29th Augusst 1999
Prof. Robert Pinker, a member of the British Press Complaints Commission, the watchdog of the British Press, was in Sri Lanka this week at the invitation of the Newspaper Society, the Editors' Guild and the Free Media Movement to discuss issues relating to the setting up of a similar body here.
Prof. Pinker, from the London School of Economics, met the Media Minister, the Justice Minister, the Opposition leader, the Attorney General, publishers, editors and journalists during his visit — the second visit to Sri Lanka.
The first time he was here was as a soldier deployed by the British Army enroute to the Korean war of the 1950s. Hiranthi Fernando interviewed Prof. Pinker. Excerpts:
Q: What is self regulation of the media?
A: It is self regulation of the press. I am not qualified to speak on regulation of broadcasting which is handled separately. Self regulation does not involve the government. The money comes from the industry. The British Press Complaints Commission is independent of both the government and the industry although what it does is paid for by the industry. The PCC is a completely independent body of members appointed by a small committee agreed among the newspapers.
It is composed of several independent people outside the industry, from the public and private sectors, along with some practising editors. The Chairman, Lord Wakeham, was a politician, a senior member of the Conservative government, who is now retired. The first chairman, David Calcutt, asked the industry to write the Code of Practice, on the premise that they would then be committed to it and would not go back on it. The PCC applies and administers the code. Any changes necessary are made by a small committee of practising editors.
Anyone may complain to the Commission. The rule applied is they may have legal options as well, but we cannot handle complaints at the same time. It can be brought to us either before or after legal action but not simultaneously. It would create difficulties in proper conduct of justice. The majority of people do not want to go to court because the legal process is expensive and the outcome uncertain. Most cases are therefore settled out of court or by coming to us. It is quick, impartial and entirely free. It only costs a postage stamp.
Q: What is the historical background of the PCC?
A: During the late 1980s, the Press Council, which was also a self-regulatory body was in force. During this time, some sections of the popular press behaved badly. There were some serious cases of intrusion into the private lives of individuals.
As the Press Council was not effective, the government appointed a committee to review whether self regulation should continue or a statutory committee should be set up to introduce a law on privacy. The committee, headed by David Calcutt recommended that self regulation be given a one last chance.
The government of the day took the advice. The newspaper industry closed down the old Press Council and introduced a mechanism for a new system. They set up a system for raising money, a committee to draft the Code of Practice and a Committee to appoint commissioners. The Press Complaints Commission came into existence in January 1991.
In the first few years, we had some difficulties. But we have learned from the experience. We think self regulation is working effectively in Britain. Both the present government and the previous government agreed that self regulation should be left to work and there are no plans to introduce a privacy law at present.
Q: Does the PCC deal with complaints regarding intrusion into privacy?
A: Yes. Some 15 percent of the complaints concern intrusion into privacy — next to complaints about inaccuracy, which is around 60 percent. Privacy is an important and sensitive issue. That is why in 1994 it was decided to appoint a Privacy Commissioner. I am an ordinary commissioner with special responsibility for looking at complaints on privacy. All decisions are taken by the Commission sitting under the Chairman.
Q: Are there instances of confrontational nature of relations between journalists and politicians?
A: There have been complaints from politicians that what they said is inaccurately reported or their children put into public spotlight. However, 90 percent of the complaints are from members of the public and not so many from politicians or public figures. Confrontation is the exception rather than the rule. Back in 1991, relations between the press and the public were bad and strong moves were made for a statutory body. Since then relations have improved considerably. The editors try to support the code and make it work. Politicians have become more sophisticated in dealing with the press, so we do not have a permanent atmosphere of confrontation.
Q: Can you give some examples of the complaints the PCC has had to settle and the decisions taken?
A: It is important that 90 percent of complaints are resolved by informal conciliation. In most cases, editors offer an apology or publish a letter and the case is dropped by the complainant. Only 10 percent go through to the final stage of adjudication. That indicates the extent to which we have won the confidence of the editors.
If we uphold a complaint, the newspapers must publish the critical adjudication in full with due prominence. They always do, partly because they are committed to the code of practice and also they do not want a statutory body.
To give an example of a complaint, a newspaper reported that the nephew of a Cabinet Member of the last government was dying of AIDS. The hospital was not identified but by mentioning the name of the politician people were able to identify the nephew. When the politician complained, the newspaper argued that it was in the public interest to report that a tragedy of this nature could go to the heart of the government. The Commission took the view that it was not justified. The boy became newsworthy only because of his relationship to the politician. Part of the Code is concerned with protecting innocent friends and relatives of well known people. There are special criteria with regard to protection of children.
Q: Do the Queen and the Royal family approach the PCC?
A: There have been complaints from press officers of the royal family. In the case of the princes, there should be a balance between privacy and legitimate public interest. There has to be an assessment on the part of the palace of the amount of information to be given. Newspapers should be mindful of the extent to which a succession of stories can have an accumulated bad effect on the lives of the boys.
Recently there were a number of minor stories reported about one of the royal princes. Although as a single story it is not much, a succession of them would make the prince feel he is living in a gold fish bowl. We have made it clear that the royal princes are entitled to the same consideration as other young people. It is somewhat difficult because they are special and under a high degree of public scrutiny. So far arrangements have worked well.
A number of amendments, with regard to the degree of privacy and harassment, were made to the code after the tragic death of Princess Diana. Now there is a better agreement about the boundaries that should be drawn round the Royal princes so they can live normal lives.
Q: What other countries engage in self-regulation formula?
A: Interest is developing throughout Europe. Sweden has had a similar system for a long time. Spain has a system and Russia is interested. India has a statutory body. There is a great variety of systems, some self regulatory, some statutory and some a mixture. Interest is growing in the British model. We are convinced that every country that wants to set up a media regulatory body has got to do develop it in its own way. If Sri Lanka wants to do it would be different from any other system.
We are able to accept the principles of right to freedom of expression, right to privacy, obligation to protect persons and public interest. Sometimes these principles conflict with each other. Nobody has complete freedom of speech. Nobody has absolute privacy. We can disagree on public interest. Newspapers think that public interest is best served by access to information but governments think otherwise. We have to strike a balance.
Q: What are your views on criminal defamation laws?
A: In Britain, we rarely use Criminal Defamation. It is very much a last resort. The preferred route is Civil Defamation. The tendency is to look for an out of court settlement. It can be very expensive for newspapers and litigants. In Britain, the existence of the self regulatory system has offered an alternative non-legal method of settling these disputes that might have gone to court. It is not something that politicians are particularly keen to pursue.
Q: You had meetings with Ministers G.L. Peiris and Mangala Samaraweera. What were their views on self regulation?
A: We had a good exchange of information. We had constructive and positive discussions. I have the feeling there is general sympathy with the idea of developing a self regulatory system. They were sympathetic in principle. They want to see how it works. Countries have to find their own way. It is an exercise in building confidence and trust. It is an experiment of trial and error.
From the Blue Corner
My unseen friend, Viruddha Paakshikaya must be a worried man these days. Writing in these pages last week he displayed his anxiety over what he calls was a propaganda exercise that marked the fifth anniversary of the Peoples' Alliance assuming office.
If UNPers themselves would care to reflect on Viruddha Paakshikaya's observations objectively, they can only come to one conclusion- the so-called propaganda exercise was a huge success and spelled doom for the UNP at the next elections.
I know Viruddha Paakshikaya is a UNPer but I do not know whether he is an acolyte of the J. R.-Lalith-Gamini-Ranil camp or whether he is from the Premadasa-Cooray school.
But if he is from the latter, he should be the last to complain about last week's celebrations because we all remember how much of state money was spent unnecessarily every year to boost one person's ego, by staging an annual propaganda show that coincided with his birthday.
But it is no wonder that Viruddha Paakshikaya takes issue with the government for this celebrations for he knows it was the ultimate proof that the people at large are still with the government, even though it may not have kept all its promises. And that is because they have faith in President Chandrika Kumaratunga and they know the PA remains their best option.
That may sound rhetorical, Viruddha Paakshikaya but why don't you analyze the actions of your own UNP? Look at what your leadership is doing these days and you will realize how removed you are from the political realities of the day.
As far as the UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is concerned, the burning issues of the day are the 'Channel Nine' controversy and the alleged 'tapping' of his e-mail by Minister Batty Weerakoon.
Tell me, Viruddha Paakshikaya, do these issues affect the people of this country? You would argue that the 'Channel Nine' issue would be of interest because it is related to alleged corruption. That may be so, but does it in anyway alter the way in which people of this country live their daily lives?
The same holds true for Ranil Wickremesinghe's e-mail. You and I well know that more than half the people of this country wouldn't know what e-mail is but here you are, believing that it is a crisis bigger than Watergate!
And while we are on the subject of e-mail, I believe Minister Batty Weerakoon has given your leader a suitable reply, accusing him of trying to launch a hi-tech espionage operation to sling mud at the government. Now, how will you defend that charge, Viruddha Paakshikaya?
Nevertheless, all your indignant protests over the e-mail issue may have been justified if you had pursued the other issues at hand also with the same enthusiasm. But has the UNP done that, my friend?
The most critical issue facing the nation today, the ethnic crisis, awaits a resolution if not for the dilly-dallying of the UNP and its vacillating leadership. Your leader is quick to pounce on the political package formulated by our Professor G. L. Peiris and that good man, the late Neelan Tiruchelvam and denounce the package as a betrayal.
But what does he offer by way of an alternative? Sweet nothing, except a deafening silence.
Does that not prove that the UNP today is not a responsible opposition but merely a party playing for time for the sake of political gain?
Then, consider the Executive Presidency, another issue about which you make such a hue and cry and even stage protest marches. Does your party categorically say it will abolish the Executive Presidency and return to the British-style Parliament with a Prime Minister as head of government and answerable to Parliament?
Of course, not. All that Mr. Wickremesinghe says is some nonsense about the head of state, be it the President or the Prime Minister being directly elected by the people. So, for all we know, the UNP never says it will abolish the Executive Presidency though it protests vehemently against the PA not abolishing it!
Then, Viruddha Paakshikaya, consider the issue of privatisation. It was J. R. Jayewardene who brought that concept to this country and we acknowledge it because we know the policy of a free market economy is advantageous in a fast changing world where socialist economies are crumbling.
For that reason, when we came into power five years ago we did not throw the baby away with the bath water. If J. R. Jayewardene became famous for his advocacy of an open economy by saying "let the robber barons come", Chandrika Kumaratunga became famous for her concept of an open economy with a human face by saying "I have been a good socialist but I can become a better capitalist."
In keeping with that policy the PA government took bold steps to privatise services that the UNP dared not-to- telecommunications, gas supply, the national airline and the Colombo port significant among them.
If the UNP, knowing President Chandrika Kumaratunga's past record as an ardent socialist expected the PA government to revert to the closed economy advocated by her mother they were disappointed. But what does the UNP now do to counter that, Viruddha Paakshikaya?
Your Leader Mr. Wickremesinghe issues a blanket pronouncement: the privatisation of the Colombo Port and the Sri Lankan Airlines will be abrogated if and when the UNP returns to power! Fortunately for the country, I was told by a leading business magnate that not many foreign investors are bothered by this statement because they know that it is a big 'if' and a rather distant 'when'!
Anyway, is that the statement of a responsible Leader of the Opposition, Viruddha Paakshikaya? Here we are, countering LTTE propaganda and trying our utmost to lure overseas investors to fund projects in our country. And when we succeed in securing attractive deals the Opposition leader dampens all that investor enthusiasm by issuing a virtual threat to all prospective investors!
These are the issues- unlike Channel Nine and Ranil Wickremesinghe's e-mail- which affect the day to day lives of our people, Viruddha Paakshikaya but this is how you respond to such issues. And you expect the people to vote for you at the next election!
And then, there is of course this 'Channel Nine'. I hope my colleagues in the government will pardon me for saying this but I believe that in a purely political sense, the Channel Nine controversy may be the best thing that happened to the PA government in recent times.
Why I say that is because ever since Channel Nine the UNP seems to have abandoned all other political strategies in the hope that Channel Nine would see them through to victory at the next election. And even Viruddha Paakshikaya is guilty of the same complacency- he talks of Channel Nine 'snowballing into a bigger crisis' and the PA 'committing collective political suicide' over it!
And this thinking seems to be all-pervasive in the UNP for the UNP leadership seems to have taken pains to ensure that the TNL television station had their reply to Rupavahini's 'Aththa Neththa' programme- which was a disaster for the UNP- through the 'Janahanda' programme last Monday.
I have no grouse with that but all this only shows how pre-occupied you are with this Channel Nine and that is why I say it is the best thing that happened to the PA.
Remember, Viruddha Paakshikaya, people in this country vote mostly with their stomachs and Channel Nine has nothing to do with that!
As for Viruddha Paakshikaya's attempt to belittle Sir Arthur C. Clarke's prediction that President Chandrika Kumaratunga would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, I agree with my unseen friend- this is one prediction that Sir Arthur has got wrong: she will win the prize indeed but it won't take that long.We in the PA know that once President Kumaratunga is re-elected she will take bold measures to end the ethnic war and end it will, sooner than either Viruddha Paakshikaya or even Sir Arthur C. Clarke imagines!
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