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BBC's Hard Talk interview with Gotabhaya was propagandistic rather than journalistic

Jun 11, 2010 11:41:26 PM- transcurrents.com

By C. A. Chandraprema

It was the other day that the BBC aired the full version of the Hard Talk interview with Gotabhaya Rajapakse, and there are certain issues that need to be raised, not about what Gota said in that interview, but about the BBC programme itself.

I have watched only two other BBC Hard Talk programmes, one was an interview with Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga when she was the president and the other was an interview with Ajith Cabraal the Central Bank Governor. I was never a fan of CBK and for seven long years from 1994 to 2001, I wrote against her government. Given the fact that I was an opponent of her regime who at the latter stages of that nightmare of a government also had to face character assassination and imprisonment for my pains, I should have been happy that she was hauled over the coals by the interviewer on BBC’s Hard Talk. But even at that time, I was repelled by the manner in which the BBC presenter conducted that programme.

Being opposed to a politician is one thing, but the manner in which a media establishment practices journalism is quite another. When CBK was re-elected to power in 1999, in a Sinhala column I contributed to the Irida Peramuna, the sister paper of the Sunday Leader and precursor of the Irudina, I called the people who voted for CBK "punnakku kana gonnu" (poonac eating bovines) and I still stand by such statements. Despite all my antipathy towards CBK, that BBC Hard Talk interview with her grated on my journalistic sensibilities. I have always held that no journalist should do hostile interviews.

My idea of the ideal TV interviewer in the international media is Larry King, respectable, non-confrontational, and he allows the interviewee to say what he has to say. A newspaper article would be for the journalist to make his assertions. An interview is for the interviewee to say whatever he has to say, and it should never seem as if the interviewer is trying to make assertions for public consumption through his questions. Larry King never does that and what he practises is journalism whereas I would characterise the BBC’s Hard Talk style as gutter journalism, not worthy of an international news organisation.

I have never noticed such a gutter journalistic programme on CNN. I have not had the opportunity to watch Fox News regularly, but the impression that I get is that even though the Fox presenters are combatively pro-Republican and conservative, they don’t have any gutter programmes on their channel. (I am subject to correction.)

The BBC’s Hard Talk however, resembles a political Jerry Springer show. Most Sri Lankans are not familiar with Jerry Springer’s work, but let it be said that Springer represents the absolute nadir of western civilisation and broadcasting culture. You have estranged husbands and wives screaming at one another and homosexuals and transvestites exchanging insults with the studio audience. This is the ultimate low-brow TV show for the unlettered western masses, and in my estimation, the BBC’s Hard Talk is the current affairs cousin of the Jerry Springer Show. The interviewee is really a victim brought there for the entertainment of the audience. You ask him about all kinds of unsubstantiated stories and the purpose of this exercise if not really to elicit answers to those questions but to make the allegations or accusations widely known so that when the interview is over what will remain etched in the minds of the public will be the questions and not the answers.

My objection to hostile interviews is that the interviewer deliberately asks questions not with the intention of eliciting anything for the information of the public but of targeting the interviewee. This does not seem to be the correct way of going about things. If you have something on a person in authority, then that should be laid on the table instead of provoking a public shouting match about unsubstantiated issues. When you bring someone in authority before a camera and ask him "Is it true that you have links with the organised underworld?" regardless of what the answer is, the impression created in the minds of the audience is negative. A journalist can ruin a man by simply asking such questions, without making any assertions and this power has to be used with the utmost responsibility.

Nobody in this country has criticised UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe the way I have. Yet when I went to interview him a couple of weeks ago, I asked him the inevitable questions and recorded his answers and that was the interview. I did not try to make myself look important to the public by trying to be too smart with the Opposition Leader and former prime minister of this country. But that is exactly what these Hard Talk presenters are doing. The interviewer is trying to look more important than the interviewee!

If a real journalist wants to take someone down for whatever reason, then he should get some facts together and launch a blistering, scathing, frontal assault. This is the more difficult option because this requires some homework and sufficient evidence. There is always a risk associated with this kind of approach. Asking questions on the other hand is a safe option. You can’t be taken to courts for simply asking a question however unfounded or slanderous it may be.

This is not the first time that Gota was interviewed by the BBC, He was interviewed in February as well. If you take the past interviews that he has given to the same channel in the recent past, he must be among the most frequently interviewed persons on the BBC.

What I found objectionable about the whole interview was not Gota’s answers or the fact that he lost his cool at one point, but the manner in which the interviewer conducted the interview. Any journalist can get a person in authority to sit in front of a camera and then ask him all kinds of unsubstantiated questions, especially with a view to causing embarrassment and discomfort. In fact, the same thing can be done to these BBC presenters themselves, if they consent to be interviewed live by other journalists who may not approve of their style of doing things.

From the beginning to the end of that BBC interview, the questions were all loaded and it is a good example of how an interview can serve as propaganda. The interviewer started with the military presence in the north, and went on to the question whether ordinary Tamils were deemed to be separatists, whether the whole Tamil population was being monitored, why there was no full investigation into alleged war crimes, such as 30 reported attacks on hospitals, about the emergency regulations, about a supposed authoritarian tendency in Sri Lanka, about journalists getting killed for writing against the government, whether it was healthy for one family to wield so much power, whether the ruling family controls 75% of the budget, whether one brother in the family is called Mr 10%, whether he (Gota) was worried about war crimes investigations, – literally the whole gamut of accusations levelled at the government by its detractors.

There is nothing wrong in asking hard questions, but if the purpose of these questions is to elicit an answer which will tell the audience where the interviewee stands with regard to these questions, then there is an etiquette to be followed. If the questions are asked but the etiquette is not followed, then the interview amounts to nothing more than an attempt by the interviewer to make various assertions through innuendo and thereby serve a propaganda purpose. Admittedly, there is a very thin dividing line between a bona fide interview and propaganda. In the media, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There is no doubt that any reasonable person would have considered the BBC interview with Gota propagandistic rather than journalistic. ~ courtesy: The Island ~