End-of-the-World Special: Chicken Little Media Awards 2012

chickenlittle“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

That was the refrain of a certain Chicken Licken or Chicken Little, the lead character in a popular folk tale. The rather timid creature was easily scared, and each time something slightly out of the ordinary was experienced, it always assumed the worst.

“The sky is falling!” has entered the English language as an idiom for hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. If the original Chicken Little was prone to hallucination, its modern day equivalents are more likely feigning hysteria for their own reasons and gains.

For much of 2012, a large section of the print and broadcast media in Sri Lanka has behaved like Chicken Little. They have uncritically and sometimes gleefully peddled the completely unsubstantiated and imaginary prophecies of doom and gloom – specifically, about the world ending on 21 December 2012.

And just like Chicken Little did, our media too had plenty of uncritical followers – a case of the blind leading the blind. They worked themselves into a misplaced frenzy, imagining all sorts of scenarios for the world’s end.

Some involved terrestrial hazards while others, extra-terrestrial ones. The prophets of doom were too busy churning out more and more fantastic tales to realize that, if all their various scenarios were to happen, we would need not one but several worlds…

imagesAh, but our intrepid media won’t allow such facts to get in the way of a good story, or reality checks to hold down their run-away imagination. Fear and panic sell newspapers, and keep TV ratings high…

As the leading Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku has noted, “Selling every day anything from bunkers to miracle bracelets and wonder cures to gullible, fearful people, they don’t just exploit them; they massively reinforce the mind crippling vicious circle of superstition in their lives. The superstition generator is running overtime, even in many of our otherwise so critical and progressive media.”

We the minority of sceptical readers have long endured not only the incredible shrill of assorted doomsday prophecies in our media, but the distraction of public attention and the deprivation of valuable media space and time for covering issues of genuine public interest. In desperation and frustration, we decided to present Chicken Little Media Awards

Nominations were called via Twitter and Facebook, and selecting the worst performers was truly difficult as the contenders were engaged in a race to the bottom. The online debate about these choices will continue.

But after considerable deliberation, meanwhile, here is our choice…

Chicken Little Media Awards 2012

Most Hysterical Sinhala newspaper: Mawbima
Runner-up: Lankadeepa

Most Giddy-headed TV channel: Sirasa TV
Runners-up: Swarnawahini and TV Derana

Two-headed Chicken Little Award: Vidusara science magazine, which accommodated both critical views as well as outright superstition (thus covering all bases?)

Headless Chicken Little Award: All-astrology newspapers that thrive on people’s gullibility

We salute all reporters, editors and media managers who have peddled mind-rotting tall tales about the world ending.

P.S.: Consider it a dubious honour.

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 – 2011): A Voice of Reason in Turbulent Times

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 - 2011): Image courtesy Commonwealth Broadcasting Association

We could always rely on Mano Wikramanayake to provide an incisive analysis of any given situation with a boyish grin on his face.

The senior Lankan broadcast manager, who died suddenly on 3 December 2011, was well informed and articulate without any intellectual or artistic pretensions so common in his industry. The one time cricketer turned avid golfer, he knew when to strike – with just enough force – and when to safeguard his wicket.

For over a decade, Mano was Senior Group Director of the Capital Maharaja Organisation and a Founder Director of the company’s electronic media operations, comprising three TV channels, four radio stations and three TV production houses in Sri Lanka. It is the closest the island nation has to an electronic media giant that is now extending also to the web.

Trained as a management accountant, Mano helped the Maharaja group to consolidate its pioneering ventures in privately owned radio and TV broadcasting. Media researchers and activists have faulted this liberalisation, which started in the early 1990s, as being imperfect, for example lacking a due process in the licensing. But one benefit is undeniable: it liberated us audiences from the tiresome state monopoly of the airwaves that had lasted for decades.

From the beginning, it was evident that the Maharaja group had a long time vision for their broadcasting ventures. In the early stages, they brought in Singaporean and Australian professionals but within a few years the company was run entirely by Lankans. Mano, in particular, groomed many young journalists, producers, technicians and business managers who shared his belief that a private broadcaster could do well while also doing good.

I cheered him every time he spoke out at national and international gatherings to broaden the traditionally narrow definition of public service broadcasting. In his book – and mine – PSB was not confined to state owned or public funded stations. Every channel transmitting on the public airwaves could serve the public interest, albeit in different ways.

Our paths crossed more often outside of Sri Lanka, at various regional and global media gatherings in Asia and Europe. He spoke at such events with authority, clarity and honesty. He chose his words carefully, but didn’t gloss over the thorny issues. While I tend to be cheeky and provocative – for example, calling former state monopoly broadcasters ‘Old Aunties Without Eyeballs’ – he was more circumspect. Yet he never berated Sri Lanka even at the worst of times, most notably when his main station came under a daring arson attack in early 2009.

If Mano was measured, sharp and articulate in his public remarks, he could still be jovial and easy-going in private conversation. We were regular (and vocal) participants at the annual Asia Media Summits organised by the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD). Another regular Asian broadcaster once called him the ‘Lankan pragmatist’ while labelling me the ‘Lankan idealist’. To him, at least, Mano and I appeared to bat on from the opposite ends, but working to a common goal.

During Asia Media Summit 2006, Mano spoke at a plenary session on ‘Local Content for Global Audience: An uphill battle?’ that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, put together on behalf of the UN’s regional body, ESCAP. It explored the role of broadcasters in promoting the Millennium Development Goals that all countries have committed to achieving by 2015.

Mano Wikramanayake (second from left) at MDG and Local Content Plenary Session at Asia Media Summit 2006

Soon after he’d spoken, my colleague Manori Wijesekera good-naturedly challenged him to “put his money where his mouth was”. He readily agreed — and kept his word. Two years later, we co-produced with his station a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 that explored pathways for creating a more sustainable island nation.

“This could be a forerunner to programmes which encourage public debate on issues that concern all of us,” he said when the series premiered in May 2008.

Mano was always ready to partner with development or charitable organisations on well-conceived projects, but he had no time for random do-gooders with vague ideas. He ensured that the Maharaja group’s considerable presence in the airwaves was put to good use in support of carefully selected educational, cultural and sporting endeavours.

Mano was equally sharp with numbers as he was with words. As a senior manager, he minded the financial bottomline of the companies under his charge. He also realised that the media business was very different from, say, marketing soft drinks or manufacturing PVC. His team bore witness to how ably he balanced the regulatory, political, journalistic and commercial interests while raising the bar for quality news, information and entertainment for his audiences.

In later years, he shared this vast experience with other developing country broadcasters, for example through training programmes and manuals for the AIBD, and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) in which he was a leading light. From Afghanistan to Fiji, and from Barbados to South Africa, the voice of practical and pragmatic Mano Wikramanayake will be missed.

But he has energised a generation of broadcasters, and not just in Sri Lanka. In the evolutionary perspective, all of us are transmitters — we constantly pass on ideas, experience and values to our children, students, colleagues and others in our spheres of influence. Such transmission happens 24/7, in all directions and across generations. Some among us are better transmitters than others: they amplify and value-add before passing on.

Mano was one of the finest ‘transmitters’ in the broadcast business, and that is how I shall remember him. His “transmissions” will continue in the teams and establishments he leaves behind.

Sri Lanka 2048: Talking today for a better tomorrow!

Sri Lanka 2048 - TV Debate series on sustainable futures for Sri Lanka

I’m just coming up for fresh air after two hectic weeks – this blog was silent during that time as I was deep immersed in doing something new and interesting.

With my team at TVE Asia Pacific, I’m involved in producing a new TV series started airing on May 22 on Sri Lanka’s ratings-leading, privately-owned, most popular channel, Sirasa TV.

Named Sri Lanka 2048, it is an innovative series of one-hour television debates that explore prospects for a sustainable future for Sri Lanka in the Twenty First Century.

Each debate will involves -– as panel and studio audience -– over two dozen Sri Lankans from academic, civil society, corporate and government backgrounds. They are recorded ‘as live’ and broadcast every Thursday at 10.45 pm, which, in Sri Lankan TV viewing patterns, is the favoured time for serious current affairs and political programmes.

The debates are being co-produced by TVE Asia Pacific, the educational media foundation that I head, in partnership with IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and MTV Channel (Private) Limited, which runs a bevy of radio and TV channels including Sirasa TV and Channel One MTV.

The editorially independent series will accommodate a broad spectrum of expertise and opinion.
The debates are based on topics such as managing our waste, reducing air pollution, protecting biodiversity on land and in the seas, and buffering communities from disasters. Two debates in English will look at the nexus between business and the environment, and coping with climate change.

Read detailed news story on TVEAP website
Read series line up and broadcast schedule

Sri Lanka 2048 image montage by The Nation newspaper

The series is based on the overall premise that Sri Lanka has abundant land and ocean resources that can be used to build such a future -– but it faces many challenges in taking the right action at the right time. We believe that public discussion and debate on issues, choices and alternatives is an essential part of this process. Read more on why this series.

Why 2048? For one thing, it’s the year Sri Lanka will mark 100 years of political independence. Being 40 years in the future, the year lies slightly more than a generation ahead, allowing ample time and opportunity to resolve deep-rooted problems of balancing development with conservation.

Sri Lanka 2048 follows an informal, talk show format that allows ample interaction between the panel and empowered audience. Although they take place within a clearly defined scope that enables some focus, all debates are unscripted.

Our amiable moderator Kingsly Rathnayaka (centre in the photo montage above), one of the most versatile presenters on Sri Lankan television today, keeps the panel and audience engaged. By design, we ask more questions than we are able to answer in a television hour (48 mins). But then, we don’t expect to resolve these burning issues in that time – all we can hope to do is to stretch the limits of public discussion.

Logistics and studio size limit the number of our audience to a two dozen. We’ve tried hard to ensure a good mix among them, drawn from all walks of life. To bring in additional voices and perspectives, we insert into each debate 2 or 3 short video reports produced in advance. These highlight solutions to environment or development problems that have been tried out by individuals, communities, NGOs, government agencies or private companies. Played at key points during debates, these help steer discussion in a particular direction.

Sri Lanka 2048 by TVE Asia Pacific

We are already receiving favourable media reviews and coverage. Here are some that appeared in English language newspapers (more have come up in Sinhala newspapers, the language in which most of this series is produced and broadcast):
The Morning Leader, 28 May 2008: Timely action to sustain Sri Lanka’s development

The Sunday Times, 18 May 2008: TV Debate series to create a sustainable future
The Nation, 1 June 2008: Pick the best at Sri Lanka 2048

Sri Lanka 2048 is the culmination of months of research, development and pre-production work carried out by TVE Asia Pacific’s production team in collaboration with IUCN Sri Lanka. Our preparatory work involved consultations with dozens of experts, activists, officials, entrepreneurs – and their various organisations or companies. We synthesize and package their information, opinions and experiences with the dynamic and creative production team at MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited.

The inspiration for this series came from my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I wrote an essay 10 years ago that outlined his personal vision for his adopted country in 2048. The celebrated futurist that he was, Sir Arthur often said that there is a range of possible futures, and our actions – and inaction – determine what kind of future actually happens. Desirable futures don’t just happen; they need to be worked on.

Sri Lanka 2048 is an attempt to discuss how Sri Lankans can pursue economic prosperity without trading off their good health, natural wealth and public order. This is not a series preaching narrowly focused green messages to a middle class audience. We want to rise above and beyond the shrill of green activists, and engage in informed, wide ranging discussions on the tight-rope balancing act that emerging economies like Sri Lanka have to perform between short term economic growth and long term health of people and ecosystems.

Contrary to popular perception, ‘sustainable development’ is not some utopian or technical ideal of environmental activists. It’s about creating a liveable society here and today – where everyone has an acceptable quality of life, ample opportunities to learn and earn, and the freedom to pursue their own dreams.

Doing good television takes a good deal of time, effort and money. This TV series is supported under the Raising Environmental Consciousness in Society (RECS) project of IUCN Sri Lanka, which is funded by the Government of the Netherlands. But neither is responsible for editorial content or analysis, which rests on my shoulders as the executive producer of the series.

And I, in turn, stand on the shoulders of dedicated, hard working production teams drawn from TVE Asia Pacific and MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited. Doing good television is all team work.
Sri Lanka 2048 - Fisheries panel at Sirasa Studio - Photo by TVEAP

All photos courtesy TVE Asia Pacific