A false front page in a leading English daily newspaper last week highlights two significant and inter-related problem sets. The false page advertised the campaign against illegal drugs by the President. On Twitter, I quipped that it was a collector’s edition. The English is so bad, it borders on the poetic and inadvertently sublime, featuring words that don’t exist and sentences that are utterly meaningless. For good effect, there is even mention of a spy service to save children.
It is unclear how much public money was spent on this advertising Titanic. It was so bad, the newspaper took the unprecedented and extraordinary measure of distancing itself from the false front page, noting that the Editorial team wasn’t involved in the content creation. This revelation captured the second issue, around journalistic integrity and ethics. That all print and electronic media rely on advertising for their existence is well-known, as is the fact that the state is the largest advertiser in the country. Controlling media by curtailing advertising is a silent weapon to contain the spread of inconvenient truths wielded by all governments.
One is sympathetic to traditional media that relies on false front covers for financial viability. But especially when public money is involved, it is not unfair to ask questions around integrity, accountability and ethics. If the newspaper’s Editorial, faced with the sheer inanity of the false cover, was forced to distance itself from its content, the question was asked by many on social media as to why the newspaper allowed it to run in the first place.
A crack at an answer takes us to a dark theatre of operations where out of fear or seeking favour, government courts and engages with a vulnerable media open to its parochial agenda or advances. The vulnerability is not evident. By all measures, media owners are prosperous. They set the frames through which millions perceived domestic affairs. It used to be the case that social media was thought of as an alternative domain, entirely distinct from and immune to the corporate, statist, partisan or parochial framing of traditional media. I am unconvinced this was ever the case. It is certainly not true today.
Traditional media has a large, influential footprint on social media, under their own brands and mastheads or through a plethora of associated web platforms and social media accounts. The hidden and complex economy that sustains this is complex but underpinned by – aside from favouritism and nepotism – a simple equation around access to advertising.
One newspaper – Ravaya – provides the only exception to this rule, where an ownership and profit model pegged to the journalists who work in it provides a bulwark against bias creep and elusive ethics. The disastrous false cover flags a culture where one dares not edit or deny publication to content sent from the most powerful political office in the country. To edit would be to insult the intelligence of an incumbent, even when available evidence provides little to no indication of its existence. To deny publication would be to risk the enduring ire of both person and political party, risking immediately or when back in power sometime in the future, the direst financial consequences.
Connected to this is news from February that should have got far more traction than it did. In just around a month after it was constituted, four out of seven members appointed by Minister Mangala Samaraweera to monitor state media institutions resigned. There is no news of the committee since. In an email exchange with an erstwhile member of the committee seeking to know why the resignations took place and so soon, I learnt that there was no real interest by the Prime Minister and government to make state media truly independent.
This is despite the inglorious behaviour, output and take-over of state media during the constitutional crisis late 2018, following a long, sordid tradition of partisan servility anchored to the government of the day. Quick to decry one private newspaper not known for its professionalism and ethics, a more established, larger culture and context of corrosive relations, corruption and control was less discussed.
All this aside, serious questions around the incumbent President’s intentions abound and endure. On social media, photos of the salute made by the President, PM and other senior political figures at the launch of a new drug prevention programme resulted in both significant concern and convulsion. Though entirely unclear how the symbolic association with Nazi Germany can help in the President’s war on illegal drugs, the photos reveal a mentality and intent that are frightening.
Material published online suggests large-scale investments by the Presidential Secretariat in surveillance equipment from Israel, which ostensibly bought for one purpose today are in effect turnkey solutions that can easily and invasively target critics, dissidents and activists tomorrow. This is the same clandestine process, risible justification and self-serving acquisition that was vehemently condemned during the Rajapaksa regime, but is now countenanced without any resistance from the Prime Minister and government.
A rotting carcass of Yahapalanaya, led by a President who has no demonstrable awareness of or interest in constitutional governance, is also allowed to reintroduce the death penalty. Though by no means unpopular, the reintroduction places both President and Prime Minister – as self-styled custodians of Buddhism,with wrists perennially covered in thick white thread– in a hypocritical bind, unable to explain how ahimsa is compatible with the gallows.
The great and growing himsa of the country’s political culture and traditional media’s inability to hold it in check charts a disturbing course ahead, with no signs of correction. Faced with the prospect of an electoral candidate whose campaign is pegged to unyielding discipline over a lenient democracy, the incumbents seek to sell an image of zero tolerance and populism, going after votes they never had and will never get.
Last week’s false front cover is a metaphor for an inter-dependent political and media culture we are unable to grow out of. Optics over reform, expediency over principles, populism over principle. Using the protection of women and children as an excuse for all manner of intrusions into and erosions of privacy. Safeguarding Buddhism as a cloak. Using the media to promote propaganda, knowing that big media is dependent on the state for its survival, Sirisena uses a tried and tested political recipe.
The tragedy is not in what he is doing, but in how far removed it is from the promise of what he was elected to do.With elections leading to a windfall of revenue, it is unlikely a single traditional media platform will on principle deny space for or refuse to give voice to those in power, or anyone likely to regain it. What we are left with is the illusion of a vibrant public discourse, when in fact, so much of it is vacuous and akin to airport fiction – consumed by many to escape a more dreary reality.
I see last week’s false front cover, in the manner it was published, as a revealing and rare moment of honesty – where an essential ugliness, when exposed, is so repugnant, everyone profiting from it disavows responsibility, only to do it again another day.