Mainstream morass

The dismissal of an Editor last week, and the principled resignation of four other journalists from the same masthead raises the question, and not for the first time, whether mainstream journalism in Sri Lanka survives only when it pursues, and is seen to pursue, a partisan line.

During the run up to the Presidential elections in January 2010, a prominent Sunday newspaper publicly aligned itself to support the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. This same newspaper in 2011 very publicly supported the Mayoral campaign of a candidate who was very obviously a proxy of the Defence Secretary. State media has for as long as we have consumed it supinely supports whatever government is in power. Some private media, supported in large part by business interests that can’t risk the ire of government, toe the regime’s line as much as State media. Other private media support not just opposition to government, but specific individuals and factions within the opposition. Very quickly, this all gets rather confusing and even silly. The decision to support tainted individuals over principled journalism, and partisan factions over independent critique of a systemic rot means that mainstream media is ill placed to offer alternatives to or a meaningful interrogation of governance today.

In a Twitter exchange I had with a journalist who resigned out of principle last week – a very rare occurrence – the point was made that a few voices, even within this hugely problematic setup, continued to write courageously and independently. While this is true, and the value of those voices are greater because of their rarity, the inconvenient fact remains that mainstream media has for too long used violence from government to excuse its own malpractices and a dogged unwillingness to reform and evolve. Columnists who are paid for their writing don’t stand apart from this conundrum. We are part of an industry that churns partisan dross and dresses it up as news; an industry where stenography has replaced original thought and mindless regurgitation has taken the place of intelligent questioning.

Consumers of mainstream media – readers and viewers – must share the blame. Few if any consume the media with any intelligence. We buy a newspaper, watch a channel, listen to a radio station or browse a website because it is aligned to our politics and worldview, and not because it contests our beliefs or presents us with viable alternatives. Eli Pariser, co-founder of Avaaz.org and a political and Internet activist calls this a ‘filter bubble’ – we believe so strongly what we do because we consume only what is convenient and comfortable. It is a vicious cycle. Making matters worse is the pedagogy in our schools and universities, which values rote learning and regurgitation over critical thinking and questioning. This feeds media illiteracy – a citizenry largely incapable of appreciating the difference between propaganda and incisive commentary.

The sacking of an Editor ostensibly over his lack of partisan bias is newsworthy only because it happens without any outcry from readers, perceivable loss of readership or sustained outrage from fellow journalists. This needs to change, but it is unclear how and if it will. Forward thinking journalism as flagged by Dan Gillmor’s compelling tome Mediactive are wholly alien in Sri Lanka. Save for Ravaya, not a single other mainstream newspaper I know of has a news ombudsman to investigate complaints from readers about accurate, impartial and responsible news coverage and recommend appropriate remedies or responses. The Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture two years ago noted,

“There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started… It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.”

Can we easily point to comparable thinking in our own media? Is it not ironical that clamping down on free speech post-war is occurring not just from government, but from within the mainstream media itself? Are media consumers in Sri Lanka really contributing to alternative conversations, and demanding better? If not, do we not deserve the media we have?

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Published in The Nation print edition, 17 June 2012

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