sam de silva on Wed, 12 Apr 2006 16:34:06 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> microsoft, cutlets and the media

*Microsoft, Cutlets and the Media*
by Sam de Silva - 12 April 2006

Last Wednesday, I was in a room in the basement of the Hilton to witness
the launch of a partnership between Microsoft and local Sri Lankan
tech/media NGO - InfoShare.

Microsoft presented InfoShare with a big cheque for 16.5 million rupees
- an amount that would buy a two bedroom apartment with an ordinary view
in downtown Colombo - to develop the IT sector in the rural areas of Sri
Lanka. Microsoft's plan is to "empower under-served people with new
skills for better employability" and they want InfoShare to "touch the
lives of over 35,000 individuals" with "IT capacity building exercises".

But this story isn't about Microsoft or their community empowerment
strategies. I have no doubt InfoShare will use the money wisely. They
won't create a Sri Lanka whose people, addicted to Microsoft products,
end up employed in data entry sweat shops in free trade zones. What
InfoShare will do is create a technology-aware rural population who can
think for themselves. The end result will be smart, diverse and vibrant
knowledge societies across non-urban Sri Lanka.

What this story is about is the media, and cutlets for cameras, comments
and column inches. Earlier last week, a day before the Hilton event, I
spent a couple of hours with a small organization that was involved in
developing some interesting projects around bridging ethnic divisions. I
asked them why stories about their activities weren't appearing in the
papers. Their response shocked me. They told me they didn't have the
money to pay journalists - to pay for the cutlets that would attract the
journalists. The seriousness of what they were saying didn't strike me
until I attended the Microsoft event.

The launch at the Hilton had lots of cutlets, lots of pastries, lots of
meat on sticks, lots of fruit, lots of cake and lots of booze. Of course
all the cameras would turn up. I suppose the fact that one of the
richest and most powerful companies in the world is investing 16.5
million rupees (US$165,000) over a 2 year period in rural Sri Lanka to
"touch the lives of over 35,000 individuals" makes an interesting story.

But so is the story, the many stories, about the work done by small
groups that will help change Sri Lanka from an island that's on the edge
of war, to a land that can be at peace.

I have to acknowledge I haven't lived in Sri Lanka for a long period of
time. I am very much an outsider. And I am sure journalists have covered
many stories about the peace building work and the issues surrounding
conflict. But it still troubles me to hear someone say they can't get
the interest of journalists unless they tempt them with food and drink.

Sure, I am familiar with the role of the public relations agencies. What
happened at the Hilton isn't a crime - it's common business sense. What
is a crime though, is the ease with which journalists and editors can be
seduced, and the need, it seems, to seduce them in order to get a story

Let's be honest here. The offering of cutlets  in this context goes
beyond Sri Lankan hospitality! It is effectively envelope journalism -
the exchange of cash for comment. And of course, it is not something
that's unique to Sri Lanka - it is happening everywhere. Journalists all
over the world are easily seduced to become reproducers of press
releases and messages dictated by public relations agencies.

Robert Fisk is my current hero. He's a war correspondent who's been
covering the Middle East for almost 30 years. I am reading his latest
book titled 'The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle
East'. It's a great read and will be of interest to people following Sri
Lanka's conflict and anyone interested in the reporting of stories about
the Middle East. As well as first-hand reporting from the area, Fisk
highlights examples of sloppy journalism, of reporters regurgitating
what military public relations officers says word for word without question.

The reason I mention Robert Fisk is because of Amira Hass. In his book,
Fisk relates his interactions with her, an Israeli who lives in
Ramallah.. Fisk writes: "Her column in Ha'aretz blazes with indignation
at the way her own country, Israel, is mistreating and killing the

But what I want to convey is Hass's take on the role of a journalist.
She tells Fisk that "What journalism is really about - it's to monitor
power and the centres of power". That is the clearest definition of a
journalist I have heard to date - someone who monitors power and the
centres of power.

The way the media is manipulated by public relations agencies is nothing
compared to the way political happenings are covered. When it comes to
politics, and monitoring those centres of power, it's the journalists,
editors and media proprietors who seem to be doing the seducing,
offering cutlets and plenty of column inches to those at the top. Again,
this is not unique to Sri Lanka - it happens everywhere, and Fisk's book
documents it.

I am not saying journalists should not accept the food and drink offers.
Go ahead - eat the cutlets, drink the booze. But also interrogate the
story thoroughly. Maintain integrity as a journalist and independent
thinker. Investigate power and consider the stories of people who can't
afford to cover a table with cutlets and booze.

So why is Microsoft giving 16.5 million rupees for IT development in
rural Sri Lanka? Maybe someone else will have to give a response. I
promised this story wouldn't be about Microsoft!

/This story was written using Microsoft Word running on a Mac OS-X
platform. /

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