My column a few weeks ago titled, ‘Call off the kept inept lap-dog media!’
seems has been well-received by a cross-section of readers from whom I received several congratulatory emails. The column lamented on the fact that over the past four decades or so, it had been impossible to persuade politicians of the benefits of having a state media trusted by the public.
And now with the Right to Information Bill becoming a raging controversy, let us dwell on when the state first thought it right to implement its own right to disinformation.
Worse still, is the method in which all these governments, during and after 1973, ignominiously bent the democratic process to wantonly use the official media as their private public relations agency with few questions being raised.
However, all but the mentally deficient, have always had their doubts about the effectiveness of state-controlled institutions forging public opinion. History has proved that often. The system has been in existence far too long and has proved itself overbearingly opinionated in favour of its political command structure to be viewed with even a modicum of acceptance. Those who do might as well believe in daydreams.
And they could never allay the suspicion that the seemingly docile beast might at the crucial juncture suddenly turn and savage the very hand that has been feeding it. Yet even some of the die-hard party stalwarts have been embarrassed by the way the kept-media has circumvented several polemical issues, pandered to cover up the transgressions of their political masters and mistresses, perpetrated hatchet jobs on Opposition individuals and dished up an insipid diet of success stories on economic development and industrial progress.
Continuing to pursue a programme that cheapens rather than help cultivate public confidence is damaging and downright dangerous to boot. Unfortunately that fact seems lost on many of them. Information, we have learned by now, may be what politicians fear most. That is why they try to counter it with their own disinformation which no one tends to believe in any case.
Hanging on to a system with a gaping credibility fissure would be viewed as sublime madness. Many mistakenly believe that a controlled media is a foolproof system of fooling the voters. But foolproof systems don’t take into account the ingenuity of fools, particularly when it comes to casting their ballots.
Over the years, scores of disheartened professional journalists have fled these institutions because it caused us some perturbation, as we grappled with the tormenting question of whether our own silence over those years was compromise or cowardice. To be truthful, we did not have a choice. Many of us were embarrassed by the way the kept-media circumvented contentious issues, pandered to allay the apprehensions of their political masters and mistresses and dished up a banal diet of success stories on economic and industrial progress.
I quote from the book, The Doughty Dons of Dowa, authored by my late ‘Observer’ colleague and friend, Kirthie Abeyesekera who mentions in passing that horrible era in journalism which left an emotional scar on many of us: “The dark clouds were hanging over Lake House. In its 1970 election manifesto, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had pledged to nationalise the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon to which the Lake House group of newspapers belonged. That promise was quickly fulfilled, when eventually in 1973, the government took over the ANCL, so painstakingly built over long years of devoted service to journalism by the Wijewardene family.
“News reporting and journalism was never the same again. Editors of international journalistic calibre were replaced by political stooges. The cloth-and-banian-clad individual (name withheld) sat in the sanctified Observer editorial chair. Also other party-in-power supporters were elevated to executive positions in which they were completely out of their depth. However, they attempted to make up for their professional and social inadequacies by wielding cruel power.”
Many others whose names are mentioned along with this columnist’s, as those who walked out of the frame, will endorse Kirthie Abeyesekera’s sentiments. The press take-over had come like a malediction, blowing a pitiless political chill down the airy corridors of a once-hallowed institution.
For several of us, it was a time when our own happy, domain became hostile territory and was suddenly peopled by a motley bunch of inept parachutists, who attempted to lord it over professional journalists. Those politically appointed flunkeys comprised unsuccessful lawyers, third-rate school teachers, retired government servants and a throng of ageing revolutionary types among other hangers on.
They exuded the type of hostility that only the incapable are capable of exhibiting. They also established in this flagship of once-free journalism a sort of Gestapo network where ex-cops and paid goons literally lurked behind every pillar spying on employees they suspected of being loyal to their former employers. There were sweeping witch-hunts in which many eminent newsmen and administrators were harassed and pressurised to leave or were simply sacked for no apparent reason.
The sarong-and-banian-clad editor, mentioned by Kirthie Abeyesekera , was perhaps the only semi-literate person to hold such an exalted position anywhere in the world. Perhaps his most ignominious faux pas, was when the leftist coalition broke ranks with the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike government and he instructed this columnist, who was handling the Observer late edition to headline the story: “PM says, Bull in a Chinese shop tactics”. I told him quite categorically that the expression was: “Bull in a china shop”. He turned on me in exasperation and in his own gauche way muttered: “Same thing, no, I say!”
The exchange prompted a late colleague, George Mason, a former Associate Editor and Legal Adviser in later years to immortalise the incident by waxing poetic about it in the Sunday Observer under the title “Autumn Leaves”. I still treasure that cutting which eloquently reads:
To G. de. R.
Young Gaston had an impish streak,
What he said made stiff necks creak,
He wrote of the jet-set with style and grace,
While his looks turned many a pretty face,
Confronted with an oldster’s line of a “Bull in a Chinese shop”,
He said: “I bow to you, Mister Malaprop!”