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Report recommends 20th-Century solutions for 21st-Century media challenges

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As a believer in the value of public consultation and peer review, it was with much expectation that I started reading the voluminous (284 pages) report by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, entitled ‘Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka’. But I was disappointed by its lack of understanding of the momentous changes occurring in the “attention economy” and by its trite recommendations based on wishful thinking.

It was in 1971 that Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon who first described the attention economy: “Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” What this means is that the most scarce, and therefore most valuable, commodity today is attention.



Do they get it?

The report does not ignore new media. It reports facts from the supply-side, such as the advertising outlays (Rs. 1 billion and growing) already being spent on new media in Sri Lanka as opposed to around Rs. 30 billion on mainstream media (MSM); mobile phones now being the most common electronic device in homes, followed by TV and radios; and most people accessing the Internet over mobile devices. But unfortunately absent are recent demand-side data.

It’s not that such studies were unavailable. A representative-sample survey on media consumption in the Western Province released by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in January 2016 found that “Private television is the most popular source of news for the respondents, followed by Facebook and the Internet/web. When breaking down the findings by age category, Facebook is the main source of news for the 18-24 year respondents followed by private television stations and the internet/web.” 

The Western Province is not Sri Lanka and 18-24 year olds are not the entirety of the population. But if our purpose is that of setting out the future trajectory of media development in the country, these are the data of greatest relevance. 

MSM are already losing the attention of a key demographic. As this demographic ages, they will take with them the habits and preferences formed as they became adults. The subsequent cohorts will not revert to MSM. Advertising rupees will follow attention. MSM in the current form will shrivel and die. The few that succeed in becoming trusted content providers on new-media platforms will survive. 

Despite pages of description, the authors have failed to internalise this simple conclusion as explained below. 


The testdh

The most pressing problem in the Sri Lanka media sphere at this time is either the damage caused to the body politic by State-owned media (including newspapers) or the dysfunctions of private media. I happen to believe the former is more significant, because the damage is being done with taxpayer money. Others may prioritise the latter. 

The report’s understanding of the ongoing transformation of the media sphere may be tested in relation to its recommendations on State-owned media:

The government should initiate legal reforms to transform the state-owned and state-managed broadcast media (SLBC, SLRC and ITN) into truly independent public service broadcasters (PSBs) so as to serve the public interest without any political interference. PSBs must be independent from government in their governing structures and have full editorial autonomy. The PSBs’ independence from the state should be legally guaranteed, including through the appointment of independent governing boards and the editorial independence of the broadcaster and its professional and editorial staff from the governing board should also be protected. Drafting a PSB law should take into account a range of PSB models in Europe, Canada and Asia.

The government should ensure that PSBs’ public funding is secure, long term and stable to protect them from arbitrary political interferences and market forces. There should be public funding mechanisms for PSBs.

A public consultation should be undertaken to decide the future status of the state-owned print media organisation (Lake House/ANCL). All options, including its transformation into public service media, full privatisation and broad-basing ownership, should be considered.

Public service broadcasting is not new to Sri Lanka. Words similar to those in the above recommendations are likely to be found in the Parliamentary debates leading to the creation of the SLBC and the SLRC and even the expropriation of ANCL. We have tried public-service broadcasting and failed. 

All that is novel is the naiveté of expecting governments to allocate “long-term, secure and stable funding” to be managed by “independent governing boards” that will then ensure “full editorial autonomy.” Such idyllic conditions do not exist even in the countries we are told to emulate. If employees are to have full autonomy, why have governing boards and go through the trouble of making them independent? Why not simply set up standing orders for the transfer of taxpayer money to the employees to do whatever they wish? Why not ignore small matters such as accountable use of public resources?

Realistically, let us assume PSBs are created with imperfectly independent governing boards that will be broadly accountable to their government paymasters; and that these boards have under them employees who produce content deemed to be in the public interest by the boards. Also in a concession to the parlous state of our Treasury, let us assume that more than half the PSB revenues will have to come from advertising.

Our Constitutional Council is unlikely to approve anyone other than boring old men and women who have made it their life’s mission to ruffle as few feathers as possible. No chance for edgy content mavens here. 

What the stodgy boards consider to be in the public interest (i.e., least likely to offend) is unlikely to be of much interest to the general populace, let alone the 18-24 year olds who are forming their media preferences. When the state had a complete monopoly on broadcasting, old men of the above description were able to impose their tastes on the rest of us. Even now in some parts of the country, people can pick up only the ITN signal so they have few alternatives. 

But when access to the internet is universal, as it soon will be, the old men (and a token woman or two) will have a tough time. Audiences will tune out and the advertising rupees will fly away. Nothing new. Already happened to ANCL and SLBC. 


What they missed

To talk about scarcity of frequencies even after the digital transition, as the report surprisingly does, is to assume channels will continue. In the emerging media sphere, there will be no channels. There will be brands and icons and attention-garnering devices we still do not have the right terms for. But no channels that can claim loyal eyeballs. BBC and NHK may live on because they have built up their brands, not because they have been allocated channels. 

Whatever attracts attention will also attract advertising revenues. In the first quarter of 2016, Facebook attracted advertising revenues of $ 11.86 (Rs. 1,734) per North American user. That is the future the report missed. 

Mid-20th Century technology-specific media instruments funded by taxpayer money known as PSBs have no chance in 21st-Century reality. But no cause for worry. There’s little chance these naïve recommendations will be implemented by our 16th-Century politicians.

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