‘Cheque-book development’: BBC World News editorial air time being sold to development agencies?

The BBC Trust – an independent body which safeguards the values of the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation – recently faulted the BBC Panorama series for faking child labour footage in India, apologised to the corporate house falsely implicated, and returned a prestigious TV award won by the 2008 programme concerned.

This was certainly a welcome move. But there is much more that the guardian of BBC values can and should investigate, among them the conduct of the BBC’s global TV broadcasting arm currently branded as BBC World News (earlier called BBC World TV). In this context, I want to draw attention to an op-ed essay I wrote in August 2007 that flagged an on-going practice where publicity-hungry development agencies were paying intermediaries who are apparently selling editorial coverage on BBC World. This is unethical and possibly illegal. I called it ‘Cheque-book development’.

The essay originally appeared in MediaChannel.org, an outspoken media-watch website produced from New York by the highly respected ‘News Dissector’ and media activist Danny Schechter. MediaChannel.org has since experienced funding difficulties and their online archive is currently not accessible. My op-ed also appeared, in full, at Asia Media Forum where it is still available.

Excerpts of the essay were featured in my blog post of 15 August 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

I am reproducing the full text of my op-ed essay without any changes so it is more widely available. Despite expressions of dismay from fellow media watchers, there was no reaction of any kind from the BBC at the time. Let us hope the BBC Trust will now consider it worth looking into.

‘Cheque-book development’ corrupting the media?

By Nalaka Gunawardene (August 2007)

BLURB: 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’.

There is a new kind of ‘tout’ accosting development and humanitarian agency officials at international meetings.

These smart and well-heeled persons are not looking for a supply contract. In the age of spin, they are offering agencies ‘product placement’ – in the globalised news media.

“I can get your agency on BBC World,” is a common claim. In some quarters now, Al Jazeera International (AJI) is also being mentioned.

This is not an over-enthusiastic journalist looking for a scoop. These intermediaries are peddling the jealously-guarded access to highly visible news and current affairs TV channels.

Some are freelancers or stringers, while others are film production company executives. Their media access is hard earned: they all have track records of producing TV news features or documentaries to international broadcast standards.

There is only one problem: they are not supposed to sell this media access to the highest bidder.

But it happens more frequently than we suspect.

I have personally witnessed this kind of offer being made. Worryingly, the development community does not find anything ethically or morally wrong with this practice.

One possible reason: the competition among development and humanitarian organisations for public recognition has intensified in the past decade. Their communication officers are under tremendous pressure to raise the profile of their organisations -– and in some cases, of egotistic bosses.

So when a cash-for-media coverage opportunity comes along, it is too good to be missed.

The obvious question is hardly raised: how come access to a trusted news outlet is being marketed? Instead, many development professionals simply ask: how much?

The answer depends on how many precious seconds of air time, on which broadcast outlet and for what kind of story. But we are not talking about small change: some of these deals involve fifty or hundred thousand US dollars.

And those funds are drawn from the already tight communication budgets of development and humanitarian agencies.

At Asia Media Summit 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, the regional communication chief of a leading UN agency told me how she’d worked with such an ‘access peddler’ to get a post-tsunami story on BBC World TV. The few minutes of coverage almost drained her budget – but the agency management was highly pleased with their ‘few minutes of fame’.

I found that it was not a BBC staffer but a freelancer who was involved. Money had exchanged hands, though I didn’t find out how much, or on what kind of contractual arrangement it was done.

This is not an isolated incident. 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’.

The access peddlers know this weakness very well, and have turned it into a veritable cottage industry.

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.

Some media outlets are harder to penetrate than others. CNN International regulations prevent access peddling by its staff or intermediaries. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States does not allow interviews with representatives of any entity sponsoring the production or broadcast of a programme.

Sadly, not every broadcaster is as careful.

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’.

Some practitioners might argue that the end justifies the means. But beyond narcissism, the development benefit of logo-delivery media coverage is highly debatable.

Journalistic stories, whether on development, humanitarian or any other topic, must earn their place in the media on their intrinsic value. Despite greater corporatisation of the media, a good story can still stand up on its own.

Attaching cash to a development story seriously distorts those news values, making it harder for other development players to get rightful media coverage for their stories.

The origins of this unhealthy trend dates back to at least the 1970s, when the World Bank and some UN agencies started buying air time on public television networks to broadcast promotional films. Throwing money was a lot easier than working with producers to generate sustained coverage on issues of public interest. This spoilt the chances for others who were not willing or able to buy airtime but had public interest content to offer.

Paradoxically, the same development agencies take to the moral high ground on transparency and corruption in the global south. But as they broker more cash-for-media coverage deals behind the scenes, we are left gasping at the hypocrisy of it all.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on media, development and society. The views in this essay are entirely his own. He can be reached on and he blogs at https://movingimages.wordpress.com

Sri Lanka: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

This is one of my favourite images. Showing southern part of India and my native Sri Lanka, it was captured by one of the early US space missions, nearly four decades ago.

Much has happened on the tear-drop shaped island since this image was taken: among other things, we’ve been through a civil war that lasted a generation, and robbed the dreams of at least two generations. That war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

The Day After, on 19 May 2009, I wrote a 1,500-word essay titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace. The editor of Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s leading citizen journalism website, published it in full, and within minutes of my emailing the text to him.

I’m humbled and gratified that in the past few days, it has been widely read, commented on, quoted online and reproduced. Some have agreed with me; others have dismissed me as a naive dreamer. A writer cannot ask for more.

20 May 2009: MediaChannel.org (New York) reproduces the essay in full

24 May 2009: The Sunday Leader (Colombo) reprints the essay in full

I look back briefly on the brutal and tragic war – not in anger, but in great sadness. I then look forward in a wistful, dreamy mode. My premise was: “Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.”

This is not exactly what I’ve been trained to do. As a science writer and film-maker, I gather and analyse information, which I try to present in logical, coherent and accessible ways. In recent years, I’ve also been writing op ed essays in areas where I have some competence and experience. In writing this essay, I consciously departed from all that. I’m neither political scientist nor activist to engage in ideological or technocratic discussions, which others have already started in earnest. I wrote this at an emotional level, looking back and looking forward.

But my training did come in handy in framing the timely and necessary questions. My chosen ‘author intro’ for this essay thus reads: “Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer.”

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

If my views come across as naive or idealistic, I shall plead guilty as charged. My emotions this week are best described as cautiously optimistic, but as some readers on Groundviews pointed out in their comments, our high hopes have been betrayed before. But can we afford not to dream privately and publicly at this juncture? I don’t think so. We have suspended our dreams for too long, and it’s time to start dreaming again.

There are as many kinds of dreamers as there are dreams. One of my favourite quotes comes from the British soldier and writer T E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame): “All men dream, but not equally…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Now on MediaChannel.org: Good communications to combat swine flu?

They turn the spotlight inwards...

They turn the spotlight inwards...

MediaChannel.org has just published my latest op ed essay titled: Good communications to combat swine flu?

7 May 2009: New Age newspaper in Bangladesh has reprinted the essay

24 May 2009: The Hindu newspaper in India has reprinted the essay in its Sunday Magazine

In this essay, I have expanded some points originally made in two recent blog posts, on 30 April and 1 May 2009.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Flu shots, quarantine measures and hospital care alone cannot counter the current flu outbreak. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and other communicators to mount the public awareness response. Ideally, they should reinforce each other.

“For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, a majority of them in the developing world. Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) have access to the web, even if 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.

“Can these information and communication technologies (ICTs) help disseminate the right kind of flu awareness? How fast can we mobilise 24/7 media outlets and telecom networks to inspire preventive and curative action? What can the blogging, texting and twittering new media activists do in such efforts?”

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Looking for models of communicating against an infectious epidemic, I recall the Asian experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) . I summarise in this essay the public interest roles played by Asian media during the SARS crisis, which has been studied and analysed in considerable detail.

I then return to one of my favourite points about communicating disasters and crises: the need for credible messages and credible messengers. This was a core theme in the Asian book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in 2007. I also highlighted it in this interview given to APC in early 2008.

Here’s how my essay ends: “Whether it is SARS, HIV or tsunami, many Asian governments have suffered from a credibility gap in managing information about emergencies. For example, the initially slow and guarded media reporting on SARS allowed the virus to spread quickly in China, with devastating results. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes with the latest flu pandemic.

“Nearly a century ago, British author H G Wells talked about human history being a race between education and catastrophe. In the coming weeks, we would find out if humanity has what it takes to outrun and outsmart a stubborn virus.

Read the full essay at MediaChannel.org

Read my op ed essay in SciDev.net in Dec 2005: A Long Last Mile: The lesson of the Asian tsunami

MediaChannel have published my op ed essays before. They were the first to publish, in June 2006, my global call for the broadcast industry to recognise poverty as a copyright free zone. And when Al Jazeera English channel was launched at the end of 2006, MediaChannel carried my essay on ethical news gathering as the biggest challenge for the new global TV network.

My latest essay is a humble birthday present to MediaChannel.org as it completes 10 years. Unique among websites, MediaChannel.org holds the rest of the media accountable with the best of the world’s media criticism and analysis — offering news, diverse global perspectives, and commentaries tracking international news flows. They cover breaking controversies, showcase change-makers, trends and cutting edge issues that you need to know about – produced by journalists for journalists and citizens.

MediaChannel’s co-founder Danny Schechter is one of my media heroes – he was Moving Images Person of the Year 2008.

“Our survival alone is a cause for celebration – a decade of growth and impact is impressive in ‘Internet years’,” wrote the website’s founders in a special 10th anniversary message. They added: “Over the past 10 years, we have survived financial crises and organized hack attacks. We have managed to remain relevant and on the cutting edge in a quickly evolving online landscape when many other sites and organizations have come… and gone.”

The team is making an urgent appeal for donations to keep this excellent service going. I’m very happy to amplify this – few services can deliver better value for money, and our troubled times and troubled media sure need the soul-searching constantly provided by MediaChannel.org

Ten years of kicking ass!

Ten years of kicking ass!

Moving images blog, two years on: The journey continues…

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...

The Moving Images blog completes two years today. So we pause briefly to look back – and forward.

I launched the blog with two posts from near-freezing Washington DC on 17 March 2007, while participating in the DC Environmental Film Festival. Both concerned my own offering to the festival: Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues, product of monthly filming with 8 survivor families in 4 countries for nearly one year after the Asian tsunami.

Since then, this blog’s own journey has continued: in 24 months, we have produced 342 posts in 134 categories and with 562 tags. These elicited a total of 622 comments from readers who came from all walks of life, and all parts of the world. To the end of 16 March 2009, I received a cumulative total of slightly over 246,900 page visits. I now average 500 – 600 visits a day.

I share my blogging journey with these readers who have enriched it in various ways. Some commented under their own names; others used pseudonyms. Some left email details; others none. A few have actually suggested stories that I later wrote up as blog posts. I don’t know most of my readers in person, and have only met them online. As this blog enters its 25th month, I thank them all. You’ve kept me going in a particularly tough time in the world…and in my personal life.

Moving Images wasn’t my first blog – in late 2006 I had started another blog called Communicating Majority World under the name ‘Lost Alien’, which I somehow didn’t sustain for more than a few weeks and a handful of posts. For reasons that I can no longer quite recall, the Lost Alien abandoned his original blog – and migrated over here!

When I started Moving Images, I was driven by a simple motive: to discuss and reflect on the many and varied topics and subjects that interest me professionally. In one way or another, these fall into the area of communicating science, development and environment to the non-specialist public. Because my work at TVE Asia Pacific involves using television and video for this purpose, there is a bias on moving images in many things I do.

But by design, this is not an official blog of TVE Asia Pacific, or any other organisation that I am associated with. In fact, I regularly express here views that I cannot say wearing any of these hats — because we live in a world where most people still react not just to the song, but also the singer (and can’t separate the two).

Are we there yet? No!

Are we there yet? No!

So this blog is unashamedly, intentionally self-centred: it puts ME back in Media. I make no apologies for speaking my mind on a variety of topics, and for returning to some issues that I’m passionate about.

After 22 years in journalism, broadcasting or communicating development, I find I have sufficient perspective in which to anchor my thoughts, and to express my views in a way, I hope, interests and engages readers. Like the ancient Greeks, I try to ask the right questions – even when I don’t always know or get the right answers. And I have more than a few stories to spice up the narrative.

I’m well aware of the inherent danger of combining writer-editor-publisher all in one: personal blogs don’t always operate under the usual checks and balances that we expect and presume in the more structured media outlets (whether they are in the mainstream or new media spheres). On more than one occasion, I’ve written impulsively – in frustration, anger or elation, and sometimes on the run. Thanks to the training in my news reporter days, I can still churn out readable prose fast. And only once in all these 24 months and 342 posts have I regretted rushing to publish (so, using my absolute discretion as the media tycoon of this blog, I pulled it down).

Do I see myself as a citizen journalist? Yes and no. I don’t report news, and only very occasionally write on latest developments (or breaking news, as it’s now called). I see myself more as a citizen commentator – the op ed equivalent in the new media domain. Yes, I do occasionally report from large conferences that I attend as a speaker or panelist. But I have found how demanding it is to blog from events while keeping up with everything that is going on.

Do I see myself as a Sri Lankan blogger? Not really. Scanning the 342 blog posts I’ve written, I can count only a two dozen that have an appreciable reference to Sri Lanka. This is not because I’m aloof or disengaged; I have simply set a framework for myself that goes well beyond the country of my residence and social/cultural anchor.

Another reason for this intentional lack of geographical focus is that besides this blog, I regularly write op ed essays for other online outlets like Groundviews, MediaChannel.org and MediaHelpingMedia, and print news magazines like Montage. I use these platforms for commenting on Sri Lankan issues that interest or concern me.

I find it a bit incongruous that we who use the new media tools of web 2.0 – which signify the end of old geography – must contain ourselves to geographical or cultural cocoons. Thus, while I sometimes join gatherings of bloggers based in Sri Lanka, and share concerns for freedom of expression, I have consciously avoided joining Kottu, the leading aggregator of Sri Lankan blogs.

gvo-logo-lgAnd I get more than a little miffed when the excellent aggregation service Global Voices constantly labels me as a Sri Lankan voice (with a map of Lanka to boot!) whenever they helpfully flag my blog posts for wider attention. I have privately discussed this with GV’s South Asia coordinator who says their current tagging and categorisation do not allow anything else. Is this an example a new media platforms being trapped in an old media mindset?

If you really must pin me down to some place, call me a South Asian (or, as my friends at Himal would like to write it, Southasian).

Do I see myself as a new media activist?
I’m not sure. I’m not a geek, and have no great knowledge or insights on the back-end technologies that make all this possible. My interest is in how the new media tools shapes societies, cultures and politics in emerging Asia. Those braver and smarter than me are actually innovating and improvising new media tools for social activism. I just watch — and occasionally blog to critically cheerlead them. Mine is definitely the easy part…

Mainstream media...and bloggers

Mainstream media...and bloggers

On this blog, I place a higher premium on still and moving images. Regular readers know my fondness for cartoons, which I avidly search for and collect on a wide range of topics. In fact, I believe cartoonists are the best social and cultural commentators of our times – they say so much with such economy of words!

Similarly, I try to embed relevant online videos that I can find. Sometimes it takes me longer to scan YouTube and other platforms than to write the accompanying text for a blog post. And I get frustrated when WordPress does not allow embedding from certain online platforms like EngageMedia, a new Asia-based service that we have recently started to collaborate with.

As I travel around in Asia and Europe, and move across the sometimes overlapping circles of development, media and communications technology, I keep meeting readers who read and follow this blog. Some have never commented on any post; a few have chosen to write emails to me on specific matters.

This means some of the conversations inspired by this blog happen bilaterally — for example, film festival organisers have written asking me for contacts of specific film-makers whose work I have reviewed. Students often write to me seeking additional information or my own views. Long lost friends or associates have revived contact after stumbling upon this blog. I have no illusions of being famous, but it’s nice to stay engaged.

My policy on visitors’ comments is clearly stated in my intro page: “This is a moderated blog where I approve/disapprove the publication of readers’ comments to individual posts. I do allow all reasonable comments left by readers — including those that radically disagree with my own views. The basic rules of my moderation: I don’t publish comments that are outright libelous of individuals, or are so explicitly self-promotional bordering on spam.

Only once in the short history of this blog have I been threatened by someone whose conduct I questioned in the public interest. In late 2007, I wrote a hard-hitting comment on how certain media organisations are exploiting concerns surrounding climate change to their institutional advantage. I was standing by to publish their response, for the institution I named claims to promote public discussion and debate. None came my way, although some peer pressure was used, unsuccessfully, to make me remove the blog post. In mid 2008, when our paths accidentally crossed in a European capital, the individual concerned confronted me. I gave him a patient hearing, and reiterated my offer to publish his response in full. He insisted on my deleting the post (gosh, it must have hit a raw nerve!). He ended our unpleasant encounter saying: “If you lived in my jurisdiction, I would have sued you!”

There has never been a denial or rebuttal from this person or his institution on the substantive points in my blog post. But I was repeatedly told that my candid remarks are ‘not helpful’. Perhaps. But anyone who remotely believes in ‘illuminating debate’ would have engaged me on this blog, or theirs, or in a neutral forum (plenty exist).

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation

Encouragingly, many others have done just that. This includes the reader who thinks I have an axe to grind with the BBC (I don’t, but I’m also not a fan of the ageing Auntie), and a few who feel I’ve been unkind to the fledgling global newscaster Al Jazeera English.

Then there are those who assume that I hate state-owned, so-called public broadcasters (again, I don’t, although I question their conduct more rigorously because they are public-funded). In fact, I have sung praise of Burmese TV as a model public broadcaster, and maintained excellent relations with NHK and other public broadcasters in Asia. I’m regularly invited as a speaker or panelist at gatherings of mainstream broadcasters – where I express pretty much the same views as I do on this blog.

Some think I’m too harsh on the United Nations, especially UNICEF. Again, I’m a great believer and supporter of the UN’s ideals, but never hesitate to critique the public communication policies and practices of individual UN agencies. I like to think that the United Nations is bigger (and deeper) than the inflated egos of its senior officials. In fact, middle level officials and experts working in various UN agencies have privately commended me for keeping the spotlight on their agencies. During the two years of this blog, I have worked closely with UN-OCHA, UNEP and UNAIDS, and they have been pluralistic enough to engage me in the greater public interest.

I believe that it’s not just the UN, but the entire development sector, that needs to get its act together when it comes to communicating policies, practices and choices. Having occasionally (and luckily, only briefly) forayed into the charmed development circles, I realise how detached from reality, self-referential and inward looking many development professionals and their institutions are. Communication is often no more than self-promotional publicity for overambitious agency heads. I have watched how the sector has struggled to adjust to the new realities in media and communications technology. Sometimes I have ridiculed their worse attempts on this blog; more often than not, I have quietly worked with them in small groups or bilateral meetings trying to build their capacity to do things better with greater focus and impact.

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!

Precisely because I have access to various policy, development and research circles in Asia while (or despite?) being a blogger critiquing the same players, I exercise caution in quoting people or citing examples. Some meetings I attend discuss matters too sensitive for immediate publication; others operate on the Chatham House rule (generic points may be communicated, but without attribution). As a journalist, I’ve been trained to clarify what is on the record and what isn’t; in sourcing content for this blog, I follow the same principles.

Every writer, editor and publisher has her own agenda. Mine is fairly easy to discern, for example from the recurrent themes on this blog. These include: * humanising development communication (going beyond mere facts, figures, analysis and jargon); * demystifying and debunking self-serving development myths (for example, about community radio, or rural poverty); * practising what we preach (broadcasters addressing their own carbon emissions); * evolving more inclusive copyright policies (poverty and climate change as copyright free zones); and * engaging in simple, clear and effective communicating of science and technology in society.

For those who occasionally look for a hidden agenda, my only advice is: get a life. I write this blog for fun. I don’t set out to kick anyone – although I often get a kick out of receiving online or offline feedback.

And that’s my wish for the coming months and years: while I work hard to earn some honest bucks else where, may I continue to derive my kicks here. And if some of you also get a mental kick out of reading or commenting on this blog, that’s my bonus.

Since I remain open-minded and eager for new knowledge, my views on some topics and issues keep evolving over time. Although it’s tempting to go back and edit some of my earlier blog posts in the light of new knowledge or understanding, I refrain from doing so. And if that sometimes presents (minor) inconsistencies, I can only quote Walt Whitman in my defence:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Danny Schechter: Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

Danny Schechter: Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

As 2008 – clearly an Annus horribilis for tens of millions around the world – draws to an end, we announce the Moving Images Person of the Year 2008: Danny Schechter.

Nicknamed “The News Dissector,” Danny is a television producer, independent filmmaker, blogger and media critic who writes and lectures frequently about the media in the United States and worldwide.

He has worked in print, radio, local news, cable news (CNN and CNBC), network news magazines (ABC) and as an independent filmmaker and TV producer with the award-winning independent company Globalvision. He is a blogger and editor of Mediachannel.org, a web and blog site that watches and critiques the print and broadcast media.

Another way to introduce Danny is to recall the scary headlines and TV news images that have dominated 2008 – of reputed banks going bust, leading stock markets crashing and these events triggering a global financial meltdown that, for now, has been slowed but not completely averted by unprecedented governmental intervention…by the very governments of the industrialised countries who should have kept a sharper eye on what was going on in their free market economies.

As the carnage on Wall Street and other global financial centres continued, some hard questions were asked: Did anyone see this coming? If so, why weren’t they listened to? What is the real cause of all this chaos? Where was the news media and why weren’t they doing their job of sounding the alarm?

Well, one man who saw it coming and tried very hard to raise the alarm was Danny Schechter. In 2006, as part of this effort, he made a documentary film called In Debt We Trust. In this, he was the first to expose Wall Street’s connection to subprime loans and predicted the global economic crisis.

This hard-hitting documentary investigated why so many Americans – college and high school students in particular – were being strangled by debt. Zeroing in on how the mall has replaced the factory as America’s dominant economic engine, Emmy Award-winning former ABC News and CNN producer Danny Schechter showed how college students were being forced to pay higher interest on loans while graduating, on average, with more than $20,000 in consumer debt.

An inconvenient truth that America ignored for too long...

An inconvenient truth that America ignored for too long...

The film empowers as it enrages, delivering an accessible and fascinating introduction to what former Reagan advisor Kevin Phillips has called “Financialization” — or the “powerful emergence of a debt-and-credit industrial complex.”

Danny and his film have done for global financial meltdown what Al Gore did for global warming with his own film: investigate rigorously, gather and present the evidence of a gathering storm, sound the alarm — and keep badgering until the warnings were heard. In both cases, the inconvenient truths they presented were ignored for too long — and we are paying the massive price for such indifference.

Watch the Trailer of In Debt We Trust:

Deborah Emin, writing in OpEdNews in October 2008, noted: “In Debt We Trust…brought Schechter a lot of grief. Rather than being seen as a prophet of doom, which in and of itself was not so terrible, he should have been lauded for sounding the alarm when it would have been in time. It is truly an amazing fact of American life that the powers that be can so disastrously determine what information we are able to see based on their subjective judgment of what is too negative or too harsh a view of a specific topic. From this perspective, we should judge all these gatekeepers as those on the Titanic who did not want to alarm the passengers that the ship was going down.”

Watch an extract from In Debt We Trust: How did we get into this mess?

Watch In Debt We Trust in full on Google Video

So here’s the trillion-dollar question: if this film was made in 2006, and has since been running to packed houses scaring a lot of thinking and caring people, why was its message not heard in the corridors of power in Washington DC — and elsewhere in the G8 countries’ capitals?

The short answer could be that there have been no thinking and caring people running the American government for the past eight years.

Read all about it!

Read all about it!

The long answer is found in a book that Danny published in mid 2008. Titled Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal, it’s an outgrowth of – and update on – his 2006 film. It documents with shocking evidence how debt has restructured the American economy and put Americans under a burden that many will never overcome.

Plunder also offers an analysis based on current events, going behind the scenes, identifying the key players and culprits, challenging the financial industry, government deregulation — and the financial and most sections of the mainstream media who have been cheer-leading the financiers as the latter took ever larger risks. Danny also argues that this has been a criminal enterprise — a point only touched on in most media coverage — and of global significance, given the globalization of markets.

Read my Sep 2008 blog post: Financial Meltdown: Putting pieces together of a gigantic whodunnit

On a personal note, I have been a great admirer of Danny Schechter and his work since I first met him 13 years ago. In the Fall of 1995, he gave an inspiring and provocative talk to a group of journalists and producers from the developing world who were on a UN-organised media fellowship in New York. As part of our tour of media and development agencies in the US East Coast, we visited Danny’s GlobalVision productions.

Danny introduced himself as a ‘network refugee’ — one who had worked for the mainstream network television in the US and had left in disgust. From outside, he was trying to find alternative ways of speaking truth to power — the original mandate of the mass media which many corporatised media companies had abandoned, knowingly or otherwise.

In that pre-Internet era, Danny engaged in his media activism through independent filmmaking, through which he supported and often participated in struggles for social justice in his native United States as well as in places like apartheid-ridden South Africa and strife-torn Palestine.

Danny was one of the early media activists to take advantage of the web. In 2000, he co-founded with Rory O’Connor MediaChannel.org, the first media and democracy supersite on web. Operating on shoe-string budgets, it has sustained critical spotlight on the mainstream media (MSM) for 8 years in which the MSM landscape has been completely transformed. While its scrutiny and chronicling of the political economy of the media is more crucial than ever, and veterans like Walter Cronkite whole-heartedly endorse the effort, the non-profit effort struggles for survival.

Now in his 60s, Danny is simply indefatigable. Besides running MediaChannel and GlobalVision, he blogs every few hours, writes a regular column on Huffington Post, lectures on media, writes books and still has time to make investigative films. He is extremely well informed, witty, funny and completely irreverent. He writes and speaks with justified outrage but no malice. That’s a tough balance to maintain.

Danny visits Wall Street on 20 September 2007 – typical of his funny, incisive reporting:

I was delighted to catch up with Danny in May 2008 when we both participated in Asia Media Summit in Kuala Lumpur. He and I were in a small minority of participants who were familiar with the inner works of the mainstream media and transformational potential of the new media. In characteristic style, Danny stirred things up, livening the usually staid proceedings, and I did my best to back him up from the audience. We both enjoyed asking irritating – if not outright annoying – questions from the 400+ media mandarins and press barons who’d come together for the Summit.

One evening, Danny and I had a drink with Malaysiakini’s CEO and leading new media activist Prem Chandran where we talked about the slow but inevitable decline of the mainstream media dinosaurs — or what Michael Crichton called Mediasaurus. The trouble with mediasaurus, we agreed, was that they are taking a long time going extinct and for now, they still command significant numbers of eyeballs and the dollars that follow.

After Prem left, Danny and I continued our chat into the evening. Over a spicy Indian meal, Danny gave me a crash course on subprime crisis (or sub-crime as he calls it) and how that was going to have a domino effect on markets everywhere. I listened with growing comprehension — and deep admiration for the man’s ability to communicate complexities without oversimplification.

Events in the weeks and months that followed have shown how remarkably prescient Danny Schechter was. And what a monumental, global scale mistake it was not to have heeded this man’s cautions in his blogs, films, columns and elsewhere.

We end 2008 with my cartoon of the year. As I said in a blog post in September 2008: “This cartoon by Pulitzer prize winning Tom Toles first appeared in the Washington Post in 2007 – it brilliantly anticipated the global financial meltdown that we’re now experiencing. Coming in the wake of confirmed global warming, it is a double whammy.

Meltdown 2

Meltdown 2