‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

In their ceaseless efforts to keep their organisations in the media spotlight, spin doctors of development agencies are distorting news values and corrupting the media, turning issue-based communication products into ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.

This is the thrust of my latest op ed essay, titled ‘Cheque-book Development’ corrupting the media. It has just published by the popular media-watch website anchored in the US, MediaChannel.org

Image courtesy MediaChannel.org

In this essay, I draw on several years of first hand observations in development, humanitarian and broadcasting circles at Asian and global levels. I focus on a disturbing practice that more and more development/humanitarian agencies engage in: paying intermediaries for getting their stories on global news and current affairs TV channels.

This is nothing short of cash-for-media coverage.

Here’s an extract:

“As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.

Image courtesy MediaChannel.org Cartoon courtesy Global Journalist

Some of these communication officers I write about have become friends over the years — I empathise with their pressures, but don’t approve of what their organistions do. As I write in the essay:

“This practice is wrong on two counts. One, allowing intermediaries to sell access to the airwaves is a form of corruption. Two, every time this happens, it siphons off tax-payer supported development funds intended for combating poverty and suffering in the majority world.

“It is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.”

Make no mistake — this is a form of media corruption. It’s not just the development sector’s vanity that fuels this process. Many 24/7 news channels are struggling to fill their hours inexpensively. Some turn a blind eye to ethical sourcing as long as they can have a steady supply of subsidised content.

Read my full essay on MediaChannel.org

Note: Being a US-anchored outlet, MediaChannel.org spells ‘cheque-book’ as ‘check-book’, which is correct in American spelling of English! As I write in my essay, it appears that TV channels and networks on that side of the Atlantic seem a bit harder to corrupt. But then, what do I know?

Read my Nov 2006 essay on MediaChannel.org: Ethical News Gathering Challenge for Al Jazeera

I have been speaking about the growing threat of cheque-book development for some time. For instance, I referred to it during Communicating Disasters: An Asian Brainstorming organised by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP in Bangkok in December 2006.

Essay republished on Asia Media Forum

India and Pakistan: Still struggling to grow up at 60!

See 23 March 2008 related story: Arthur C Clarke – Of Nukes and Impotent Nations (commentary on nuclear arms race in South Asia)

Today, 15 August 2007, India marked its 60th anniversary of political independence from the British. Pakistan, which was created by the British partitioning of India at the time of independence, marked their 60th birthday yesterday.

So here’s wishing the Indo-Pak combine a meaningful 60th.

For human beings, 60 is a landmark age. In some cultures, it marks the beginning of senior citizen stage. Wisdom, maturity and exemplary conduct are assumed and expected of those reaching 60.

When it comes to nation states, however, things don’t quite work that way. India and Pakistan at 60 are a good example.

Yes, they have made significant advances on many fronts in the past six decades. But before that progress can be celebrated, we have to take note of the political and socio-economic turmoil that these two nations — harbouring close to 1.5 billion human beings between them — find themselves in.

Those tensions are exacerbated by the bitter nuclear arms race between these two still-impoverished nations.

When it comes to geopolitics of nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan behave worse than two sill school boys. This is how my friends at Himal Southasian magazine summed it up brilliantly:


And here’s another Himal cartoon which punctures the juvenile male obsession with weapons of mass destruction:

Image courtesy Himal Southasian

So let’s hope that the 60-year-olds will finally begin to act their age at least now!

AV against HIV: Recalling my own ‘Richard Gere moment’

The 8th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, or ICAAP8, opens in my home city of Colombo in a few days’ time. As I wrote in an earlier post, some of us have been blocked out of this important event by some arrogant members of the conference Secretariat. But our interest in HIV/AIDS advocacy will not be so easily deterred.

On a positive note, I have vivid memories of my active involvement in the XV International AIDS Conference, held in Bangkok, which attracted over 17,000 delegates to the Thai capital for a week full of events and activities. One of them was the official 2004 International AIDS Film Festival, which TVE Asia Pacific organised at the invitation of the Thai Ministry of Public Health and the International AIDS Society.

2004 AIDS Film Festival in Bangkok 2004 AIDS Film Festival in Bangkok 2004 AIDS Film Festival in Bangkok 2004 AIDS Film Festival in Bangkok

Over 4 days, we screened close to 50 TV and video films at three venues, drawing a total of more than 8,000 visitors. These films came from all over the world, in response to an open call that we had issued. We received a rich mix of genres: documentaries, docu-drama, current affairs programming, short television spots as well as entertainment formats — animation, dramas and reality television.

Films at this festival captured the kaleidoscope of emotions, challenges and contradictions presented by the AIDS pandemic. They were evidence of how TV and film professionals are covering HIV as a major development concern of our times.

That formidable task — which we summed up as ‘AV against HIV’ — received a boost when movie industry heavyweights joined in. We had documentaries narrated by Angelina Jolie, Will Smith and Glenn Close.

And while we were organising the festival, actor-activist Richard Gere sent the word saying he was interested in being associated with it. Of course we seized the offer, and had him open the film festival — hugely raising its profile in the Thai and international media.

2004 AIDS Film Festival banner by TVEAP Richard Gere arrives for 2004 AIDS Film Festival, Bangkok Richard Gere being welcomed by Thai children

After three years, I can still remember the moving speech that Richard Gere made at the opening ceremony in the Scala cinema in downtown Bangkok. Talking to an audience packed with diplomats, businessmen, journalists, activists and government officials, he said his experience with persons living with HIV had changed his life even more than his study of Tibetan Buddhism.

He recalled how he had lost a very close friend to HIV. “I don’t want anyone else to die like that,” he said, adding: “It (AIDS) has gone on too long, way too long.”

Then he did something simple yet very effective. He asked everyone who knew at least one person living with HIV to put their hands up. A few dozen hands went up in an audience of around 500.

Next, he said: hands up everyone who has lost at least one person to HIV. Some hands went down while three dozen remained held up.

I did not put my hands up for either call.

That was a moment of truth for myself. Until then, I hadn’t really, closely known anyone who was living with HIV (and disclosed that fact to me). I also had not lost anyone to HIV. Not knowingly anyway.

As the event progressed, I sat there asking myself:
• What kind of little comfort zone or cocoon am I living in?
• What kind of society do I live in, where very few people – if anyone – would dare to acknowledge they are living with HIV?
• And how can I remain authentic, communicating HIV from such a detached standpoint?

Richard Gere at XVI AIDS Conference in Toronto, 2006

I’ve been writing and speaking about HIV for almost two decades. In that time, I have touched on many aspects of HIV, including:
• The science of HIV/AIDS, as a science communicator;
• Public health aspects of the global pandemic as a feature writer;
• The human rights dimensions of HIV, as a development communicator; and
• Nexus between media and HIV, as a media watcher/researcher.

But I sat there in the Scala cinema wondering if it was sufficient for me to have done all that with the objectivity of a journalist, or the clinical detachment of a researcher.

I then realised that when it comes to HIV/AIDS, we have to suspend these ordinary frameworks and ‘conditioning’ of our training.

We have to:
• Stop thinking of it as someone else’s problem;
• Get away from the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset;
• Understand that no one is immune or buffered from the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV; and
• More than anything else — stop living in denial.

These apply to individuals, communities, society — and also governments.

That was my Richard Gere moment.

Read TVEAP news report on 2004 AiDS Film Festival

See more photos on 2004 AIDS Film Festival on TVEAP website

Photos by Jerome Ming and Indika Wanniarachchi for TVEAP