Satinder Bindra: It’s the message, stupid (and never mind the UN branding)!

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya at IFEJ 2009 Congress


Satinder Bindra left active journalism a couple of years ago when he joined the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as its Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information (DCPI) based at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi. But thank goodness he still thinks and acts like a journalist.

Satinder, whom I first met in Paris in the summer of 2008 soon after he took up the new post, gave a highly inspiring speech to the latest congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi from 28 to 30 October 2009.

We have gone beyond the cautionary stage of climate change, and are now acting out ‘Part II’ where we have to focus on what people can do, he said. “Climate change is no longer in doubt, and if anything, the IPCC’s scenarios are turning out to be under-estimates.”

He was referring to the IFEJ congress theme, “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Satinder sounded emphatic when he said: “We have a limited time in which to reach as many people as possible. Environment is the single biggest challenge we face in the world today, and we as journalists have a tremendous responsibility in providing the latest, accurate information to our audiences.”

He added: “There is still a debate among journalists on whether or not we should be advocates for the environment. We should not be scared to push the best science, even if we don’t choose to engage in advocacy journalism.”

Satinder mentioned the “Paris Declaration on Broadcast Media and Climate Change,” adopted by delegates at the first UNESCO Broadcast Media and Climate Change conference held in Paris on 4-5 September 2009. It resolved to “strengthen regional and international collaboration, and encourage production and dissemination of audiovisual content to give a voice to marginalized populations affected by climate change”.

Satinder, who was a familiar face on CNN as its South Asia bureau chief until 2007, acknowledged that the media landscape was evolving faster than ever before. “Thanks to the web and mobile media, our distribution modes and business models are changing. YouTube has emerged as a key platform. Viral is the name of the game.”

His message to broadcasters, in particular, was: “You may be rivals in your work, but when it comes to saving the planet, put those differences aside.”

Copy of Seal the Deal

A call to the whole planet...

Satinder is spearheading, on behalf of UNEP, the UN-wide Seal the Deal Campaign which aims to galvanize political will and public support for reaching a comprehensive global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

To me at least, the most important part of Satinder’s speech was when he said that he was not seeking to promote or position the UNEP or United Nations branding. His open offer to all journalists and broadcasters: “If you need to use the hundreds of UNEP films, or make use of our footage in your own work, go right ahead. We want you to make journalistic products. There’s no need or expectation to have the UN branding!”

Wow! This is such a refreshing change — and a significant departure — from most of his counterparts at the other UN agencies, who still think in very narrow, individual agency terms. They just can’t help boxing the lofty ideals of poverty reduction, disaster management, primary health care and everything else within the agenda setting and brand promotion needs of their own agencies.

I have serious concerns about this which I have shared on a number of occasions on this blog. See, for example:
May 2007: Feeding Oliver Twists of the world…and delivering UN logos with it!
August 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos
October 2007: The many lives of PI: Crisis communication and spin doctors
July 2009: Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

In a widely reproduced op ed essay published originally on MediaChannel.org in August 2007, I wrote:

“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’.”

Let’s sincerely hope that the pragmatic and passionate Satinder Bindra will be able to shake up the communication chiefs and officers of the UN system, and finally get them to see beyond their noses and inflated egos. It’s about time somebody pointed out that vanity does not serve the best interests of international development.

See also April 2007 blog post: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

WCSJ London
“Why can’t researchers pay media to cover their work?”

This was the question asked by one African editor participating in the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week. He raised it during a luncheon session titled ‘Friendship or Friction: How the media relates to the research community’ organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

The question was asked in apparent sincerity and seriousness. Since media space/time is limited, and different groups and interests are competing to get in, he reasoned, why can’t research budgets include a legitimate allocation for buying newspaper space or radio/TV air time.

Luckily, good sense prevailed and the suggestion was gently cast aside by the moderator. Participants felt such a practice, if allowed, could seriously distort both the news values of media organisations and their public service brief. Listening to this exchange in the audience, I heaved a sigh of relief.

It’s true that many mainstream media organisations are struggling these days to stay in business. But resorting to selling their column inches or air time to the highest bidder would take them a whole different realm where advertising and public relations set the agenda.

This can cast a long and dubious shadow...

This can cast a long and dubious shadow...

This 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’.

In August 2007, I wrote an op ed essay on this concern, titled ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?. It appeared in several websites, and was later reprinted in newspapers such as Nepali Times. I was reacting to a disturbing trend where development agencies were simply throwing money at the media to gain access for their (supposedly public interest) messages.

I wrote: “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’.”

Read full essay: ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?

I have long argued, and shown with results, that there is really no need for productive researchers to pay anything to have their work covered in the media. If all they want is to bring the essence of their analysis, findings and recommendations to the attention of public and policy makers, there are ways they can engage the media without paying. I’ve called this Hitch-hiking with the media.

If on the other hand, researchers or their institutions want ego-massaging, vanity-promoting kind of coverage, the media will be far less likely to provide that for free. Throwing money is then the only way forward, but beware: it’s a slippery slope…

See also:
1 December 2007: Moving images moving research…beyond academic circles
16 December 2007: Teleuse@BOP film launched at GK3 – Interactive Quiz – a novel format to communicate research

Read SciDev.Net’s blog post on the same session