The TV political chat show culture in Sri Lanka emerged as a trend in the mid 1990s. As I remember, TNL’s “Jana Hada” featuring Chamuditha Samarawickrama was a trend setter in this department; where, vibrant barrage (which, on occasions, surpassed all red lights of “Live TV” behaviour) was freely exchanged. Political chat shows, at that point, was a novel phenomenon to all concerned – viewers, marketers as well as to politicians themselves. For a time, until the ground was scouted and the essence of this “chat show space” was properly understood by political representatives, chat shows were relatively more spontaneous and banked on minimal self consciousness.
The discourse in question, however, became rapidly evolved through programmes in the caliber of “Rathu Ira” (Swarnavahini); and much later, “360” (TV Derana). To have their own chat show became a production specification for each TV channel. Even blatantly pro-governmental agents such as ITN came up with their own political chat programme; audaciously and quite ironically calling it “Thulava” (The Balance). To say the least, programmes such as “Thulava” were highly imbalanced; and bias on the side of the government. These programmes, with time, degenerated into platforms of state propaganda – with the show host, too, becoming a crucial pawn of the machine.
Swarnavahini’s “Rathu Ira” – before its demise – strove to usher in a balance of a sort regarding views and representations: a function in which they partially succeeded. The chat show host has also courted much public appeal and political blessing. Many such chat show hosts of yesteryear have, in the course of things, entered the mainstream of party politics. Buddhika Pathirana and Sudharman Radhaliyagoda are two names that come to my mind whenever I meditate on the fact.
In the contemporary setting, “Jana Hada” and “360” have survived the “chat show wave” and continue to enjoy a much sought after TV belt. TV Derana’s “360”, when it first came out, was a novel experience to the Lankan political show viewer – where a persuasive, pleasant and hard-drilling young female announcer would unleash a volley of earnest deep probe on the interviewee. This announcer – Dilka Samanmali – would cross question even the most nutmeg-like politician in search of “truth” and in deconstructing “opinion”. In this context, “360”, along with its charismatic female presenter, became heavy duty market ware.
In a closed, largely narrowminded country like ours, where gender disparity and sexual frustration are proportionate to each other, Dilka Samanmali, at one level, is a fetish. In Dilka the average male seeks a fantasy – the fantasy of the dominatrix, the sadistic female grilling the “politician”: the de facto authoritarian “male space”. Dilka’s quasi-nerdy spectacles, tennis girl pony tail, and the fact that she’s “in control” further enhance the fetish / fantasy. Her style of querying, too, is dominative. Where and as she pleases – and this happens quite frequently – Dilka disallows the participant from finishing sentences by pushing her way in. Whatever contract that takes place on that roundtable of “360” is Dilka-centric. She asks the questions and she cuts in and interrupts – even silences speakers – as she wills.
Dilka Samanmali and “360”, over the past two years or so, has made a radical shift away from the earnestly critical forum it once was. Today, it has degraded to the state of being a stooge show where governmental bigwigs are ego-massaged. Perhaps, this is owing to a policy revision in TV Derana’s production strategy – and perhaps, Dilka Samanmali has very little to do with it – but a clear loss of impartiality and intensity can be viewed. The “appeal” of the “media woman in Dilka” is now being manipulated and shuffled in a way that an unmistakable “anti-oppositional” vibe is prevalent whenever “360” is aired. Whether this is the result of a TV Derana Board decision, or whether it is motivated by the TV station’s state connections is unclear. But, the state is in the process of living the dominatrix fantasy in the serialized form; and at the expense of its dear opponents.
A week ago, Dilka Samanmali was chatting with Dr. Maheen Mendis, the Spokesperson for the Federation of University Teachers (FUTA). As we know, the FUTA is midstream in a negotiation with several State arms such as the Ministry of Higher Education and the Treasury. They have succeeded in staging a commendable trade union action and in paralyzing the higher education tier from normal function. The FUTA, in short, has become a headache for the government of Sri Lanka through its oppositional activity. Dilka Samanmali in conversation with Dr. Mendis makes the trade union action the departure point of her programme. Yet, her focus and concern was very clearly that of a paid mercenary – as she went on to attack and cross question Dr. Mendis outside the premise of debate; but, with the predetermined intention of attacking him anyway.
The “callers” who connected with (or were preferred by) the programme were decidely anti-FUTA; and Dilka Samanmali kept on insisting on issues and trivialities that had very little to do with the main topic. Her intention was clear enough – she meant to unsettle Dr. Mendis who, for the better part of the first 2 hours, was privy to Dilka’s game. In fact, many prolific figures had lost at “360” by trying to impress and express too much. MP Ranjan Ramanayake, for instance, once got himself tangled up from end to end by trying to talk too much. Maheen Mendis did display signs of a populist orator. Yet, he was shrewd enough to sidestep from the pitfalls Ms. Samanmali kept on digging.
To dwell a moment on the episode in focus, I felt that Dr. Mendis’ responses and arguments were laden with the populist rhetoric; and may have lacked in intellectual stamina at times. But, then again, the need of the hour was to transmit opinion to a wider audience. Given the objective, one might argue, that a strong rhetoric – as Dr. Mendis adopted – would have served FUTA the best. Yet, in the process, I felt that Dr. Mendis unnecessarily walked into one or two “traps” set up by Dilka Samanmali. Take for instance the naïve question Ms. Samanmali framed regarding the moral validity of an academic strike: the “ethical justification” of the trade union action at hand, to her, appeared uncanny. While Dr. Mendis attempted an answer to this babyish query the best would have been to dismiss the question for what it in essence was – a babyish, apolitical accusation which can only be posed by a governmental stooge. A trade union mandate, primarily, is a show of dissent. One refrains from work to transmit a message of disfavour to the ministry and the head of state that oversees all. One cannot, therefore, validate nor dismiss a trade union action through the logic of the state and its proxies.
While Dilka Samanmali chipped into Maheen Mendis with much effort and energy her defense of the state was steadfast and insistent. Yet, the week earlier, when the same chair was occupied by the other stakeholder of the academic pay-hike crisis, the Minister of Higher Education, SB Dissanayake, what we saw was a total reversal. On this occasion, Ms. Samanmali hardly had a word of dissent or disagreement. Less interruptions and minimal attempts at cross questioning meant that Minister Dissanayake had a field day at barraging the academic set up. What makes Ms. Samanmali / “360” a fierce tiger in front of Maheen Mendis and a purring kitten before the minister of Higher Education is the political affinity and the unevenness of ground the play proposes. It is a sad anti-climax for a programme which promised much not more than two years ago.
The politicization of the media cannot be avoided in an era and a state policy which, inherently, endorses the same as its basic ground plan. But, the underside of such penetrative politicization and subversion is that those that will / are compelled to play “stooge” lose much credibility. The more open minded do not delay in reading the “political underside” of stations such as TV Derana, or that of “360”. Once read, they duly measure the programme and its underlying policy for what they in essence are – cheap propaganda. It is inevitable that a media institute has a political principle. But, one has to strike a balance, as its reach spreads beyond its gateway. Besides, the compromise TV Derana has made in sacrificing its reputation of near-balance for a pro-governmental seat is sad and disheartening. The ticket of transparency they lose cannot be compromised by the state favour they stand to win.