Development journalism

Earlier this week I took part in a two-hour live TV programme on ITN, in Sinhala, around why a development project like the Moragahakanda Reservoir didn’t get much media coverage. The choice of a project to anchor the programme to was interesting. The foundation stone for the project was laid in January 2007 by the current President, who was then a Cabinet Minister under the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Sirisena is on record how after the inauguration of the project ten years ago, moves by Mahinda Rajapaksa to strip him of key Ministries sowed the seed of his dissent, leading to the political dynamics of today. Moragahakanda is a pet project of the incumbent President, championed for a decade. The desire of both station and the specific programme may have been to prop the project as one worthy of greater mainstream media coverage. However, fellow panellist and media commentator Nalaka Gunawardene threw back at anchor a pertinent question – poor coverage relative to what? In the decade between 2005 and 2015, every drain, doorway and culvert opened, leave aside highway, port or airport, resulted in a flurry of media coverage and attention. Just after 2009, the project of deifying the Rajapaksas included sustained coverage on anything and everything they attended and cut a ribbon for – whether it was of any consequence or not. From pillars and lampposts to front-pages and TV news, from full colour, full page advertisements in the print media to the adroit use of social media, the grand narrative of development and prosperity was strategically produced and published to counter justice, reconciliation and accountability.

It worked.

Yahapalanaya promised to change all that. What is perhaps an unintended consequence, though not entirely surprising to some, is that the current government just doesn’t know how to sell itself. On the one hand, it cannot visibly use the State media in much the same way as the previous administration. It doesn’t have comparable levels of charisma amongst the political leadership. The once powerful story of a democratic, peaceful shift away from authoritarianism is now lost, largely because government didn’t know how to run with it over the longer-term. The media story today is one anchored to the failure of government to achieve and sustain meaningful reform. Given the circus of media coverage over the past decade, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe may in fact be desperate to effectively tell an apathetic public that it is doing lots of interesting stuff. Desperation is a bad basis for strategy. This isn’t going to end well.

For starters, Moragahakanda and similar projects undertaken from 2005 onwards have an associated debt that isn’t clear or always in the public domain. A demographic between 18 – 34, first time voters and more generally engaged in socio-political discussions over social media, aren’t those tuning into ITN or going to websites run by government ministries. Given the debacle of being outed for peddling outright lies regarding investments by Volkswagen in Sri Lanka, plus the largely negative media publicity around the Hambantota economic zone (to the credit of the JO and the Rajapaksas, who played their hand very well)we have now a government is desperate for positive spin and favourable coverage. The ITN programme may have been thought of as a way to place on record, through State media, the importance of one project and the scale of its returns over the next years. There is, to the credit of the gentlemen who appeared on behalf of the project and no doubt deeply committed to it, a lot (of very good things) that the media should have covered about Moragahakanda, but have not. Coverage, as it is always the case, is limited to the President’s comments and his visit. The cure though is not through official propaganda. My submission was three-fold, though it is unlikely to gain traction in government.

One, focus on the millennials, using social media as the primary vector. Inheriting debt is no cause for joy, and the debt portfolio of Sri Lanka being what it is, youth today may well wonder why they should be interested in much less cheering for projects, hundreds of kilometres away from them, with no visible benefit to their lives and yet had to pay for through taxes. A recent multi-media campaign by the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) – the marketing equivalent of rigor mortis – shows how poorly even the more progressive arms of government really understand communicating with a key demographic that placed them in power. Conversely, the focus on Facebook and Twitter Q&As by Mahinda and Namal Rajapaksa, just over the first weeks of 2017, suggest they are far more in tune with how this demographic engages, accesses news and information and makes up their minds. In a post-truth political and media landscape, those who are often first to screens are also those who shape minds the most, independent of factual merit. A government that doesn’t have the institutional agility, imaginative capacity, foresight and indeed, humour to appeal to a key political constituency, spread across the island, is not one who long-term success can be bet on.

Two, data. Lots of it, in raw form and in the public domain. Government sponsored news and information is precisely that. Propaganda done right is what the JO and Rajapaksas were, nay are good at. Compelling stories, virally distributed, can entertain, shift focus on to or away from key issues – which as much as it can be a force for change, is often used to gloss over inconvenient truths. Data around projects, from design to implementation, anchored to tenders, procedures, projected costs, cost over-runs, yield, return of investment, benefits, risks, opportunities and challenges can contribute to a culture where citizens, communities and media use what’s in the public domain to hold government accountable. In raw form – also sometimes called machine-readable form – this data can contribute to citizen driven socio-economic modelling, visualisations that simplify complexity and data-driven stories that through production and publication can strengthen governance and accountability. The shift from propaganda – or State led media initiatives – to a data driven media production culture is not just symbolic. Substantively, the debate when anchored to public data is around facts and figures, and much less about spin and opinion. Everyone, including government, stands to benefit from this.

Three, an inquiring mind and openly questioning. I had the mission statement of The Economist magazine in mind when I proposed this on TV. On the contents page of every issue, though rarely noticed even by long-time subscribers, the magazine says it was established to take part in ‘a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress’. Infusing this spirit into the quality of media production and publication around governance is a good thing. Towards the end of the programme, this scared the anchor who thought I may have been asking citizens to rebel and revolt on the streets. While this too is a feature of democracy, what I stressed more on-air was what our existing education system stymies from kindergarten onwards – independent, critical thought. A clash of ideas was what I wanted to see. Good journalism that looks at development is nothing more than a set of questions framing an issue, place, person or process. It pits ideas against each other.

It is unclear if ITN itself understood the thrust of these three points, much less government. We seem to be stuck in a groove where personal cults, sycophancy, uncritical media and the worst sort of propaganda go on to define how we see, and appreciate, much of what is done with our money and in our name. The best form of coverage a government can get is through the interest of citizens to question it hard, and over the long-term.

Yet that’s precisely the currency so many in politics fear.


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