Chat show abuse
The recent brouhaha made over an incident involving the abusing of President Chandrika Kumaratunga on a chat show over the state-owned Lakhanda Radio has raised the obvious question of whether or not the whole unhappy business had been further aggravated by insensitive handling. A morning newspaper neatly encapsulated the situation with a headline asking "naughty or nutty? In fact, it appears that the defence offered in court proceedings up to now has been to plead the latter frailty.
While we do not propose to comment on evidence that will be properly evaluated by court, we do wish to ask whether the publicity the whole unfortunate business provoked did not make matters worse. We know that radio is a powerful medium which, despite the proliferation of television in recent years, continues to have the greatest reach among the print and electronic media. A lot of people, no doubt, listen to the Lakhanda Radio but it will be impossible to quantify how many people actually heard the abusive remarks that had been made. But it is obvious that a far greater number than that now know that such an incident had taken place.
The end result is that the whole business has been blown out of proportion with national curiosity aroused about what the caller to the chat show actually said. Our comment about "insensitive handling stems from this reality. While the concerned authorities may rightly have felt that an offence such as this cannot be ignored, could it not have been tackled without the floodgates of national publicity being opened? The action that followed the incident, no doubt, will send out a clear message to other prospective offenders that dirty telephone calls can be traced and this will be a deterrent against such incident recurring. But that alone is insufficient cause for triggering the unnecessary publicity this case attracted.
That is one aspect of the matter. The other is the need for chat show hosts to have quick reflexes and cut out abusive calls, or for that matter unsavoury remarks that may be made during live discussions. Granted that this is not easy because the host cannot know what somebody at the other end of a phone might say. That is why he or she must be very alert and be quick to punch the button that will instantly take such abusive callers off the air before they do anything more than minimal damage. In the present instance, if the police did what the court has required them to do and produced the suspect before a psychiatrist in the same way they would produce a drunkard before a Judicial Medical Officer before bringing the man to court for public proceedings, the undesirable publicity may have been avoided.
It can well be asked why the media did not ignore the story altogether and not give added publicity to an already unsavoury incident. It is unlikely that this would happen in a free media situation where at least some editors would not have been willing to subordinate the news value of events to avoid a multiplier effect. It can be argued that public figures must pay a price for assuming office and being exposed to abuse is a part of that price. There is a great deal of difference between criticism in moderate language which is very much a part of democracy and downright filthy abuse which is totally unacceptable. In this respect, it is the duty of leading public figures to set the right example. But the whole country is only too well aware that this is not what many of our leaders do as is evidenced by rowdy behaviour and intemperate language demonstrated in parliament. For that matter, the presidents own description of critics as "venomous serpents over national television does not help.
Admittedly, those concerned in the Lakhanda incident were confronted with a difficult decision. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is possible to say that the best way to have handled the matter, particularly if an unstable mental element was part of the picture, would have been to avoid court proceedings and the resultant publicity. Police often find it sufficient to administer stern warnings to offenders instead of dragging them to court. We are sure that it is also possible for the authorities to ensure that those who require psychiatric treatment get such attention. Having said that, it is necessary to stress again that the recent incident is a clear warning to talk show hosts to be ever mindful of repetitions. Their reflexes must be swift and they should use the cut off button paying heed to the old journalistic maxim, "when in doubt, leave out."
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