Politicians and others in search of a scapegoat to cover their blatant abuse of power, privilege and deplorable conduct find the media a convenient peg on which to hang their dirty linen. This is not a recent phenomenon. But it is increasingly becoming a major tool in today’s blame game. Nor is it a game [...]


It is the media stupid


Politicians and others in search of a scapegoat to cover their blatant abuse of power, privilege and deplorable conduct find the media a convenient peg on which to hang their dirty linen. This is not a recent phenomenon. But it is increasingly becoming a major tool in today’s blame game. Nor is it a game played only in Sri Lanka by decrepit and fading politicians, ambitious young bucks and lacklustre individuals who find the greatness thrust upon them sits uneasily on their heads like some kingly crowns in historical times.

In the UK where media freedom has been teetering precipitously as the heavy hand of government made insidious moves in the middle of the night not so long ago to throttle that freedom, critics often turned the public spotlight on the press because media institutions and practitioners indiscriminately crossed the frontiers of free expression and violated their own ethical codes.
We now hear of intended new media legislation in Sri Lanka which one hopes is aimed at strengthening media freedom so often supported by contending parties on political platforms and not to deprive them of the oxygen that sustains that freedom.
Let me put the issue as simply as possible. As often happens in our once blessed isle laws that are publicly claimed to enhance freedom while protecting the interests of society, are turned on their heads in actual practice in order to safeguard the bigoted conduct of some of those in power and their fortunate relatives.

One does not need an Einstein to develop this Sri Lankan theory of relativity. It is self-evolving with each new set of power wielders and power brokers that occupy the seats of power or are close at hand. It is also called development strategies though many are still trying to unravel its mysteries.

Anyway this is what it is. Ill-thought words and utterances of politicians and cronies in public office that cause embarrassment to government, party or their institutions are later blamed on the media. If the media cannot be held directly responsible, then there are other ways of passing the buck and the backshish which, as some would have noted is a fast growing industry.

Pic courtesy shutterstock.com

How often have we heard words such as “misquoted”, “misreported” “falsified”, “falsehoods”, “out of context” and “vendetta” used to castigate the print and electronic media by those who speak first and think later as they try to wriggle out of frequent contretemps.

It has become easier for those directing their accusing fingers at the media largely because of the unplanned and unprepared expansion of Sri Lanka’s media world. Those with their own resources but with front men or somebody else’s money want to have a piece of the local media cake often as a means of self-promotion.

Some with political or business interests use the media to pursue their own agendas. In the process media outlets, be it print or electronic, are started but without trained or experienced media men and women unlike those who decades ago produced quality journalism and maintained professional standards as rigorously as the prevailing political climate allowed.

Without that required professional training an expanding media world recruits personnel who are often untutored in the ethics and the basic principles of journalism. This situation of half or under-baked journalists thrown into a highly competitive world is compounded now by the huge expansion in social media where everybody with a cell phone becomes an instant journalist filling cyberspace with gossip and rumour that pass off for truth and fact.

This practice of rumour-mongering as legitimate news is gaining currency especially among journalistic novices eager to make a name among their more senior gatekeepers some of whom have little experience themselves in directing and managing news. They too find rumour more appetising than fact.

This has become quite a problem for long established news media and experienced journalists. In the perception of sections of the public unable to separate the wheat of genuine news from the chaff of gossip they are ready to condemn news media in general.
Since the public today has learnt to be cautious and even suspicious of the news and views emanating from some news outlets, politicians and others who wish to hide their indiscretions and follies seize the opportunity to blame the media for misreporting or concocting news.

It is in this context where the media was under threat that alert editors got together to set up an Editors’ Guild to protect media freedom and collectively press their case. An important outcome of this venture was the formulation of a code of ethics for editors and media to adhere to in the day to day practice of their vocation.

Drawing lessons from the code in practice in the UK, the Editors’ Guild included a provision in their code that provided the public with the “Right of Reply” which was actually more meaningful than the code of ethics prevailing in the UK at the time which gave some discretion to the editors to decide on the publication of the reply.

More than 15 years ago I had occasion to take the Sunday Times London to the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for refusing to publish my reply to some distorted and factually wrong articles on Sri Lanka by one of the paper’s star journalists Marie Colvin.

I argued that the Sunday Times had violated the first two provisions of the code, one of which was refusing to publish my reply. After months of debate the PCC upheld my arguments and the Sunday Times was compelled to acknowledge it violated the code on two counts.

The point I am emphasizing here is why those who think they have been misquoted, misreported or otherwise publicly harmed do not make more use of the right of reply provided by most, if not all, of the mainstream print media?

There was a time when politicians or the public could claim that their attempts to correct wrong or false reports were ignored by the offending newspaper and the corrections or explanations sent were discarded. But today that is not the case and such a plea would be summarily dismissed. Even this newspaper today will carry a reminder to the public of the right of reply extended to them.

If such an avenue is available to institutions and individuals why do some cry out in public about misreporting and misquoting without utilising the right so readily available?

One wonders whether it is because the accusations of misreporting and factual errors politicians, individuals and institutions raise against the media cannot always be sustained once put down in writing. The newspaper concerned could respond by providing more information that makes the original complaint untenable.

So while blaming the concerned publication among friends and others, the complainant shies away from making the case publicly to avoid exposure and perhaps even more damage.

A case in point is the attempt by the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry some 10 years ago to claim that I had made false allegations against the ministry’s then minister and secretary. In my regular column I had stated that when the minister and secretary met the Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon, they had failed to raise the issue of terrorism which was of central concern to Sri Lanka, especially after McKinnon had set up a Commonwealth committee on the subject of terrorism.

The then High Commissioner in London Kshenuka Senewiratne wrote a lengthy letter, no doubt on the orders of ministry high-ups, contesting my observations and providing irrelevant background, even though the story itself came from the highest political levels of the Commonwealth Secretariat which I mentioned.

The result of it was that I was compelled to reveal more details despite the attempts by the foreign ministry to get the Commonwealth to deny it by writing to the Secretariat and subsequently releasing the Secretariat’s reply against all protocol as Secretariat officials readily told me.

In fact, according to further information provided to me Sri Lanka, which was a member of the Commonwealth Committee on Terrorism set up by Don McKinnon had not even called for a meeting of the committee when the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) met in New York some time later.

Sri Lankan had the opportunity to do so even though the ABC countries (Australia, Britain and Canada) were trying to downgrade the Committee on Terrorism to an official-level one when McKinnon had called for a ministerial committee. In this instance I was talking of two missed opportunities to take up the issue on terrorism. The result was that with more information made available to me Sri Lanka’s failure to raise the issue received wider publicity and the Foreign Ministry ended up with more egg on the face than a plate of scrambled eggs.

The moral of the story is that if you don’t like fire you should stay out of the kitchen. If you make accusations, have a hard enough case backed by fact not hot air. The media is not always to blame. If you must point the finger at it, be certain your finger is clean.
There is an old legal saying that those who come for equity must come with clean hands. Wise words indeed but unfortunately not observed by all.

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