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Fourth Estate or Fifth Column?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 5 February 2016 00:00



MEN IN THE MEDIA LIMELIGHT: President Sirisena – slated to be Sri Lanka’s last 1978-style chief executive – looks and sounds somewhat uncomfortable under the glare of the unforgiving spotlight these days, despite the press playing no small part in his ascendancy to power. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to be enjoying the eyes of the electronic media on him, even as he points fingers at media houses and media mafia henchmen who don’t toe the administration’s line on governance


A democracy is a moveable feast with some delicious ironies. Almost all its cuisine is tasty and nutritious, but some entrees can serve up a not so nice surprise. The main course – a separation of powers: executive, legislative, judicial – is a square meal in itself. Even if it doesn’t always run to the taste of the once starving masses. Which had for a decade or more been eating stale bread (and staler circuses). 

If the analogy is to be complete, an important element at the banquet – the fourth division: media – must feature as a culinary speciality on the menu. Some would treat this offering as an entrée in its own right. While others wouldn’t admit that its savour serves as anything other than a sauce or a relish. However you might take it, though, this putative fourth of the state’s estates seems to stick more than usual in the craw of the other powers these days... (let them eat cake...)

First estate

On the one hand, the President has now come to believe that he takes a dim view of the social media that served a sterling end in his ascendancy to the highest executive office. They are rags, he said in a recent TV interview. Deriding the likes of Facebook and Twitter (and, in effect, dismissing by default the role of social media in his rags to riches story). That is yellow journalism, he has said of scurrilous posts and tweets on such s.-m. platforms. Dissing, with a distressing show of choleric yellow bile, what he sees as their lack of ongoing enchantment with the common candidate they were once so enamoured of.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The Prez was media-savvy once, but has lost it.

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: The Prez was never media-savvy. It was a managed spectacle designed to privilege the common candidate in the preferred light. 

Untitled-2Second estate

On the other, the Prime Minister is making it out that he is out of his mind with irritation at some gadflies in the press in general but particularly the electronic arm of the fourth estate. They once hunted with the Hound – he alleged of several media houses and media personalities he didn’t deign not to name – and are now ungracious enough not to run with the Hare. This, he spoke of boldly in the House, albeit shielded by parliamentary privilege. Is not done! Is not on! Is not nice! Adding that he, for one, would challenge the media to treat the Matter of Embilipitiya in the same vein as the Matter of Homagama. While refraining from going on a witch-hunt against the magistracies and the police as much as the powers that be.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The Premier is irate with rogue media elements critical of the ruling coalition. 

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: The so-called freedom of the wild ass is not out there; it is well and truly in the house.

First and second estates

Sirisena and  Wickremesinghe are hardly your naïf statespersons. But they might be two blasé politicians in every sense of the concept – whereby politics is the art of the possible. The latter will feign anger, ignorance, and maybe even incompetence in order to ride out a storm, turn the tides, steer the ship of state in the direction he has evidently wanted it to sail for a very long time indeed. The former has his work cut out for him to manage, manoeuvre, machinate, and even manipulate the state, the national government, a fragile coalition, his frayed party leadership – into doing what is best for all of them (not forgetting himself as a wily politico with a national if nominal future) – a mission impossible, maybe; but time might unveil certain surprise elements. 

Sirisena represents possibly the last of our presidents to wield executive power. It is a chimerical office that has taunted and tainted more ignoble – and more ambitious – men than he. No doubt our mercurial incumbent has felt the tug of corrupting power. Even if he Untitled-1cannot quite see yet how it is changing his demeanour in public (and especially vis-à-vis the media). Wickremesinghe is the last of a rapidly becoming extinct breed of able administrators who straddle technocracy and street smarts sufficiently to stage tactical defeats and win strategic victories. But his cleverness in playing at realpolitik may well be his undoing. If he is not careful to handle all the balls he is presently juggling with the due care of a statesman rather than a showman.

Wickremesinghe has gone on the offensive many times against the media before, mostly during this incumbency as premier. His chief grouse seems to be that the media is on a witch-hunt of key figures inimical to the interests of the Rajapaksa ex regime. One can’t grumble at his logic. With that said, the manner of his presentation may leave something to be desired as far as the rest of the free media are concerned. After one has been called unparliamentary names in the house, one might be praised for being more cautious about the names one calls one’s detractors outside the legislature whilst one is still within the hallowed portals of that august assembly. Not he. In his most recent broadside, the PM lambasted less than honourable scribes as being ‘frogs’. That, from a personage who was labelled ‘effete’ – in a firebrand MP’s ‘French’, the lingua franca of the parliamentary uncouth – is unbecoming to say the least. A leader must model the behaviour he expects of his friends as well as his enemies.

Mr Sirisena seems to have forgotten who his media friends were in the run-up to the revolution he is said to have spearheaded. But he remembers his political enemies very well indeed. As the controversial and disappointingly revealing interview he gave BBC highlights. More disappointing is his insistence on benchmarking himself against his erstwhile chief and long-time political master. There are, as we have said, few points of comparison between apples and oranges: apple and papol: a grotesque regime and a republican government. However, the previous administration appears to be Mr Sirisena’s benchmark for building up the credibility of his own government. Mores the pity. Something truly good could have come out of democratic-republicanism that was the promise and the potential of the people-driven, social-media-backed, regime change of January 2015. Something still can – if this government gets its media relationships (among other important policies) right.

Fourth estate

Be the first three estates of government as they may – separate or fused – the fourth estate is becoming increasingly instrumental in matters of state. At least, to judge by the responses of seemingly aggravated upper echelon national leaders. Seen through the prism of separation, government’s three arms – executive, legislature, judiciary – appear to be normatively apart in principle but nicely linked in practice. Perhaps, as never before in post-independence history. But seen through the shades of fusion, these three estates are so closely linked in terms of pragmatic politics so as to be almost symbiotic these days. All branches of national government, naturally intertwined with the judicial vine, working towards common fruit and flowering of changing the state of play. Be that as it may, while change is good, transformation is better. Media has a larger role to play in this than either of the first three or even the fourth recognise – to gauge by their mutually reinforced hermeneutic of suspicion.

Fifth column

That the most powerful potential agents of change see media – and social media – as inimical to their cause and implacable in their attitude is a matter of regret. The more savvy thinkers in presidential and prime ministerial circles may face a tough challenge in getting their chiefs to change their respective minds about what role media can and must play in moulding a new Sri Lanka. Or how these wild asses (to say nothing of their tamer counterparts the more responsible freer media) must be managed and motivated. To subscribe to the larger interests of game-changing transformation the nation-state is currently undergoing. Poised as it is on the brink of sea-change. Maybe four practices could be inducted to serve this purpose. So that government can make media a stakeholder in the transformation. 

Sixth sense

First: Focus on the journalists and the media organisations that could do the most harm... not to threaten or to vilify, but to try and win them over to the worldview of Good Governance.

Second: Cultivate the human touch – a trait that a previous regime was better at than is perhaps appreciated. E.g. you don’t win friends and influence people by referring to those folks who oppose you as ‘frogs’. 

Third: Invest in long-term relationships with a wider cross-section of the media than is under your present panoply of sycophantic press barons. Nothing succeeds like excess. Nothing fails like putting all your eggs-for-change in one newsgroups-basket.

Fourth: Develop a tougher skin. Don’t publicly parade your displeasure even if it hurts. It could hurt your cause even more to come across as being as arrogant as the previous administration.

So: Focus (F). Cultivate (C). Invest (I). Develop (D). With that said, the powers that presently are may be right – there is, among the free media today, a fifth column that is set on undermining Good Governance and returning the erstwhile incumbents to some semblance of power. Twas ever thus. The media mafia has not ended up in the dustbin of history. It has been retrieved by a bygone regime and been revamped for dirty work. If that is the case the other FCID might serve a more trenchant purpose? Money-laundering may be the least of their crimes! 

Last but by no means not least: If none of the above makes sense, a forced comparison and contrast between religion in oppressive republics and media in stultified democracies might serve as a thought-provoker for mandarins fighting shy of the fourth estate’s attention. In the then emerging Roman Empire, according to its historian Edward Gibbon, religions in Rome “were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful”. In our own burgeoning democratic-republican thought-world influenced by media empires, it might be useful for those who matter in the moving and shaking that is going on in government to think that “much of the media are considered by many to be mostly true, by politicos as mainly false, but by potential statesmen as the most practical tool to smooth the process of civic engagement with national transformation”. 

Let us see if our leaders can bite their tongue and chain their dogs of war long enough to allow the fourth estate to become a valuable stakeholder in the process. Rather than remaining a manufactured enemy who might and could well unnecessarily undermine everything. A moveable feast is more than spoiled – it’s despoiled – when one of its guests vomits all over the banquet table. 

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