‘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
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3 Responses to “‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos”

  1. Ayesha Says:

    Dear Nalaka: You really have a problem with the BBC, don’t you? You never seem to miss a chance to run down this great public broadcaster. What is your story? Did they turn down your story pitch? Did they ignore your films? Remember the BBC is a large organisation and there can be individuals who occasionally stray out of line but that does not mean the the world’s most trusted news organisation is institutionally corriupt. Please don’t insult people who do excellent work.

  2. Moving Images Says:

    Dear Ayesha,

    Thanks for candid comment. I’m sorry if I’ve give the impression that I have some personal issue with the BBC. I can assure you I don’t.

    I have co-produced or executive produced a number of development related documentary films that had their first broadcast on BBC World, http://www.bbcworld.com, the commercial international arm of the BBC that people outside the UK watch on various cable channels. That was a useful learning experience, even though I don’t define my career in terms of that particular association.

    When bigger concerns are involved, we must rise above our personal preferences. If you read my essay, I’m not implicating BBC World; I merely cite an incident where a UN agency communication chief claimed she got a story on to this global channel by paying someone. The way I see it, that agency is more at fault for engaging in a shameful money-for-coverage practice.

    On the other hand, it would be good for BBC World management to know about these ‘access peddlers’ who go around marketing their privileged access for money. That’s a loophole BBC World and other high profile broadcasters should recognise and belatedly close, because this corruption is spreading.

    I agree with you that the BBC is doing great work. But they are not above the ethical norms of journalism. As I wrote in another essay published by MediaChannel.org in Nov 2006, the end does not justify the means. We should be watching not only what these global news channels broadcast, but how they source and produce that content.

    Read my essay, titled ‘Ethical newsgathering challenge for Al Jazeera’, at: http://www.mediachannel.org/wordpress/2006/12/06/ethical-newsgathering-al-jazeeras-biggest-challenge/


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