Patrick Moore: 50 years of Sky at Night on the air

The first ever book on astronomy I owned, a pocket guide to the night sky, was written by an Englishman called Patrick Moore.

Armed with the tattered book, I joined night sky observation sessions of the Young Astronomers’ Association. That was more than 20 years ago.

Hormones-on-legs that we all were at the time, we were interested in heavenly bodies at both ends of a telescope. But we couldn’t have had a better guide to the celestial wonders than Patrick Moore.

The same Patrick Moore reached a milestone in the history of broadcasting this month: he has hosted the same show on television for 50 long years, more than anyone else on any subject anywhere on this planet.

The show is The Sky at Night, which started on BBC Television in April 1957.

Sir Patrick Moore Patrick Moore presenting an early Sky at Night programme

The Space Age had not even begun, and television broadcasting was still in its formative days, when a much younger Patrick Moore presented the first Sky at Night in April 1957. But as if on cue, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik One just six months later, triggering the Space Race. Thus Patrick Moore has been our able, dependable and colourful guide to the most fascinating journey in the history of humankind – our species finally venturing beyond its ‘cradle’, the Earth.

But as another populariser of space and astronomy, Sir Arthur Clarke, notes: “Sky at Night has not been just a gee-whiz show of rockets, satellites and other expensive toys deployed by rich nations trying to outsmart each other. At its most basic, it’s a show about exploring that great laboratory within easy access to anyone, anywhere on the planet: the night sky.”

Sir Arthur adds in a special tribute to his long-standing friend:
“By the time the Space Age dawned, Patrick was well on his way to becoming the best known public astronomer in the world. The Sky at Night only consolidated a reputation that was well earned through endless nights of star-gazing, and many hours of relentlessly typing an astonishing volume of books, papers and popular science articles.”

In the 50th anniversary programme, broadcast this month, Patrick Moore traveled back in time to see the first recording of The Sky at Night . He talked to his earlier self about astronomy back in 1957, and discussed how things have changed in half a century. He then time traveled to 2057 where the ‘virtual’ Patrick, saved in the BBC computer, is celebrating 100 years of making The Sky at Night and talks to Dr Brian May about the discovery of life on Mars.

Sir Patrick Moore

Thank you, Sir Patrick, for being our affable guide to the night sky and space travel for half a century. We hope you don’t consider retirement anytime soon.

Read Patrick Moore’s brief history of The Sky at Night

BBC’s 45th anniversary multimedia tribute

BBC Online interview with Sir Patrick Moore

Sir Arthur Clarke’s tribute to The Sky at Night at 50

Press freedom in the digital age: Seeing beyond our noses and tummies

See later post on 3 May 2008: Who is afraid of Citizen Journalists?

On 3 May 2007, we mark another World Press Freedom Day.

This day is meant to ‘raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

Read more about the Day on the Wikipedia and World Association of Newspapers. (Ah yes, that cartel of governments called UNESCO also puts up a show every year to mark this day, but it’s no better than the mafia bosses coming together to pontificate about the rule of law and justice for all. So let’s completely ignore the irrelevant UN behemoth and its meaningless hot air.)

The essay I wrote two weeks ago about saving our (electro-magnetic) spectrum to safeguard media freedom and media pluralism has been widely reproduced on the web.

That’s precisely the kind of insidious, hidden dangers to media freedom that don’t receive sufficient attention at many events to mark World Press Freedom Day.

I found this out the hard way when the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka invited me to address their observance of the 2001 World Press Freedom Day in Colombo. In the audience were over 250 Sri Lankan journalists and editors, and my topic was global trends and challenges to press freedom.

I decided to talk about ICTs – information and communication technologies – and how they were impacting the profession and industry of journalism. I recalled how technologies like mobile phones and satellite television had completely revolutionised the nature of news gathering and dissemination during the 1990s. The Internet was once again turning the whole media world upside down, I said: sooner rather than later, the impact of these developments would be felt in little Sri Lanka.

I argued that by being well informed and prepared, we could adapt better to the new challenges posed by the Internet, and we will be able to seize the many opportunities the new medium offers to consolidate press freedom. I mentioned some examples from the Asia Pacific and elsewhere how social activists, indigenous people and political groups – including separatist organisations – are using the power of the Internet to disseminate information and opinions at a low cost to a worldwide audience, and how states and their censors were increasingly unable to control such flows across political borders.

Unfortunately, a section of the audience felt very strongly that I was talking ‘pie in the sky’ when journalists in Sri Lanka were grappling with much more urgent issues of survival – such as low salaries, poor working conditions, and threats of physical harm or even death in the line of duty.

I was told — firmly — not to talk about computers and Internet when some media organisations did not even provide sufficient seating or (book) library facilities for their journalists. “Internet is good for pampered western journalists. We have survival issues,” one ardent critic said.

Now, it’s far more interesting to talk to a room full of disagreeing people. I took these comments in that spirit.

In the ensuing discussion, I readily agreed that all immediate factors mentioned by my detractors were indeed major concerns. My point, simply, was that we could not afford to ignore the bigger trends and processes that shape our industry and redefine how we reach our audiences.

Cartoon courtesy WAN

Just as terrestrial television broadcasters had to adjust and reorient themselves when faced with challenges from satellite television in the 1990s, the entire media sector – print and broadcast – has to come to terms with the Internet and World Wide Web.

I added: It doesn’t do any good to bury our head in the sand and wish it to go away. The much better option, as Sir Arthur Clarke has suggested, is ‘cautious engagement of the new media, so that we can exploit the inevitable’

Exploiting the inevitable is precisely the pragmatic approach we need. The globalisation of economics, media and information is taking place regardless of our individual opinions and reactions. By positioning ourselves for cautious engagement and to take advantage of tools and opportunities ushered in by the digital age, we can promote both media freedom and media pluralism.

Three years later, I expanded these ideas into a semi-academic paper (that is, as academic as I can ever get!) presented to the Annual Conference of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) held in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2004. I titled it: Media Pluralism in the Digital Age: Seize the Moment

It was later published in AMIC’s quarterly journal, Media Asia. Here’s how I ended my paper:

Newer ICTs can strengthen the outreach, quality and inclusiveness of the mass media. The true potential of this change can only be tapped when all stake-holders of the media play their part. A particular challenge to the ICT4D community is advocating the policy and legislative reform agenda that will enable this process.

There is an interesting post script to my experience with the Sri Lankan media on World Press Freedom Day 2001 quoted at the beginning.

During the past three years, more journalists, producers and their gatekeepers have begun using the Internet as a tool, information resource or alternative medium for expression. The initial apprehensions that some professionals harboured about this new medium have been replaced with growing enthusiasm and a recognition of its utility.

The vindication of my initially disputed seminar remarks came sooner than I expected. My most vehement critic that day was a fire-breathing young reporter then working for a Sinhala newspaper. Less than a year later, this avowed sceptic of the Internet launched his own website to disseminate news and commentary on social, political and economic issues that he felt he could not freely cover in the mainstream print outlets. The fact that his initiative did not last more than a few issues is another matter; clearly, he has been converted.

He would be happy to hear that I have been among regular visitors to his website.

Related: Media Freedom Internet Cookbook

Media Helping Media website

Eye balls and leather balls: World Cup cricket final is here!

It’s finally here: Cricket’s Big Day (or Big Night, depending on where we are on the planet).

In the Cricket World Cup final today, defending champions Australia will meet 1996 World Champions Sri Lanka. The final game is to be played at the Kensington Oval in Barbados, in the cricket playing nations of the West Indies.

As I wrote in a post when the current series started, Sir Arthur Clarke will have to look very hard today for any signs of life across Sri Lanka.

The whole nation of 20 million people will have their eyes glued to whatever television screen they can find.

They will be joined by at least a couple of billion other eye balls in the rest of South Asia, where cricket-playing nations of Banglades, India and Pakistan saw their respective teams being eliminated in the World Cup’s seven weeks of build up in the Caribbean.

Talk about moving images moving people.

Not being an ardent cricket fan, I’ve not followed the series with the religious zeal of my many friends and colleagues. But just after filing this blog post, I’m off to see the finals on a giant, open air screen.

As Reuters reported recently, cricket fever has united — at least for now — the otherwise utterly and bitterly divided Sri Lankans. I just want to be part of that moment of unity, and yes, watch some good cricket too.

Tonight’s game will use probably a handful of professional leather balls used in cricket. As cricket fans tune in to live broadcasts worldwide, it’s fair to say that never before have so many eye balls followed the movement of so few leather balls.

May the best handlers of leather balls win.

And no matter who wins, TV broadcasters will be laughing all the way to the bank…

Bill Moyers: How the American media followed Pied Pipers of Pentagon

Bill Moyers has done it again.

The heavyweight of public interest broadcasting in America has turned the spotlight right at his own industry, asking how so many members of his profession could be so easily tamed and led astray by the Pied Pipers of Pentagon.

In Buying the War, a 90-minute documentary that aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) on 25 April 2007, Moyers explores the role of the press in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Buying the War includes interviews with Dan Rather, formerly of CBS; Tim Russert of MEET THE PRESS; Bob Simon of 60 MINUTES; Walter Isaacson, former president of CNN; and John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder newspapers, which was acquired by The McClatchy Company in 2006.

Image courtesy PBS Bill Moyers

How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? How did the evidence disputing the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein to 9-11 continue to go largely unreported?

“What the conservative media did was easy to fathom; they had been cheerleaders for the White House from the beginning and were simply continuing to rally the public behind the President — no questions asked. How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored,” says Moyers.

“How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?”

The programme opened with the following words of Moyers:

Four years ago this spring the Bush administration took leave of reality and plunged our country into a war so poorly planned it soon turned into a disaster. The story of how high officials misled the country has been told. But they couldn’t have done it on their own; they needed a compliant press, to pass on their propaganda as news and cheer them on.

Since then thousands of people have died, and many are dying to this day. Yet the story of how the media bought what the White House was selling has not been told in depth on television. As the war rages into its fifth year, we look back at those months leading up to the invasion, when our press largely surrendered its independence and skepticism to join with our government in marching to war.

The show has already drawn rave reviews. David Sirota says at WorkingforChange:

I went to journalism school because I thought journalism was about sifting through the B.S. in order to challenge power and hold the Establishment accountable. Bill Moyers and the folks I’ve gotten to know at McClatchy Newspapers who Moyers highlights show that that long tradition still exists. But the fact that they are such rare exceptions to the rule also show that the incentive system in journalism today is to reward not the people who challenge power, but the people who worship it. And though Tim Russert and Peter Beinart and Bill Kristol and Tom Friedman can kick back in Washington with their six figure salaries and tell themselves that they are really Important People, what we have seen is that they are part of a new journalistic culture that is threatening to destroy what once was a truly noble profession and undermine our democracy.”

Read the full transcript of Buying the War online

Watch Buying the War online at PBS website

Read the full review at David Sirota’s blog: When journalism became transcription and reporting disappeared

Thank you, Brundtland. Now for the unfinished business…

On 2 April 2007, I posted excerpts from a speech I made in Hyderabad, India, on the worldwide influence of Our Common Future, the final report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development that came out 20 years ago this month.

I have now expanded on that theme in an op ed essay titled ‘Children of Brundtland coming of age’.

It has just been published by Green Accord, an Italian non-profit group that every year organises a gathering of leading environmental experts and journalists. The GreenAccord Forum on Media and Nature, held in an Italian city every Fall, is now the largest, regular gathering of its kind. I have been a participant or speaker at three past editions.

GreenAccord logo

Here are excerpts from my essay:

Brundtland did not invent the concept or term -– various versions had been around since the first UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972). But it was Our Common Future that took these mainly academic and inter-governmental discussions to a mass audience.

In doing so, it nudged the environmental movement to move up from simple pollution prevention, tree-hugging and whale-saving action to a much broader developmental agenda. Issues such as poverty, international trade, peace and security were integrated into one framework.

And, equally importantly, the report inspired a whole generation of young journalists, educators and activists worldwide. I was one of them: in that sense, we are all Children of Brundtland.

By happy coincidence, the report came out during my first year in science journalism, and significantly altered my outlook and priorities. My early fascination with mega-science topics such as space travel, genetic engineering and nuclear power gave way to an interest in issues of science for human survival and development. I haven’t looked back.

Some environmental journalists at GreenAccord Forum in Nov 2006

I then go on to question the continuing relevance of environmental journalism, and suggest that this kind of labelling has, inadvertently, ghettoised the media coverage of sustainable development issues.

I argue that we urgently need simple good journalism that covers sustainable development as an integral part of the mainstream of human affairs.

“We can’t engage in shoddy journalism in the name of saving endangered species or ecosystems. There is no substitute for plain good journalism.”

Photos courtesy: Zilia Castrillon

Read my full essay here

TVE Asia Pacific website news item on the last GreenAccord Forum in October 2006

Mediasaurus — and the rise of bloggers

Earlier this month, I referred to science fiction writer Michael Crichton’s 1993 Wired article titled ‘Mediasaurus’ — in which he talked about how television as we know it (or knew it, at the time) was doomed.

I’ve just come across this cartoon, which I can’t resist sharing.

Cartoonists are the social philosophers of our time. And no one else achieves a better economy of words.

Source: http://www.indcjournal.com/archives/ariaillg2.jpg

The view from a Dhaka gutter: South Asia’s urban nightmare

There I was, coming out of a Dhaka gutter, badly shaken and splattered with the mega-city’s assorted muck.

A minute earlier, I had stepped right into it in the semi-darkness of the evening. I had no idea it was coming. One moment I was walked on the side of a busy but not-too-well-lit street in the Bangladeshi capital. The next, I was thigh-deep inside an open drain carrying municipal waste and drain water.

In the fading light, the blackness of the tarred road and the gutter water merged seamlessly, creating an illusion of solid surface.

My friend Shahidul Alam (below, right, with me in a happier moment), who was a few feet away, moved fast and pulled me out. As I felt my legs and feet, I realised how lucky I had been: in spite of falling two feet deep, I was unhurt – no cuts and bruises, not even a scrape (thank goodness I was wearing shoes).

Shahidul was taking me out for dinner, and then to the airport, but Dhaka’s evening traffic had wrecked our plans. We were caught in an enormous jam caused by Bashundhara City, the US Dollar 100 million shopping mall said to be South Asia’s largest (and 12th largest in the world). There was some incongruity in that, but we were keen to get to a restaurant where we had a rendezvous with some other friends.

In the event, we were too delayed and I was risking missing my flight. So Shahidul, the excellent host that he always is, decided to buy me some take-away food that I could eat on the way to the airport. He parked his car near a wayside eatery, and called me out to choose what I’d like.

I was walking a few steps behind him when I fell into the open, concealed gutter.

If I had to fall right down to Earth, I couldn’t have chosen a better date: it was Earth Day, 22 April 2006.

nalaka-gunawardene-left-and-shahidul-alam.jpg

After I was pulled out of the gutter, we had to move quickly. I was three hours away from my flight to Singapore, and there was no way any airline would carry someone in my condition. I had already checked out of my Dhaka hotel, and in any case that was almost two hours behind us in another part of the city.

Shahidul approached the staff in a nearby restaurant – a very ordinary one – and explained what had happened. The Bengali hospitality and kindness snapped into action. I was given immediate access to their modest wash room, where I washed and changed into clothes pulled out of my travel bag.

I had to reluctantly dump my well-used pair of shoes. Shahidul lent me his sandals, and found a taxi to rush me to the airport while he’d team up with the others to join the belated dinner.

I made it to the airport – and the flight – in good time. And as far as I could tell, no one gave me strange looks as I winged my way to Singapore. After all that excitement, I even managed to get some sleep on the flight.

But I had no illusions about what happened. For one thing, I’d escaped with no injury of any kind. For another, I had merely glimpsed and only very slightly experienced a daily reality for millions of city dwellers across developing Asia.

I should know. I live in suburban Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, which has its own problems of waste disposal and cleanliness. The only difference is that in mega-cities like Dhaka (estimated population close to 12 million), the issues are multiplied and magnified.

We who live in middle class ‘oases’ within these cities tip-toe around the worst realities that the poorer citizens grapple with on a daily basis. They lack the choices that we have.

As a development journalist, I’ve written about urban sprawl, mega-cities and environmental challenges in developing Asia, where more people are now living in cities than ever before in history. UN Habitat says half of humanity has now become city dwellers. With their misleading image as centres of vast opportunity and prosperity, cities are a magnet to millions of rural poor. Like Dick Wittington, who thought the streets of London were paved with gold, they migrate to towns and cities in search of better lives. Most end up swelling the already burgeoning cities, exchanging their rural poverty for urban squalor.

Falling thigh-deep into a Dhaka gutter for a minute or two is no big deal when compared to the unsafe, unclean environments that they live in, every day and every night.

And they can’t just walk into a wayside restaurant, wash away the muck, and catch the next flight to clean, safe and landscaped Singapore.

Read my December 2006 essay, Grappling with Asia’s Tsunami of the Air

Photograph by Dhara Gunawardene