do so. The best of print media would grant that right, though I have experienced the opposite from so-called quality newspapers in the UK.

This, however, is impossible with television. No TV network is going to telecast an audio-visual reply to one of its own programmes even if such a rebuttal was available unless on an order by an authorized media watchdog empowered to do so.

That is the problem the Sri Lanka-produced video debunking some of the key charges made by C4 faces. The broadcaster will not telecast the reply and so the Sri Lanka answers to the allegations go by default.

On the other hand C4 has addressed a large audience with a vast majority of the viewers not fully conversant with the issues involved and possibly believing what they have seen.

Moreover developments in technology have made it possible for that same video to be distributed to even wider audiences either by electronic means or by copying the video and making that available.
The Sri Lanka Embassy in Bangkok had a unique opportunity to have the Defence Ministry rebuttal screened back to back with the C4 video when the latter was publicly screened in Bangkok for the first time.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) had arranged for a screening of the C4 video and it appeared this would be followed by a discussion at which Gordon Weiss was expected to be present to speak about his new book and his Sri Lanka experience.

Sri Lanka video was also screened

We contacted the FCCT and insisted on a right of reply if Gordon Weiss or any other speaker was to participate. When news reports in Colombo mentioned that a Defence Ministry produced video had been screened in Colombo it seemed the ideal opportunity to give Sri Lanka's answer to Channel 4 at the same time if we could obtain the video.

We informed the FCCT that we would try to get this video rebuttal so that it could be screened immediately after C4's major presentation. This would allow the audience to view both and form their own opinions. Also we said the discussion could be replaced with the Sri Lanka video, which the FCCT accepted.

That was the first time that Sri Lanka's rebuttal was publicly screened anywhere abroad to an audience consisting of foreign and local journalists, diplomats, representatives of international organizations, Thai officials and interested individuals.

In the absence of a discussion, I later talked to several journalists and others who had numerous questions and comments which cannot be discussed in this column for lack of space. While I hope to do so subsequently it might be useful to mention one comment that was made by some journalists. They thought that compared to the C4's video title, the Sri Lanka one was not catchy and hard-hitting enough to attract immediate attention.

The C4 title was, of course, borrowed up from journalist John Pilger's reference to the killing fields of Cambodia under Pol Pot. Sri Lanka called its video "Lies agreed upon", a title picked up by someone with perhaps a penchant for history or Napoleon. If I remember correctly, it was Napoleon who said that history is lies agreed upon.

Personally I would have preferred "Lies, damned lies and Channel 4" to adapt a saying generally attributed to Disraeli. Two matters emerged from the questions and remarks that followed the screening. While some might dismiss the Darusman Report and Gordon Weiss's book as adversarial and highly critical of Sri Lanka and therefore of little worth, they also provide valuable source material to debunk some of C4's allegations, factual errors, deliberate distortions which exposes its sloppy or contrived journalism.

It would surely be more telling to employ those adversarial and critical assessments to refute some of the allegations. I have not yet got through Weiss's book. But even in those early pages there are statements and observations that could be used to challenge C4's half-stated observations and spurious conclusions.

The other is that since there is little hope of the offending Channel 4 ever telecasting the rebuttal, Sri Lanka would also have to use technology to disseminate its message far and wide encouraging Sri Lankan organizations abroad and others to screen the video to local audiences.

At least then those who have been exposed to the C4 video widely disseminated abroad by interested parties both Sri Lankan and foreign, would have a fair opportunity of assessing both without hastily believing that Channel 4 is the gospel.

(The writer is a serving diplomat in Bangkok)

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Debunking Channel 4’s sloppy journalism


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