By Ranga Kalansooriya –
Many eye browsers certainly were raised following a comment by an (non-media related) state official during a high level meeting of State media heads along with a top politician previous week, several participants told this columnist. Ironically the top politician has left the meeting for a while when this incident has allegedly happened but a heated argument between this particular official and a State media representative was cooled down by another top official and several others.
What was the issue? The official has accused a particular state media station alleging that it is has not understood the political line of the government and does not follow the necessary news protocol.
What is this particular news protocol for this official? Always news bulletin should start with the President. The concerned media person has argued that the state media should not necessarily follow the government protocol line-up in their news agenda, but the only guiding framework should be the news value. One of the main accusations on the previous regime had been the misuse of state media and thus the January 8 change was to bring a new state media culture as well, the state media head has argued. Things should not be repeated under the new regime, it had been highlighted during the meeting.
The role of State media has been a core issue within the discussion of media reforms in Sri Lanka. There had been several discourses on the issue for the past couple of decades but nothing has worked while the status of the state media has been deteriorated. Not only the standards of the content, but the conduct of its practitioners too, went beyond acceptable norms. Some editors and journalists of state media institutions became speakers on Rajapaksa political platform while others went to the extent of conducting press conferences supporting Rajapaksa.
One main concern still remains intact is the inflexible attitude of the practitioners in the state media sector. Not only for this particular official who raised his voice during that particular meeting, but for many journalists and media practitioners within the state media this strange news agenda protocol still exists. According to them, the top news should always be allocated to the President or the Prime Minister while more newsworthy stories getting less priority. The news agenda should follow the line of state protocol. Efforts to change this attitude have not brought desired results.
Whether state or private, the corporate influence on the news agenda is a global phenomenon. As the private corporate ownership consider the media business as his/her own property [which is fair enough], the governments too think that the state media is a [unwritten] property of the ruling political party or its henchmen. We have seen these developments for decades and the worst was the last four to five years where the state media was openly engaging in ‘prostitution’. During the campaign period for January 8 polls, it came to a point of no return. But neither the excessive use of state media nor the excessive expenditure of funds could never brought victory for the culprits.
Of course, people voted against those mal-practices but are we seeing drastic changes within the state media following that socio-political change on January 8? I am not convinced and satisfied at all. Except for some good endeavors by a very few state media outlets, all the others are still following the same routine and the news protocol – where President, irrespective of newsworthiness, often comes first in the bulletins or on the front pages.
What determines newsworthiness? Among a few academic arguments Galtung and Ruge (1981) has ten elements – relevance, timelines, simplification, predictability, unexpectedness, continuity, composition, involvement of elite people, elite nations or well know venues and negativity. Zelizer and Allen (2002), too, describe newsworthiness in ten elements which are more pragmatic compared to Galtung et al. Those are: immediacy and event-orientation, drama and conflict, negativity, human Interest, photographability / good visuals, simple story lines, topicality, exclusivity, status of information source and the local interest which is mostly related to the “So What” factor.
But for state media (and of course for some private media as well) these factors that determine newsworthiness and the news agenda do not matter, but the line of protocol. Several officials who has no idea on media and its nitty-gritty, too, feel that state media should follow their advices and guidelines in determining the news agenda of the day.
One could never expect any government letting state media to become true public service media institutions or privatizing them. But at least it could let the journalists therein to be professionals by providing some free environment to perform. We can still remember even a tough President like Premadasa always requested state media newsrooms to carry at least one news story on the front page of the daily newspapers. When this writer was manning the election desks of the state print media newsrooms for several occasions, opposition was allocated with at least forty percent of the space. Editors always encouraged political reporters to bring stories covering the opposition and news pages were somehow balanced to a considerable extent.
However, situation was deteriorated to its maximum during the past couple of decades. The efforts of the Yahapalana (Good Governance) regime should be to bring professional standards to state media by introducing drastic changes to the systems. That would include attitude, aptitude and structural revolutions from within.