22nd July 2001
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Thoughts from LondonMedia body with impartial members

Remember Marie Colvin, the London Sunday Times journalist who was wounded in the eye when she tried clandestinely to pass through army defence lines in April?

Well, she is back in action in London after surgery in New York. It appears that she has lost the sight of her left eye but not her desire to be at the war front again.

Some might call her foolhardy, but she feels that some stories are not fully covered and the world is unaware of the truth or has lost interest in them.

Certainly there is an element of truth in what she says. But the media is partly at fault for this neglect, particularly television, as it passes rapidly from one event to another, from one sound bite to another.

While the media is responsible for bringing the effects of conflict, particularly on the lives of non-participants, caught up in war, to international attention, there is the greater responsibility to be fair, accurate and impartial in undertaking this laudable task.

Only then will the international community understand events thousands of miles away and judge them more intelligently and fairly. A free flow of information is not enough. A balanced flow is equally vital.

This calls for good, accurate journalism, a concern for facts before emotional involvement and romanticisation.

Unfortunately Marie Colvin's has not been an example of that kind of journalism. Her interest in machismo journalism has only been surpassed by her lack of concern for facts, truth and impartiality.

It is, of course, possible for journalists who parachute or are parachuted, into another conflict in another country, to escape the consequences of their partial and inaccurate reporting by returning to their base.

If the media organisations they work for refuse to correct those factual errors and one-sidedness, there is little the public can do to force redress, except where the law permits it. There are print and electronic media that do recognise the responsibility of making public corrections and even apologising when mistakes are pointed out to them.

But, as we know, not every organisation accepts such public responsibility. Public exposure of their errors and partiality is not only discouraged but dismissed derisively.

In these circumstances, do we need a body to ensure that ethical standards are maintained by the media and that the highest standards of accuracy and probity are applied to the media industry?

If the media claims it has the responsibility to probe and expose wrongdoing by the state and even private institutions and persons, then should not the media's own behaviour be judged? Why should the media be absolved from such probity?

I raised the Marie Colvin issue because it has significance for the regional media seminar to be held in Sri Lanka later this month. The seminar will discuss this very question of whether the media should be judged and if so who should do it and how it should be done.

One answer is to have a self-regulatory body such as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in Britain. The PCC was established 10 years ago because of the rising tide of public criticism of the media and growing public scepticism of the industry.

The media industry moved quickly to pre-empt moves by the government to set up a public body with wide powers over the industry in the wake of public demands. The increasing invasions of privacy, cheque book journalism and the drop in ethical standards, especially in the tabloid press as it competed for readership, led to this growing public disenchantment with the media.

But the PCC itself is being held to public ridicule because it is seen, not as a watchdog of the community but a lapdog of the media industry.

My own experience with the PCC since I made a complaint against London Sunday Times in connection with Marie Colvin's first two articles is a case in point.

When Ms Colvin claimed in her first article that the LTTE emerged in 1983 following anti-Tamil riots by the Sinhalese, I wrote to the Letters Editor of The Sunday Times to say that this was factually wrong and it stood history on its head. I said that officially the LTTE was born in May 1976 and the 1983 riots were initially sparked off by the LTTE killing 13 soldiers.

Though this London newspaper published letters in praise of Ms Colvin even after my letter had been received, it refused to print mine because it did not want to be exposed for failing in its elementary journalistic task of checking facts.

The fact that journalistic standards in The Sunday Times have dropped markedly since the days of Harold Evans and Andrew Neil is generally accepted in media circles here.

Even so a newspaper which is a signatory to the Code of Practice established by the PCC should adhere to it. I pointed out that the paper had not only made factual mistakes and was inaccurate but by not publishing my letter had also violated Article 2 of the code which was granting an opportunity to reply.

The PCC sent my complaints to the newspaper which wrote back to the PCC saying that it could not reply in detail until Ms Colvin was "fully recovered". I asked the PCC whether this means that if Ms Colvin did not "fully recover" my complaint would be conveniently swept under the carpet?

However much I have tried-and the correspondence still goes on- to get simple, straightforward answers from the PCC, it has developed into a "koheda yanna, mulley pol" dialogue. 

Its Chairman Lord Wakeham boasted the other day that the PCC deals with 2500 complaints a year. But as someone pointed out only about 1% of these complaints receive a favourable adjudication.

Nobody wants the government interfering in the media. But self regulatory bodies such as the PCC which are essentially creatures of the media industry and paid by the industry are hardly the way to rein in a runaway media that is fast losing its ethical and journalistic values.

What is required is a publicly-funded body with independent members of the community sitting in judgement.

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