Colombo Telegraph

The Dilemma That Faces Our Media 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

It has been said that poor minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas. Sadly, our print media and TV fall mainly into classes One or Two, or a mixture of the two, but seldom makes it into into class Three. Many opportunities for change are available, but missed. Consequently, (the much maligned Social Media) are made aware of their power and responsibility. Predictably, Governments that should blush in embarrassment, choose to adopt the paths of vengeance or blackmail. That their efforts are impotent is evident. Since they are not able to refute well-supported but inconvenient truths, they increase their venom. The social media naturally exult in their invincibility. A grateful readership become increasingly reliant on this source. Prohibition is apparently, insufficient cover for deceit.

The print media face a dilemma – whether to be fiercely independent and face the wrath of the State, or to take the path of comfortable compromise. Our newspapers cover the whole spectrum between servility and impartiality. An angered State may react by depriving them of State advertisement or even denying access to newsprint. Such things have happened before and a certain degree of discretion is to be expected.

Television

This is a very potent tool for disseminating information and for entertainment. There are some interesting and instructive local programs for sure, but the bulk of the content is crap. Two complaints of many viewers are (i) that peak time is expended on puerile content. Soap operas should not be at times when families could or should, spend quality time together. Consequently, Revision Classes are instead consigned to around 5 am or 6 am! At this time, householders are busy preparing for the day ahead, or are still asleep (ii) advertisements in the main, are patently silly (but some admittedly are clever) and boringly repetitive. So much so that many find them “off putting” and thus counter-productive. When Sports commentaries (especially cricket), are interrupted to urge one to brush ones teeth with a magical toothpaste or to rub on some particular oil, when our team is batting (often sadly, for a limited time), when some stupid message blanks out just the balls where things happen! Thank heavens for remote control! As if our own “Teledramas” are insufficient, they seem ready to import stuff from our giant neighbor and even from further East. A cash-strapped country like ours should discourage this import, and use the resulting savings to import milk powder for infants or, canned fish instead!  

A novel ruse is to offer prizes to those who can prove 3 or 4 uninterrupted hours of Peak Time watching their (often intolerably boring) transmissions in order to qualify for a Motor Cycle, Food Mixer, or whatever. Time that could be better spent.

The enormously powerful electronic inventions – where “smart” phones can do virtually anything except, (for the time being), scrape Coconuts, the results are bad. Conversation and social contact are inconvenient interruptions to the unceasing pecking of lap-held Smart Phones. Whatever became of that plan to provide PC’s for each MP? This could be useful as an alternative to the usual dozing off, including even by the Front Benches, in post-prandial slumber! The “Nanasela” programme (or whatever) of the last Government, was supposed, among other things, to keep our rural folk updated on such matters as prevailing metropolitan prices for their produce. What ever happened to this essentially ridiculous move, other than to perhaps providing sizeable commissions for those who engineered this crazy deal? It is rumoured that the “Best Price” of the chosen supplier was 200 percent of the real market price for identical equipment. This is big money! Over a thousand computers (irrespective of whether electricity was available or not) were to be down-loaded on farmers who paradoxically, cannot still sell their paddy at the officially ordained price! The latest caper is to gift Laptops to “A Level” achievers! Upon them becoming undergraduates, this merciful generosity will perhaps be the preferred alternative to them joining in Street Protests, of no conceivable relevance to student needs. This will enable the exchequer to make substantial savings on Tear-Gas, Water Cannons and security overtime. This is a magnificent example of the claim of “Scientific” management of State Finances, which were campaign promises. A person no less than a former PM, smilingly confessed that Party Manifestos and promises are merely bait for election hooks.

Newspapers

It is clear that popularity and circulation have little to do with quality and content. Thus the “better” papers have the smallest circulation. Servility it seems is a prerequisite for patronage, (and protection from marauding thugs). Denial of State advertising is the crude weapon employed to tame non-malleable editors. 

Many hilarious things happen. President, PM and Ministers are so often shown to be “(dis)gracing” irrelevant events. Thus much “political time” is wasted. The tragedy is that officials too need to be present. It was once claimed that errant officials were identified, for transfer to some remote station. The sheer numbers of such ego-boosting ceremonies, means that they leave very little time for officials to attend to what they are paid to do. Errant, and helpless officials run the risk of being tethered to trees. At the same time, the more resourceful ones may perhaps fudge their travel claims as well. It has often puzzled me that very casual visits of panjandrums (now in ample numbers) see to it that their Publicity Teams are present with cameras are at the ready to record these important events. Believe me, one pompous character held up proceedings of an important conference until his Team was ready to film him lighting the “Traditional Oil Lamp.”  A relatively recent development is for the “mournful” bigwigs at funerals to solemnly bow to the corpse with palms piously pressed together. I await the day when a corpse would rise to acknowledge the salutations of the cowed heads of the important! 

A new practice is for the newspaper representatives (identified by the tags on their mikes) to waylay the departing (not in the sense that you may be led to surmise, considering the event just referred to), to get a “Voice cuts” or “Press”-  another new development, where often important governance matters are revealed. 

One might ask whether it is really necessary for a paper to provide repeat “mug shots” each time an important person is mentioned. This could result (not uncommonly), in a repetition six or seven times, in the same newspaper issue. It could even be seen as insulting to a person whose face can be expected (by him) to be familiar to most readers. 

Recently, I was stunned to see a picture of our Veddah Chief being interviewed on TV, seeking his views on the recent Late Army Worm out breaks that are ravaging cultivations of Maize and other crops, thus hurting the farm economy. While appreciating the value of harnessing “Traditional knowledge”, this seems like taking things a little too far. What about our Entomologists and other Scientists who may be expected to know a bit more about this pest than “Vannialage Aththo” doing in resolving this particularly serious matter? They cannot possibly be deep in the forests, collecting honey or drying “Bush Meat”?. Was it really necessary for our President to be shown frying oilcakes and beating rabana tunes with a bewildered bevy of village womenfolk? What about that solemn (and ludicrous) spectacle of bigwigs, with outstretched arms, swearing commitment to be teetotal. Nazi salutes have been out of fashion for decades! 

I wonder whether any paper would publish this. If they do, it will show their commendable readiness to entertain what may be considered as unacceptably harsh criticism! What cannot be cured must be lampooned.

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