In the height of Carthaginian infiltration into the territories of Rome, the latter was at the brink of losing its grip on the gradual hegemony it had, for over a century, been building. With the Carthaginian General Hannibal ravaging the provinces and pumping fear and uncertainty into the hearts of the Romans, the Roman Dictator Fabius Maximus faced the national threat with a simple enough ploy —- Disengage. Just wait. Allow the enemy to exhaust himself.
What I have to say of Dilka Samanmali and her showpiece 360 has long been said in this very space, in love with a whale; therefore, at the very outset to this itself I restrain myself from re-iterating the philosophy behind the media fetish that is Ms. Samanmali.
However, following her 1-to-1 with Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri — the President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), which, at present, is engaged in an abstinence from duties owing to a protracted trade union action to “safeguard higher education” in Sri Lanka — Dilka Samanmali makes a return to my blogsphere. Indeed, the past week was of much enthusiasm to the media at large; but specially so to the electronic media, for they had reserved some “discursive space” for the FUTA strike: a space that was not all that forthcoming during the initial phase of the struggle. No less than three political chat shows on national media were keen in debating the issues which have moved the FUTA for a “continuous strike” since the 4th of July. Channels such as TV Derana (on two occasions) and TNL showed a political interest that has not been equally shared by most electronic media networks regarding this crisis; except, perhaps Sirasa.
The lethargy of the electronic media in facilitating a “discursive space” (as opposed to a promotional / news spot) and a sufficient involvement with the FUTA agenda – a draft which even the government earlier acknowledged was reasonable enough – is somewhat disheartening. Very few “genuine” attempts have been made by the audio-visual strong houses, perhaps to at least analyze the feasibility of and to socialize the gist and logic of the FUTA demands. The lukewarm interest shown by “electronic media” in general of taking the message of the FUTA to the wider layers of the community, has, in turn, allowed a public “void” which lacks knowledge and is seeped with ignorance and misdirection regarding the current trade union action. The scales have most certainly been tilted on one side with the only media that have taken an interest in the issue – the state-run electronic media – giving loyal submission to governmental rhetoric. ITN was seen at the steering of proceedings.
However, the FUTA, I felt, was successful enough in using this lately provided outlet to transmit its mandate to a wider public, even as the “news” breeding ground was not always equal. In at least two of the forums which I closely followed — 360 and Vaadha Pitiya — much was done to extend the FUTA manifesto of the struggle. Nirmal Devasiri’s encounter with Dilka Samanmali, however, was no intellectual conference; that much was very clear even before the show began and by merely going through Dilka’s media profile. At one level it was plain sad to see that the purpose and call in inviting the FUTA to a political forum were, in Dilka’s case, marred by cheap, party interests (as opposed to paving the way for a discourse on the compelling issues of higher education).
As I have also outlined elsewhere, by now, 360 has counter-evolved to being a classic example for where a show with potential, with time and wooing, is domesticated by the power drug: where Dilka and her producers have earned a notoriety for grilling any opinion which is ‘alternative’ to the governmental stance. But, the lack of being read or informed – of things as basic as the relevant documentation, the demands and circumstances pertaining to the crisis etc – as well as the impatience shown by the host in not allowing Devasiri to articulate his ideas properly were not at all within the spirit of dialogic exchange. I felt that Devasiri handled Dilka’s style, which, at its best / worst, can be put-offish. Her technique of rapidly firing in questions and of silencing the respondent by cutting them short; as well as in posing questions by “stuffing the answer in the mouth” of the respondent was meditatively negotiated by Devasiri. The shocking concern, here, however is not Dilka’s etiquette code as a host; but the lack of gravity or commitment shown by her and her producer, when discussing the wider national crisis in education . Rather than meditating on the deep ends of the struggle – or at least in being sufficiently read in the FUTA manifestations – the show approached the discussion from and vowed to defend the portals of the office of the Higher Education ministry: a position and a rhetoric which, to say the least, has lost its credibility in the field of education since late.
Among other things, the FUTA was able to dilute several mass lies which state proxies had earlier spread (and using these very electronic mediums, too): where the “lecturers’ strike” had largely been reduced to a picture of getting a “pay hike”. Dilka’s queries also sought clarification from Devasiri regarding public statements (which are not in the FUTA documents, but which are nonetheless used as negative propaganda against the struggle) made by the ministry that the lecturers demand their children to be given scholarships and admission to private schools; that the government has already “met with FUTA demands” and that the strike was “unethical” etc. Equally taken to task were many simplistic, apolitical insinuations which can “stir” the masses: chief among them being one-tracked treatises such as that strikes “delaying graduation of students” and that their futures, in turn, are “cast in the dark”; that the agitation is motivated by “vested factions” etc. The opening out of the can is a way to remove the worms; but, are the media houses sufficiently committed in their critical intervention? At least in the case of 360, I felt, the concern was not even there.
When I sat for my Diploma in Journalism, a decade or so ago, my teacher the late Dalton De Silva once had a long seminar series on what he called “Media Ethics”. In one session, I remember him saying with a flourish that “ethics is very much your commonsense”, until “politics get involved in it”. The lack of commitment as well as the bitterness with which the lady journalist strives to pin down Devasiri with simplistic and simpleminded argument, at its basic, was more than unbecoming of a media agenda’s ethical commitment to a national issue. In the end, the show host could propose nothing more than being an arrogant apologist for the government’s crippled educational mission.
What the FUTA struggle’s outcome would be is yet to be surmised. In my opinion, the government is playing the Fabian game, hoping to exhaust its counterpart. Dubious committees without commitment or negotiation bids are all a part of the Machiavellian’s modern negotiation kit and we are, by no short measure, a miraculous modern nation state. For FUTA’s part, the federation has employed the past three weeks in expanding awareness and in decentralizing their mission and message. Parallel to the seminars, public forums, door-to-door awareness campaigns etc, they are also engaged in amassing a people’s petition with a target of 100,000 signatures in mind. In short, with scant and non-committal media space, FUTA is playing like Led Zeppelin – but, what kind of rock their concentrated energy would produce is yet merely a vision.