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Rajpal's Column

25th July 1999

Press power, bottle logic and theMafia Minister

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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Press ganged. Was the media press ganged into burning Mangala Samaraweera in effigy last week? The burning of Mangala Samaraweera in effigy was carried out almost with the connivance of his darling Editor's of Lake House, who were watching the proceedings. So, what beverage was Samaraweera hooched on, when he first made the statement that members of the fourth estate could be bought with a bottle of arrack?

We do not know. The Editor of the Ravaya has in his latest piece referred to Mangala Samaraweera as an "an ex designer of yata jungees." (Yata jungees a.k.a lingerie). He had also called the Media Minister a political eunuch.

Earlier in the month, another editor of an English newspaper referred to Samaraweera in his editorial as a pimp. Let's get this clear, the pimp word is not being used by me. It was used by an Editor. Its usage in this column now is for the express purpose of conveying to the reader the kind of invective that Mr. Samaraweera invited from the angry men of the Fourth Estate.

Pimp, eunuch; this vocabulary is getting more interesting by the minute. Samaraweera decided long ago to take on the fourth estate, and now he has progressed in his name calling to the "media Mafia" stage.

In other (and less colorful) words, Mangala Samaraweera has succumbed. Sooner or later, all incumbent governments begin to hate the fourth estate the media, which is always a thorn on the side of government.

It is the perennial argument, but there may be some merit in the supposition that the media is powerful, and that its too powerful for anybody's good. The Oxford Law Journal, in one of its latest issues, carries the engrossing analysis on "individual" liberty and government etc.,"In this piece, the writer points out that the gentlemen of the press have more power than Cabinet Ministers. The writer goes onto point out that there is no reason why members of one section of the community should yield power that is not enjoyed by other average members of the same community.

So, it's this powerful section of the polity which Mangala Samaraweera thinks he can buy over with a bottle of arrack. (Incidentally, quite a number of Editors of national newspapers that I know drink only whiskey, and there are one or two others who are teetotallers. How these gentleman can be bought with a bottle of arrack is something only the unfathomable M. Samaraweera can tell.)

But, bottle logic aside, it appears that Mangala Samaraweera came up against the clout of the fourth estate, partly because he was ignorant of the mammoth power that the fourth estate presented as a bulwark against bully government.

So, maybe he should have spoken to the writer who articulated the power of the press in the Oxford law Journal recently. (It's now for nothing, the same writer reminded, that the press is known as the fourth estate)

But the power of the press is something that is enjoyed by all political parties in opposition. Mangala Samaraweera for instance never said when he was in opposition, that the gentlemen of the press could be bought with a bottle of arrack. On the other hand, he palavered the press and became buddies with some of the gentlemen of the press who seem to have rubbed him latterly on the wrong side.

If the press is powerful, as the Oxford legal analyst says, then Mangala Samaraweera if he is a pragmatic politician, has to treat it as a fact of life. But Samaraweera ran away too fast with the idea that the press in Sri Lanka is malleable, because some of these press-gentlemen fitted into a stereotype.

Samaraweera's stereotyped notion of journalists is that they booze, trade stories and have no core principles in life due to their bohemian lifestyles. This is an easy stereotype that can be constructed by the outsiders, because pressmen have necessarily to be bohemian as they do not do eight to five desk jobs.

Having got that stereotype into his head, Mangala Samaraweera proceeded to try and mould the press as if it was a piece of clay in his hands. He for instance, sat at the lower board room of Lake House, and enjoyed running the state media fiefdom.

But casting a spell on Lake House is easy - any fashion designer can do it. What was galling to Samaraweera was that the press did not live upto his stereotype.

It is a fact that, looked at collectively, the independent media can look too negative at times. This definitely can be galling to people in government. By way of reminder, there is that famous observation by a former US Vice President who described the collective press corps as "the nattering nabobs of negativism."

But generally when these "nattering nabobs' expose corruption or hypocrisy of those who are politically on one's opposite side, the "nattering nabobs of negativism" are seen as heroes. And, even if they are not seen as heroes, at least they are grudgingly referred to as "members of the fourth estate" etc., who are society's watchdogs and sentinels.

The Oxford Journal writer referred to earlier in this article has not treated this sort of contradiction in his analysis either. (His paper is on the violation of the fundamental rights of people by persons other than those in government. The press is brought into the whole discourse in this context.)

If the same writer did a separate analysis on the role of the press in the body politic of society, he would have definitely confronted the inherent dichotomies and contradictions in the institution of the media/press.

He would have squared with the reality that the press being powerful, is the price to pay for the press being a watchdog, and an instrument of social justice of some sort.

The double edged character of the power of the press is part of a debate that has to be resolved by further constructive debate and discourse. Until that's done, however, the press simply remains powerful, and that's the objective reality that the media Minister didn't discover. He barked at the press took a swipe at the beast. Now, it seems, he is poised to end up in its belly.

Hulftsdorp Hill

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