A fitting follow up to Lord Levson’s Report


It was just a couple of weeks ago, that we had occasion to mention in relation to the presence of the Channel 4 team in Sri Lanka, the monumental report on the culture and practices of the British media written by Lord Justice Brian Levson.  Just prior to CHOGM, Engage Sri Lanka, a group of expatriate Sri Lankans put out a book titled ‘Corrupted Journalism: Channel 4 and Sri Lanka’. As the title of the book makes clear, this is a book about the documentaries on Sri Lanka produced by Channel 4. This is a well researched and well written book. But it is handicapped by not having an author’s name on it. Engage Sri Lanka is not an organization widely known in this country and because the book has no author’s name to it, one always feels compelled to keep referring back to the references and sometimes checking on the references to see whether they are authentic. An identifiable author’s name on the book would have facilitated a more relaxed read.  The name of the author matters because the reader trusts the author especially if he is known to be a careful researcher.       

Corrupted Journalism: Channel 4 and Sri Lanka is not a book that deserves to be hobbled by not having an identifiable author. It should be read by all those interested in the final days of the conflict and by those in the journalistic community in particular. This book deals with the manner in which Channel 4 chose to deal with the Sri Lankan conflict and takes up the question of the witnesses appearing in their documentaries, the allegations of war crimes made in those documentaries, the questions about the authenticity of the video clips shown in them, the questionable conclusions arrived at by the experts appearing in the documentaries, the number of civilians in the Vanni, the provision of medical supplies to those civilians, the saga of the Tamil doctors who provided much of the news going out to the international media via satellite phone from the no fire zone and other such matters.  

The assertions made in the Channel 4 documentaries have been compared and contrasted with the observations made on the same issues by commentators ranging from Gordon Weiss and Frances Harrison to the University Teachers’ for human Rights (Jaffna).  One media group had petitioned the British broadcasting regulatory authorities about the way Channel 4 had gone about producing their documentaries on the Sri Lankan conflict. This is what the book says about that interaction with the British authorities.

"In April 2012, Sri Lanka Media Watch lodged a 389-page complaint (including 19 appendices) regarding Channel 4’s March 2012 programme, "Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished", with Ofcom (the British regulatory authority for the Broadcasting industry) . Ofcom noted that the Sri Lanka Media Watch complaint "was particularly lengthy and detailed" and "raised especially detailed and lengthy concerns". The complaint raised most of the issues examined in this study, and outlined above in this chapter, including the carefully documented inaccuracies, false claims, omissions and lack of balance in the Channel 4 programme that self-evidently breached the Broadcasting Code. In response, Channel 4 claimed that the complaint posed "a serious threat to the future of current affairs television" and had the potential to be "highly chilling of free expression".

"Rather than answer the issues raised in the complaint, Ofcom reported that Channel

4 "raised concerns regarding the cost and burden placed upon it to respond to the complaint". Amazingly, Ofcom ignored its statutory requirements to enforce the Broadcasting Code and simply chose not to address black and white examples of the false and misleading claims made by Channel 4. It decided not to require Channel 4 to respond to the "detailed and lengthy concerns" raised in the complaint, stating: It is not Ofcom’s intention to place a disproportionate burden on broadcasters by asking them to comment in unnecessary detail on very lengthy complaints, especially when there is a risk that by doing so the broadcaster might be discouraged from producing controversial programmes. It is essential that broadcasters have the editorial freedom to make challenging programmes without undue interference with their, and the audience’s, right to freedom of expression."

"Amazingly, Ofcom then went on to state that Channel 4 did not have to treat the subject matter with "due accuracy": While all subjects in news programmes must be presented with due impartiality and reported with due accuracy, in other non-news programmes there is no requirement in the Code for issues to be treated with due accuracy. Ofcom dismissed the complaint by Sri Lanka Media Watch without even bothering to require Channel 4 to respond to concerns about the programme’s inaccuracies, imbalance, omissions and other breaches of the Broadcasting Code."

The experience undergone by the Engage Sri Lanka team with the British Broadcasting regulators is hardly surprising. When The Times group London was caught hiring private investigators to hack into the phones of targeted individuals, the British Press regulatory body did not consider that an objectionable practice either. If the British regulatory authorities gave not tuppence about what the British media did to white Britishers, it’s hardly likely that they would be concerned about how the British broadcasters reported about us black colonial natives.  Be that as it may, it was the cavalier attitude of the British Press regulators to the phone hacking scandal that led to the institution of the Levson inquiry and the introduction of the Royal Charter on Press Regulation last month. The Royal Charter may not be fully operational till 2015, but after that date hopefully, organizations like Engage Sri Lanka which seek better standards of reporting on Sri Lanka by the British Press may have better luck with the regulatory authorities. The new regulations provide for fines up to one million pounds on errant media organizations.

We leave the reader with two observations made in this book:

"The involvement of the Tamil diaspora has complicated, and continues to complicate, a peaceful resolution of the Sri Lankan situation. The distinguished professor of international relations Fred Halliday stated that one of the "world’s worst ideas" was also that "diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics." He outlined the dangers that can be posed by diaspora communities in his essay outlining "the world’s twelve worst ideas": The notion that emigrant or diaspora communities have a special insight into the problems of their homeland, or a special moral or political status in regard to them, is wholly unfounded. Emigrant ethnic communities play almost always a negative, backward, at once hysterical and obstructive role in resolving the conflicts of their countries of origin."

"Another distinguished scholar, Benedict Anderson, shares this perspective: Today’s long distance nationalism strikes one as a probably menacing portent for the future ... it creates a serious politics that is at the same time radically unaccountable. The participant rarely pays taxes in the country in which he does his politics: he is not answerable to its judicial system; he probably does not cast even an absentee ballot in its elections because he is a citizen in a different place; he need not fear prison, torture or death, nor need his immediate family. But, well and safely positioned in the First World, he can send money and guns, circulate propaganda, and build intercontinental information circuits, all of which have incalculable consequences in the zones of their ultimate destinations."

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