A Greek among geeks: Importance of asking the right questions…

Ask, ask and ask again....!
Ask, ask and ask again....!
Contrary to a popular perception, I’m not a geek. If anything, I’m closer to the ancient Greeks than geeks.

This is how I summed up my own self when talking to a group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this month.

I explained: I keep asking more questions than I can answer. The ancient Greeks did the same – they were the first to ask many fundamental questions in philosophy and science. They didn’t always get the answers right, but started quests that lasted for millennia…

As Ed Johnson recently wrote: “We have so many things to thank the Greeks for, from philosophy to democracy. They were the ones who established the first civilization, governed by free citizens. Individual liberty has been the basis of civilization ever since.”

It so happens that I recently completed 40 years in this business of playing the Greek. As I recalled a few weeks ago on the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, I had an early start in asking difficult, sometimes irritating, questions.

I’m fortunate to be welcomed among media practitioners as well as media researchers. I’m not a card-carrying member of either group, but I have great fun hobnobbing with both. This is what Irish journalist-cum-academic Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘having a foot in both graves’!

And I’m also grateful for being allowed into the community of geeks, especially of the IT, ICT and gadget-wielding kind.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone…

I cry, therefore I am
I cry, therefore I am
“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,” urged Mark Antony to fellow Romans after Julius Caesar died.

But what if you simply don’t have any tears to shed? That’s what my eye doctor recently cautioned me, after a routine examination. The natural tearing in my eye, necessary for keeping it moist and clean, wasn’t quite working. There is nothing to worry, he hastened to add, for it sometimes happens as our bodies slowly age. He asked me to use eye drops twice a day for a while.

This set me thinking about the value and power of tears. Although most land mammals have a lacrimation system to keep their eyes moist, humans are the only mammal generally accepted to cry emotional tears.

In my circles, I’m known to be an emotional guy. I have never believed in that macho myth of men not crying. I shed tears of joy and tears of sorrow, sometimes in public. I cry when people I know, admire or love leave this world, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. Powerful movie moments of triumph or despair often move me to tears, as do simple joys of life — such as seeing my kid perform well on stage in a school concert.

Despite what my doctor says, I’ve been shedding plenty of tears this year.

I openly wept when journalist colleague Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down in broad daylight on a cruel January day. He was Sri Lanka’s real leader of the opposition.

My eyes were completely misty when the news of the original TV news anchorman and broadcast giant Walter Cronkite passed away on 18 July 2009 after an illustrious career spanning decades.

Have tears, will shed...
Have tears, will shed...
Two weeks later, I joined millions of Filipinos in mourning the passage of Cory Aquino, the courageous woman who led the world’s first People Power revolution, toppling one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century.

In contrast, Michael Jackson’s death on 25 June didn’t immediately move me to tears, even though I quickly wrote a tribute. But the live broadcast of his star-studded funeral service on 6 July did. I watched it in the solitude of a hotel room in Amsterdam on a warm summer evening, and cried — as much for the tragic end of the man as what he stood for. Those tears inspired the op ed essay on the two Moonwalks.

I can add more to this list if I think long enough. The point is: my eye specialist’s clinical examination didn’t capture these highlights (lowlights?). There’s a part of our emotional lives that our doctors may never fathom. We ourselves are often barely aware of it.

A recent article in Reader’s Digest (March 2009 issue), titled Big Boys Don’t Cry — and Other Myths About Men and Their Emotions, said new research reveals that a man’s emotional life is as complex and rich as a woman’s, but often remains a mystery to him as well as to any woman who loves him. You can say that again!

Conventional wisdom doesn’t encourage or celebrate grown men crying. One of my favourite poems is ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, which opens with these memorable lines:

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.”

My close friends think I’m melancholic by nature, and long ago I came to terms with who and what I am. I don’t spend my days lamenting or weeping, for sure, but I also don’t hesitate to cry when the emotion warrants it.

If that means I weep alone, so be it.

‘Saving the Planet’ new Asian TV series is ready for release!

It's planet saving time...and everybody is invited!
It's planet saving time...and everybody is invited!

Can ordinary people help save our planet?

What does it take to change their attitudes and lifestyles to consume and waste less?

For over two years, my team at TVE Asia Pacific and I have been working on a new TV series, modestly called Saving the Planet. It will be released at a regional conference in Tokyo, Japan, on 22 August 2009.

In this Asian series, produced in partnership with Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU), we profile successful initiatives that combine knowledge, skills and passion to create cleaner and healthier environments.

It was filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia: Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand.

The groups profiled in Saving the Planet often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

Watch the series trailer here:

The dedicated website has just been revamped for the launch.

Watch out for more updates!

The XYZ Show: New horizon in political satire on African TV, but room to grow?

Anyone can do ABC; it takes effort to make it all the way to XYZ...
Anyone can do ABC; it takes a special effort to make XYZ...

Update on 1 Sep 2009: Controversy over XYZ Show: Kenyan politicians forgetting Hakuna matata?

I ended a recent blog post, News wrapped in laughter, with this thought: “There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter.

An interesting experiment in political satire on Kenyan television has just ended its first season on 9 August 2009. It’s a show called the XYZ Show, which was broadcast weekly on Kenya’s Citizen TV. Started in mid May 2009, the first season introduced Kenyan viewers to a new form of satire television, with life-sized puppets made to resemble famous persons, mostly politicians.

Gado the Creator
Gado the Creator
The XYZ Show was inspired by famous puppet satire series like the British “Spitting Image” and the French “Les Guignols de l’Info” shows. In the XYZ Show, the puppets commented on news and current events from both Kenya and overseas.

The XYZ Show was developed by a team led by Kenyan cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, alias Gado. He is the most widely syndicated cartoonist in East and Central Africa. He publishes a daily cartoon in The Nation, the largest newspaper in Kenya, and his work has been published in Le Monde (France), Washington Times (US), De Standaard (Belgium) and The Japan Times.

According to its creators, the XYZ Show challenged famous figures from Kenyan high society and politics using humour and satire. It aimed to become a new forum for social and political debate, one that provides room for open discussion.

Watch XYZ Show’s first episode trailer, produced one year ago:

Says the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, which supported the show’s production: “Although freedom of the press is a constitutional right in Kenya, it is difficult for many journalists to practice their profession without interference. Gado and his team hope that the XYZ Show will contribute positively to strengthening freedom of the press and increasing political and social awareness among the people of Kenya. The show provides commentary on current social and political developments and aims to use humour and artistry to reinforce freedom of speech in Kenya.”

From what I’ve been able to watch online, on the show’s YouTube channel and elsewhere, the production values are at a high standard, comparable to such shows made in Europe and East Asia. The puppets are attractive, movements convincing and the pace quick and slick.

Who pulls his strings?
Who pulls his strings?
The producers have also tried hard to make XYZ more than just a TV show. The website, in English, shows how the content is being adapted for the web (as webisodes) and mobile phones (as mobisodes). The show’s official blog takes us on to the set and shares with us the story behind the story, and introduces us to the artists and technical geniuses involved. Full marks for trying to engage the audience.

Then there is Barack Obama. Using his Kenyan connections, the show casts him (really, a puppet in his image) in a ‘supporting actor’ role. This has clearly inspired some interest in the show beyond Kenya.

So far, so good. But how does it work with the audience? The show is directed mainly at local audiences, and even if it’s presented in a mix of English and local language, it’s not something a complete outsider like myself can appreciate.

So I ‘crowd-sourced’ by asking a Kenyan reader of my blog, Marion N N, for her opinion. Marion is part of Sojourner, which her blog introduces as “a social enterprise that exists to promote the origination, production and distribution of African viewpoints through visual media. We are passionate about African film-making and seek its viable promotion globally”.

Marion wrote a comment in her blog after watching one episode a few weeks ago. She lives and works in Kenya, and her views are far more valid than my own.

Behind the screen, creators at work...
Behind the screen, creators at work...
She wrote: “My first off impression was fascination about the quality of the show in terms of animation which is very new to the local TV production scene in Kenya. Once past the fascination of the animation, I found that the content failed to hold my interest, connect with me or engage me as an audience. As a socio-political spoof show, humor ideally should be the hook that captures audience but in this case, humor comes across as mindless, illogical or simply stupid action on the screen. As if in evidence to this fact, at some point my husband in between laughter remarked ‘This show is really stupid’. I would imagine this would be a compliment to the Production becuase it provoked laughter in a viewer. However beyond that moment, it seemed only natural for us to flick over to more substantial entertainment having enjoyed that brief flight of fancy that failed to arouse an appetite for more.”

Marion also wondered what the show’s intended audience was, and highlighted the many challenges in getting the levels and balances right in doing political satire: “That politicians sometimes (nay, most times) behave ridiculously is not new or fresh. But the treatment, underlying themes, ideas communicated to audiences should be. Why do I suggest this? Because political satire by its nature speaks to an audience that is fairly mature, and exposed. To use childish humor that is poorly developed will not hold the audience’s attention. Infact at some point the content may become a tad irritating to watch. Political satire needs to be treated with a peppering of fact, wit, fresh perspective or take -out: The achievement of some underlying objective and not just mindless visual gimmicks that lead to the feeling of ‘stooping to idiocy; by audiences. This seeming insult of intelligence causes us as an audience to switch off.”

XYZ Show logoIn my own view, The XYZ Show had at least three major challenges. Doing any puppet show is hard enough, and these days the on-air competition is neither local nor fair: it comes from global entertainment corporations like MTV and their regional variations, usually with deep pockets. Doing political satire is even harder, especially if the political culture is intolerant or repressive. To get the look, feel and balances right in a country where such a show is being done locally for the first time is a formidable challenge by itself.

But I’ll let Marion have the last word. In spite of the various concerns, she feels that the XYZ Show has ‘room to grow and conquer the airwaves’. But, as she notes, “The production team have their work cut out for them in pre-production. It’s back to the drawing board and ask who is my audience? What appeals to them? How do I connect with them, define an objective for the show and its audiences? Research facts and opinions about national sentiment on issues then develop scripts and sequences…”

Read Marion’s full comment on her blog

All images used on this blog post are courtesy The XYZ Show.

Cory Aquino (1933 – 2009): Unleashed People Power, still haunting tyrants worldwide

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film
The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

I know this post appears rather late, but I couldn’t let Cory Aquino’s death on 1 August 2009 pass without comment. The original inspiration for People Power that toppled one of the worst tyrants of the 20th Century, she would now turn the Patron Saint of peaceful democratic struggles everywhere.

Last week, I was reduced to tears reading two links that my Filipino friend Ruth Villarama, who runs Voyage Films in Manila, sent me of new comments posted on their website.

In the first post, A housewife, a leader, an angel in yellow (3 August 2009), Joan Rae Ramirez wrote: “Her death at 3 AM on August 1 has stopped a nation from its apathetic works to once again remember what was once fought by this ordinary housewife. It is on these rarest moments where the oligarchs came down from their kingdoms to pay their respect and mingle with the people who truly represent the real state of the Philippine nation.”

Karen Lim, who works with Voyage Films as a producer and project coordinator, wrote a more personalised piece titled The Famous Anonymous.

It opened with these words: “I see her on TV. In some instances I even covered her for a story. Our relationship did not go deeper than the reporter-subject, or the audience and the watched. Yet I feel a certain affinity to the most revered President. And when she died I got sad, a strange feeling of sadness where the source is unknown.”

Karen was too young to have remembered much of those heady days of the People Power Revolution of February 1986 — a series of nonviolent and prayerful mass street demonstrations in the Philippines that eventually toppled the 20-year autocracy of Ferdinand Marcos. Indeed, a whole generation of Filipinos has been born since. But that doesn’t stop them from relating to the monumental events that unfolded at at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known more commonly by its acronym EDSA, in Quezon City, Metropolitan Manila and involved over 2 million ordinary Filipinos as well as several political, military and religious figures.

As Karen wrote in her tribute: “Cory’s life became ours too. We watched her, sometimes we joined her. We experienced her highs and lows. We are her “Mga minamahal kong kababayan”(my beloved fellowman). She did what no stranger did in my family – unite us in prayer for the country, unite us in laughter amidst the uncertainties of those times. I had no personal connection to this lady, but I have now every reason to mourn her passing.”

Woman of the Year 1986
Woman of the Year 1986
I can only echo her Karen’s words. As a politically curious 19-year-old, I had followed with much interest the daring gamble and eventual triumph of People Power unfolding thousands of kilometres away from my Colombo home. In the pre-Internet era, and before satellite TV channels provided 24/7 coverage across Asia, my sources were daily newspapers, evening news bulletins on local TV and, once every few weeks, the second-hand copies of Time magazine passed on to me by an uncle. The housewife in yellow ended up becoming Time Woman of the Year for 1986, with Pico Iyer writing a suitably reflective piece.

In the years since the return of democracy – with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies – I have stood at EDSA more than once, and wondered what it must have been like to mobilise millions of ordinary, concerned people in the days before email, Internet and mobile phones — communication tools that today’s political activists, and indeed everyone else, take for granted. There is a thin line between a non-violent struggle and a passionate yet violent mob that, ultimately, works against their own interests. I am amazed that Cory and her activists didn’t cross the line, despite provocations and 20 years of repression.

Of course, it wasn’t just the human numbers that turned the tide in EDSA. Cory Aquino’s charismatic leadership and moral authority persuaded other centres of power – including the Catholic church and sections of the military – to align with the struggle to restore democracy. It was this combination, and the sudden change of mind by the Americans who had backed Marcos all along, that enabled People Power to triumph.

Elsewhere in Asia, where these elements didn’t align as forcefully and resolutely in the years that followed, the outcome was not as dramatic or positive. We’ve seen that, for example, in places as diverse as Tiananmen Square in China (1989), Burma (2007) and most recently, in the streets of Tehran, Iran. In contrast, it did indeed work and ushered in regime change in places like Nepal, even though it entailed more protracted struggles.

What interests me, in particular, is the role played by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in such People Power movements. Alex Magno, a political analyst and professor of sociology in Manila, sees clear links between new communications technologies and political agitation. Interviewed on the Canadian documentary Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002), he said: “In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology. The (1979) Iranian Revolution was closely linked to the audio cassette. The first EDSA uprising in the Philippines was very closely linked to the photocopying machine and so we called it the ‘Xerox Revolution’. Tiananmen, the uprising that failed in China, was called the ‘Fax Revolution’, because the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighbourhood because of the fax machine. The January (2002) uprising in the Philippines represents a convergence between electronic mail and text messaging. And that gave that uprising its specific characteristics.”

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural
Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural
But it was People Power II in the Philippines that is perhaps the best known example of ICTs fuelling and sustaining a revolution. The ability to send short text messages on cell phones helped spawn that political revolution in early 2001, a full decade and a half after the original wave that swept Cory Aquino into office.

President Estrada was on trial facing charges of bribery, corruption and breach of the public trust. Despite mounting evidence against him, the President was let off the hook. That was the turning point. According to Ramon Isberto, a vice-president at Smart Telecom in the Philippines: “People saw it on television, and a lot of people were revolted. They started text messaging each other, sending each other messages over the Internet, and that thing created a combustion.”

Because of texting and email, within two hours over 200,000 people converged in the main street of Manila demanding the president’s resignation. The vigil lasted for four days and four nights, until President Estrada finally got the message and stepped down. It ended with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo taking her oath of office in the presence of the crowd at EDSA, becoming the 14th president of the Philippines.

Those events have been documented, analysed and interpreted by many people from various angles. The Cold War had ended and the geopolitical map of the world had been redrawn. By this time, 24/7 satellite television was commonplace in Asia and the mobile phone was already within ordinary people’s reach. Gloria was no Cory, and Estrada wasn’t Marcos. But the forces and elements once again aligned on EDSA, and with history-making results. The role that the humble mobile phone played is acknowledged, among other places, in a mural in Manila.

Saving MSM Titanic – or is it lifeboat time for its passengers?

Unthinkable? Not any more...
Unthinkable? Not any more...
What is to be done? The innocuous question has probably been asked by so many individuals throughout history. Lenin famously asked it in 1901, and then spent the next few years cooking up a revolution that changed history (for better or worse, depends on where you come from).

What is to be done? I popped this same, unoriginal yet useful question during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

The context was not sparking revolution, but coping with evolution: how to survive and adapt at a time when mainstream media (MSM) is under siege from technological change, loss of public confidence and economic recession.

Why do I care? Unlike my new media activist friends, who cannot wait to see the MSM ‘mediasaurus’ die, I see value and utility in this ‘species’ that has evolved for over 500 years. Yes, there is much that is not right with them – including greed, arrogance and narcissism. But MSM’s outreach still remains unmatched in many parts of developing Asia, where we simply cannot wait until the online/mobile media to evolve, scale up and establish themselves to completely serve the public interest. I will thus engage the dinosaurs as long as they remain useful…

Besides, not all members of the mediasaurus clan are ferocious and carnivorous; there are also many gentle, ‘vegetarian’ ones among them who have always been empathetic and caring. I see merit in the adaptation of these better MSM, if only so that we don’t have to put all our eggs in the online/mobile media basket…

So I spent part of my talk asking aloud how the MSM – under siege – can adapt fast and increase their survival chances. The overall suggestion was that they move out of denial or resistance, and instead try to ‘exploit the inevitable’ (a pragmatic policy if ever there was one!).

Here are some initial thoughts I offered:
• Prepare for coming calamity, by taking advantage of the likely delay in its arrival in our region and our island.
• Consider it a ‘cleansing’ process, a new beginning to do things better.
• Decide what’s really worth saving, and let go of everything else that is no longer useful or relevant.

Let’s remember, too, that the very term ‘media’ is a plural. That means:
• One size doesn’t fit all; one solution won’t help/save everyone.
• Different ‘lifeboats’ can be found for different media outlets.
• You will only find out what works by trying out a few alternatives.
• No solution is fail-proof or ‘unsinkable’.

In some ways, mainstream media has behaved with the same kind of arrogance of those who built and operated RMS Titanic, and in this instance, the iceberg has already been spotted. At this stage, should MSM be re-arranging furniture on the ship’s deck — or discussing rescue plans?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?
Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?
When the maritime tragedy happened nearly a century ago, on 14 April 1912, it dominated headlines around the world for many days. But MSM was in such nascent stages at the time, newspapers being the sole dominant mass medium. Radio communication had just been discovered, but radio broadcasting still lay a few years in the future.

To adapt and survive, MSM can also learn from how other industries faced vast challenges. For example, take the time-keeper industry:
• A century ago: people had to go to a post office, railway station or another public place to find the time. Clock Towers and public clocks announced time for all.
• Then came personal clocks (elaborate time pieces) that the wealthy people carried around in pockets or handbags.
• This was followed by wrist watches – personalised, affordable and portable.
• Now, mobile phones tell us the date, time and lot else!

Clock tower makers went out of business, and no one misses them now. Watch makers have adapted with the times, and are still competing with mobile makers. The parallels with the media industry are clear enough.

Back to the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, I find others have played on this metaphor. Michelle Tripp wrote a particularly insightful commentary in April 2009 – she has no patience for MSM and can’t wait for the troubled ship to sink.

Somebody writing as ‘Global1’ has commented about how the Titanic‘s Band played on to the very end (and went down playing). S/he asks: Could This Be Analogy To The Modern Day MSM? In this analogy, MSM is the band, and their ‘music’ is the news…

Incidentally, the centenary of the Titanic‘s sinking is coming up shortly, in 2012. It would be interesting to see how the MSM/Titanic analogy plays out in the next few years…

Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?

Can this common ground expand?
Can this common ground expand?

Is there common ground between the mainstream media (MSM) and citizen journalists (CJ) that can be tapped to better serve the public interest?

This is a central question that I explored in some depth during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

MSM have gone from denial to dismissal to apprehension about this murky, distributed phenomenon called citizen journalists. But, as I asked, must MSM and CJ always compete? Must they consider each other mutually exclusive? I don’t think so.

Consider these facts: CJs are not an organised, unionised mass of people. They are a scattered, loosely connected group that is a community of practice across geographical borders and time zones. They rarely agree on anything among themselves. CJs are not out to topple MSM.

Once we get those points clarified, we can move beyond chest-thumping egotism. We can then address the fundamental values of why MSMs and CJs are both doing what they do: for the free flow of information, ideas and opinions.

Indeed, we should see how MSM and CJs can join hands more to serve the public interest. CJs today are not just frustrated poets and writers who never found a public outlet in the past. Today’s plethora of CJs include scientific experts, professionals, retirees with loads of experience and tech-savvy geeks among many others. This is a vast resource that MSM can tap into — especially in these days of leaner budgets and fewer staff.

Must everything be All-or-Nothing? No!
Must everything be All-or-Nothing? No!
And why not? Many issues these days are just too complex, technical or nuanced for even the most committed full-time, paid journalists to tackle all on their own. The information is often too vast to wade through in time for deadlines. And things are changing faster too. In such situations, can MSM work collaboratively with CJs, sharing the work load, risk and eventually, the credit?

In fact, MSM have historically relied on citizens to provide part of the content – whether they are letters to the editor, or funniest home videos, or news tips from the public that reporters then pursue. Today’s CJs can take this ‘crowd-sourcing’ to a new level.

I recently came across an interesting example of crowd-sourcing in investigative journalism – a component of journalism that is particularly demanding. Over several weeks in April – May 2009, The Telegraph in the UK disclosed the scandal over many exaggerated or false expense claims made by British Members of Parliament. This left the British public furious, and brought worldwide ridicule on the Mother of all Parliaments.

The story still unfolds. Now, The Guardian has involved readers to dig through the several truckloads of MPs’ expense documents to spot claims that merit further investigation because they seem…a tad suspicious. This is more than what a small team of paid journalists can do on their own: a total of 458,832 pages of documents need be manually checked. So far, 23,262 readers had signed up by 2 August 2009. Many hands make light work for The Guardian, whose editors will then decide which claims are to be further probed and queried.

Mobile: the most subversive ICT of all?
Mobile: the most subversive ICT of all?
Can we expect to see more of such collaborations in time to come? I certainly hope so. Under siege as they are, MSM should be the first one to make the move to search for this common ground – after all, they have everything to gain and little to lose. We can all think of tedious record-scanning, number-crunching tasks that are needed to unearth and/or understand complex stories of our times.

Of course, for such collaborations to work well, the rules of engagement between MSM and CJs need to be clear, transparent and based on mutual trust. That requires some work, but when it works well, everybody stands to gain.

In late 2005, I researched and worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke to write an essay on the rise of citizen journalists, which first appeared in the Indian news weekly Outlook on 17 October 2005. I’m quite proud of how we ended the essay: “There is more than just a generation gap that separates the mainstream media from the increasingly influential online media…Yet one thing is clear: the age of passive media consumption is fast drawing to an end. There will be no turning back on the road from Citizen Kane to citizen journalist.”

Emerging new models of collaboration in media and journalism indicate that this evolutionary road need not be a one-way street. So nearly four years on, I now raise the question that I first put to the media tycoons of Colombo the other day: Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?

I very much hope the answer is a resounding: Yes, We Can!

Hurtling towards Information Society at the speed of light – with nobody in charge?

Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine
Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine
As the 19th Century was drawing to a close, the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (later immortalised in Citizen Kane) cabled a leading astronomer of the day: ‘Is there life on Mars? Please cable one thousand words’.

The scientist replied: ”Nobody knows” – written 500 times.

This would be my answer today, if a modern-day media tycoon were to ask me a different, yet equally compelling question: where are we headed with the bewildering developments in information and communication technologies, in which the mainstream media are a part?

And that would be the easiest 1,000 words I’d have written. But being me, I laboured a lot more in addressing that question in my talk to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

If I was too reflective on media futures, I can probably blame it on the venue: the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo’s oldest and grandest, where only a dozen years ago Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote the final chapters of his novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey. A bust of Sir Arthur still stands in the hotel’s lobby.

So, with the Indian Ocean lashing gently on the rocky beach only a few feet away, and under the slightly bemused gaze of Sir Arthur, I took my audience on a quick and rough tour of the near future — the one no one about which nobody is an expert!

Here are some excerpts:

Two waves that started separately have combined to radically change how people generate, access, store and share information: the rolling out of broadband internet, and the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.

The headline figures are impressive. For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity:
More than 4.1 billion mobile phones were in use by end 2008, a majority of them in the developing world.
Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) has access to the web, at varying levels of bandwidth.
• Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.

Many of us don’t realise that even the basic mobile phone in use today packs more processing power than did the entire Apollo 11 spaceship that took astronauts to the Moon 40 years ago.

Where this growth in processing power and proliferation of devices might lead us, we can only guess — no one really knows. This can be both exhilarating for some — and very disconcerting for entities that were previously in control of the free flow of information, such as governments, academics – and dare I say it – the mainstream media!

Is that your final answer? Surely not...?
Is that your final answer? Surely not...?
They may not accept this, individual governments, and their collective known as the United Nations, don’t have full control over what is going on. But the ‘information genie’ is now firmly out of the bottle, and evolving by the day that it’s impossible to put it back inside. This is both fascinating and frightening.

If it offers any comfort, even big corporations like Microsoft, Apple or Google are all learning by doing. Everything seems to be permanently in experimental — or beta — mode…

What would emerge from the current chaos? The best brains on the planet are trying to come up with plausible answers.

There is talk about the ‘post-media age’. In the broadcast circles that I move in, they now acknowledge, quietly, that the post-broadcasting age is already dawning.

Is what we hear the death cry of the Old Order…or birth pangs of a new Information Society? Or perhaps both?

And how inclusive is that information society? As Asia Media Report 2009 reminds us, not everyone is invited to the party. Large sections of Asian society are left out.

But don’t expect such people to remain excluded for too long. Armed with mobile phones and other ICT tools, they are going to crash the party, whether we like it or not.

Encounters with Mediasaurus: Telling media tycoons what is missing in their media!

I have just been very lucky. I addressed a select gathering of media owners, publishers, editors and senior journalists — almost all of them working in the mainstream print or broadcast media in Sri Lanka — and virtually called them dinosaurs, and compared their industry to the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.

The nice people they all were, they actually let me get away with it! The occasion was the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009, held at the now-renovated Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.

Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...
Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...
Coordinated, produced and published by the Asia Media Forum with the assistance of Actionaid, the report is a quick survey of the state of media in 20 Asian countries, written mostly by working journalists and broadcasters. It focuses on how the media throughout Asia reports on marginalised people and communities in their respective societies, from the very poorest countries to the richest.

‘Missing in the Media’ is the theme of Asia Media Report 2009, and I used this as the point of departure for my talk, illustrated with many cartoons some of which have appeared on this blog. I fully agreed with the editor and contributors of the report – six of whom I know – that there are many elements missing or lacking in Asia’s mainstream media today. But instead of adding to that list, I asked a more fundamental question: at a time when the mass media as we know it is under threat of mass extinction, how do we save and nurture at least a few good things that we hold dear?

In that process, I had to do some plain speaking and tell my audience that they cannot continue business as usual and expect to remain relevant, or even solvent for too long. I referred to the famous mediasaurus essay by Michael Crichton, and traced what happened since its appearance in 1993. I also compared the media’s arrogance to that of the Titanic‘s builders, who believed the ship was unsinkable.

I will be sharing highlights of my talk in the coming days through one or more blogposts. For now, I’m still grateful that my remarks were received with good grace and cordiality. (For more, read post on ICT revolution, and post on greater collaboration between mainstream media and citizen journalism.)

I don’t do this kind of big picture talk too often, and mind my own business most of the time (which is a hands full these days). In fact, the last two occasions I spoke my mind to assorted worthies of the Sri Lankan media, the reaction was much harsher.

The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks
The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks
First was when I talked about the press freedom in the digital age to large gathering of Sri Lankan journalists and editors was the World Press Freedom Day Colombo observance in 2001. When I referred to the potential of new communications technologies – especially the (then still emergent) Internet and mobile phones – for safeguarding media freedoms, I was practically shouted down by a section of the audience. They felt I was talking about ‘western trends’ and ‘concerns too far removed from their bread-and-butter issues and survival issues’. Yet, the past few years have amply proved that if anything, I was too conservative in what I anticipated as technology’s role in promoting media freedom.

The second occasion was in mid 2004, when I was asked to speak at a Colombo meeting to mark the launch of a scholarly volume (in Sinhala) looking back at the first 25 years of television broadcasting in Sri Lanka. I was one of two dozen contributors, from diverse backgrounds of culture, science and journalism, who were brought together by the Catholic Media Centre of Sri Lanka which has a (secular) media monitoring programme. Having expressed my reflective views in the book chapter, in my speech I discussed my aspirations for the next 25 years — hoping there would be greater innovation and experimentation in an industry that seemed to be running short of both. This irked a certain local pioneer of television, who spoke after me and spent half of his given time attacking me personally and ideologically. Talk about pioneer’s syndrome. That definitely was a mediasaurus breathing fire, and I don’t want to meet one of these beasts on a dark night…

On both occasions, the event organisers apologised to me for the hostile reactions, but I was cool. By now, I’m used to reactions of all kinds in the public sphere. Given this history, yesterday’s encounter was far more reassuring that there still are good people even in an industry that is under siege in more ways than one.

I’m so fortunate to be welcomed by both media practitioners and media researchers across Asia. I’m no longer a card-carrying member of either group (if I ever was!), but I have great fun hobnobbing with both, occasionally telling them some home truths. This is what Irish journalist-cum-academic Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘having a foot in both graves’!