In recent years the British media have, with lavish abandon, accused Sri Lanka of multiple crimes. Often these have remained mere assertions not backed by corroborative evidence or sources which good journalism requires. What is particularly galling is that British media, in the main, are unwilling to be corrected when inaccuracies and misleading statements are pointed out, [...]

Sunday Times 2

British media and their pretence to infallibility


In recent years the British media have, with lavish abandon, accused Sri Lanka of multiple crimes. Often these have remained mere assertions not backed by corroborative evidence or sources which good journalism requires. What is particularly galling is that British media, in the main, are unwilling to be corrected when inaccuracies and misleading statements are pointed out, perhaps because such errors of fact and mistakes puncture their sense of infallibility.

When corrections are sought to obvious mistakes some of the media assume a distant hauteur and refuse to publish a reply as though they, like the King (Queen) can do no wrong. This is so even of the so-called quality press which have signed to an editorial code of conduct that surely denies the media the same status as the Crown.

It might be recalled that at the turn of this century the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Editors’ Guild took the initiative to draft a Code of Ethics for the media and media practitioners and establish a Press Complaints Commission to which aggrieved members of the public or institutions could turn to when the media faltered and failed to observe their own ethical standards.

This laudable effort received an impetus when the Commonwealth Press Institute, sadly moribund today, provided logistical support in the way of experts to ‘codify’ a set of principles and standards for the media and a complaints commission. Generally speaking these were modelled on the UK’s self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission and its Code of Conduct that applied to the mainstream print media which were members of the body. Another institution was responsible for the electronic media and advertising while the BBC owes its responsibility to the BBC Trust.

The irony is that while the pupil has learnt from its teacher, by and large adhering to its ethical code and striving to respect the basic theorems of journalism, the teacher is fast abandoning its own teachings. One would have thought that in the gathering storm of public and political protest over some of the more obnoxious media practices, the mainstream media- at least the once respected titles- would protect themselves against charges of malpractice by treading the principled path laid down in their own code.

Nearly a decade ago Lord Hutton, inquiring into the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Dr David Kelly, a government weapons expert, castigated the BBC editorial practices for permitting a news report on the air without corroborative sourcing and proper vetting. This was followed by the fiasco over the publication by the Daily Mirror of pictures of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners which were later found to be fake.

These two incidents caused the British media that usually stands remarkably unrepentant over allegations of overstepping the boundaries of accuracy, impartiality and decency, to engage in an unusual bout of soul- searching. But if we thought that this introspection would be a salutary corrective and from it would emerge a more responsible press, it appears we were overly optimistic.
Instead of a more responsible press that not only respects old journalistic values but follows the articles of faith they subscribed to as members of the PCC, media malpractice has increased.

One could understand if it was some sleazy tabloid that could not care less about ethics and time- honoured rules. But when the guilty happen to be big names in the newspaper industry it offends public expectations and sensibilities and provides more ammunition to those who like to see the media brought to heel through legislative action.

It is precisely such a legislative underpinning that is proposed by Lord Leveson who inquired into the culture, practice and ethics of the British media consequent to the phone-tapping scandal at the Rupert Murdoch- owned News of the World. The shenanigans at the News of the World had much wider ramifications as more media scandals came to light which also involved politicians and police.
If the Hutton report did not shock the media world enough the Leveson report should have, particularly since many proposals made in the report have gained cross-party support.

However the British media moves along merrily violating their own Code of Conduct because it knows it has considerable political power and influence. Article 1 of the code warns the press to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. Once a significant inaccuracy, distortion or misleading statement is recognised it must be corrected promptly and with due prominence.

Article 2 states that a fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. Both these articles are constantly violated by the British media whereas the Sri Lanka media, by and large, offers an opportunity to respond to errors of fact, inaccuracies or misleading statements.

The Sunday Times regularly reminds readers of their right of reply which is a far cry from what the British media do which is quite often to ignore this right offered by the code of conduct or simply refuse to publish corrections. One can cite numerous examples over the years of inaccurate reporting and claims made without sufficient proof or by unnamed and undisclosed sources which the media have failed to acknowledge and correct when attention was drawn.

It would suffice, however, to give the most recent example which is by the staid “The Economist” magazine. It not only refused to publish a correction sent to it by the High Commission in London thus denying the aggrieved the right of reply, but it is also the second occasion on which it has done so.

Such refusal tends to substantiate the public perception that it does not want its pretence to infallibility tainted. Here is the letter it refused to accommodate.


Some months ago The Economist wrote that the pen-name “Banyan” was picked by your columnist for his Asia column because it was under a banyan tree that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Sadly he got it wrong. It was, of course, not a banyan tree (Ficus banghalensis) but a Bo tree (Ficus religiosis). Even a cursory check with the multiplicity of sources available would have established this.

Unfortunately this same lack of verification invests his column on Sri Lanka (The Economist June 22nd-28th) titled “The uphill road”. Banyan says that in January, after the Supreme Court ruled “unconstitutional the government- inspired impeachment of the chief justice, the president and parliament simply overruled it.”

Your columnist is entitled to his opinion about the situation in Sri Lanka. But as a journalist myself I do find it irksome, to say the least, when those who set out to preach do so without reading the scriptures. However mixed up Banyan might be about the trees, if he hoped a modicum of the Buddha’s wisdom would rub off him, he should have known that in one of his Five Precepts the Buddha advised all to avoid falsehood.

Banyan says the impeachment which was declared “unconstitutional” was simply overruled. Had he made an attempt to read the Sri Lanka constitution he would have been much more prudent about rushing to cite-and seemingly support- the Supreme Court which had no jurisdiction in this matter.

Article 107 (2) states that “Every Judge shall hold office during good behaviour, and shall not be removed except by an order of the President made after an address of parliament, supported by a majority of the total number of Members of Parliament (including those not present) has been presented to the President for such removal on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.”

Article 107 (3) Parliament shall by law or Standing Order provide for all matters relating to the presentation of such an address, including all the procedure for passing of such resolution……….” Simply stated the power and responsibility of impeaching the chief justice or a senior judicial officer lie with the Legislature and not the Judiciary. This is so in the US, UK, Australia and the Philippines, for example.

In fact the British Constitutional Reform Act (2005) which created a 12-member Supreme Court to function outside the House of Lords, states in Article 33: “A Judge of the Supreme Court holds that office during good behaviour but may be removed from it on the address of both House of Parliament.” That is all it says on the subject in this 323-paged Act of Parliament

The power of parliament to remove senior members of the Judiciary is a time-honoured British tradition and is continued under the Constitutional Reform Act, the much -vaunted Latimer House Principles notwithstanding.

Sri Lanka followed its own Constitution rigorously. Usually countries are castigated for violating their constitutions. Sri Lanka is now been chastised for strictly adhering to its constitution. Scant wonder that Banyan has sought refuge under the wrong tree.

(The writer is a diplomat attached Sri Lanka’s mission in Bangkok)

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