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.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.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’!