In honor of Sri Lanka’s Lasantha Wickrematunge

Jan 12, 2009 (LBO) – “To die for the benefit of the people, is more important than Tai mountain; working for the fascists and dying for those who oppress and exploit the people, that death would be lighter than a feather.” – Mao Zedong

I did not know the assassinated Mr Wickrametunge.  So I do not know whether he would have been honored by mixed metaphors from Chairman Mao.  But it does seem appropriate for a life that served the people; and a death that leaves a very large void.  Imagine what the landscape would be without the Tai mountain; that’s what the mediascape in Sri Lanka is now.

Those who did the killing; gave the orders; and promoted the totalitarian culture that created the conditions for his death and its multiple justifications will die too.  But those deaths will be lighter than feathers.

Some say Lasantha was biased.  As one blogger said:  “a dirty politician pretending to be a journalist, murdered.”  He expanded:  “he did publish some newspapers, and edited them, and wrote in them.  but he was more than that.  he was political player. he was close friend and collaborator of politicians  . . ..”

To be a friend of a politician; to have an opinion; is this to cease to be a person worthy of praise, or at least tolerance?

Questions of bias and fairness loom large in discussions of media in this country.  Sirasa being attacked is justified because it gave only four minutes to the second capture of Kilinochchi and 13 to the despicable attack on the Air Force Headquarters a few hours later, and was thus biased.  Some people perceive bias and switch the channel; others bomb the station.

Those who want to banish bias from Sirasa do not seek the same from government-owned electronic and print media.  Those who demanded fairness from Lasantha do not demand it of Jayathilake de Silva, the editor of the Ceylon Daily News and the Observer.  The critics must be balanced, but not the propagandists.

There are several mistakes here.

Unit of analysis

First, they have the unit of analysis wrong.   It would be very boring if every story were to be internally balanced.  One can try this.  Wikinews, with its “neutral point of view” (NPOV), is the most recent sustained recent effort to resurrect the notion of objectivity in news:  But it will be practically impossible to apply the NPOV to real-time news reporting.

News reporting is a form of story telling (it’s not for nothing that we call individual news items “stories”).  Good stories have heroes and villains, winners and losers, victims and perpetrators.  The minute you have heroes and villains, neutrality creeps out the window.

People don’t read newspapers only for the “news.”  They like to read opinion pieces and editorials, where value has been added to facts by those with good writing skills and viewpoints.  Opinion columns in online newspapers are read and shared more than news stories.  By definition, opinion pieces and editorials cannot be unbiased.

If bias within individual stories cannot be eliminated, can there be balance within a specific media product such as a newspaper or a television channel?   Yes, but not necessarily.   In competitive markets, where people can choose among different media, it is abnormal for each news product to strive for neutrality.

In the same way that some people like Cream Soda and others like Sprite, different people have different tastes in news:  some like the tabloid style and others the more serious broadsheet style; some like a conservative bent to their news; others want liberal.  In England, some read the Guardian; others the Daily Mail.  The difference in content and angle differentiates the products and gives value to the readers.

When newspapers strive to reach the largest possible readership and deliver the greatest value to their advertisers, they seek to present a balance.  The New York Times carries columns by Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman from the Left and David Brooks and William Kristol from the Right.   But most people know the Times is liberal.  If you really want conservative, you’d read the Wall Street Journal, or watch Fox News.

The realistic objective is an overall media environment made up of multiple news products with different biases.   The balance is in the environment, not in the individual channels or newspapers.   Irudina is biased, but so is Lanka.  So is the Sunday Times.  Selection and prioritization create bias within each news product.

The overall environment that is constituted by Irudina, Lanka and everything in between should not be biased.  This is the achievable, and not boring, balance.  This is the balance that is sought to be destroyed by gunning down newspaper editors and setting fire to printing presses and television studios.

Government media

The second and bigger mistake is demanding fairness from private media, such as Sirasa and the Leader, and not from publicly-funded media.  Publicly funded media are the only ones that should strive to be internally fair and unbiased.  They are funded by each and every citizen and are therefore obligated to be fair.

Why should government owned media be held to a different standard than the private media?  For the same reason we expect greater fairness in procurement and personnel policies from government organizations than from private entities.   Natural justice has to be adhered to by government agencies, but not by private firms.  The remedies of writs and fundamental rights may be sought against government actions, not against private actions.

The rationale is twofold.  The first is the use of public funds, which imposes a higher standard of behaviour.  Second, the government usually does not have competition.  If I do not like the services provided by the Department of Registration of Persons, I cannot go to an alternative supplier of National Identity Cards.  Monopolies are, or should be, held to higher standards.

How would the government get its story out, one may ask, if it cannot have its own media?   Governments all over the world do perfectly fine (and much better than the media-rich but tongue-twisted Sri Lankan government), despite not running in-house propaganda machines.   If a government’s policies are any good, there would be someone in society who supports them; so one can expect that some private media would come out in support of government policies.

There are also the time-honored practices of giving speeches and creating media events that would then be covered by the media.   In addition, the government can always buy advertising:  not the pompous, self-congratulatory piffle that passes for government advertising in this country, but well-designed media messages that will actually communicate.

A life well lived

Lasantha Wickrametunge was an activist, never content with the status quo.   Since the mid 1990s his newspapers occupied the special niche of the muckraking medium, occupied in the 1960s by Aththa, and in the early 1990s by Ravaya.

Journalists working in newspapers that occupy this niche do not have to go after news; news comes to them.  They are on the speed dials of the phones of reporter -politicians; files turn up on their doorsteps.  They constitute the whistles of the whistleblowers and the daggers and scimitars of the political operatives.  Leaks are the currency of their realm; innuendo the key to their style.

They make mistakes.  And they trash careers and plans in the process, sometimes unjustifiably.   In an ideal world, they would take more care, but Lasantha and his newspapers did not live in an ideal world and they were not perfect.  They tried to move us toward a less-imperfect one.

In his short and exciting life, Lasantha Wickrametunge spoke truth to power, mostly.   His assassination was the work of those who understand neither truth nor power.  He was no Rohana Kumara.  He was too big to go quietly into the night.

Marcos killed Aquino.  Little good it did him.

Lasantha’s life would have been in vain only if we cower in a corner; only if we collectively fail to pick up the torch so cruelly ripped from his hand.   If we are that stupid, we will surely deserve whatever fate befalls us.