Media and Elections: A Sri Lankan Perspective


Mano Wikramanayake

What good is a broadcaster or a publisher without an audience? Whether you are electronic or print, public sector, public service or commercial, local or international, if you have no audience, if no one watches, listens to or reads what you produce, you have no viability – commercial or otherwise – and no raison d’etre. Therefore your primary goal is to build, maintain and grow your audience.

The media’s role during elections

The generally accepted view is that the media’s role during elections is to inform voters about the competing political parties and their programmes and candidates, and to contribute to the formation of opinion among the electorate. This function includes the dissemination of formal voter education material provided by the body in charge of election management, as well as fair, objective and independent reporting.

In some countries statutes lay down the amount of air time parties and candidates are allowed so that equity can be maintained in terms of exposure via the broadcast media. This can theoretically be achieved through measures such as a just allocation of broadcast time between all the competing parties and candidates, agreements on equal time and coverage on news programmes, 360-degree coverage of issues and debates between party leaders.

It is, of course, crucial to ensure that every party and/or independent candidate has access to the media, in particular radio and/or television, since most voters gain their knowledge about politics via the media. In other words a broadcaster is not entitled to influence public opinion through differing treatment of candidates or parties even though it is often the broadcaster who decides who gains access to debates and discussion programmes.

In my view this is a somewhat utopian ideal. I do not think there is any country in the world where governments are elected where the media are not manipulated in some way. In my view, it is only a matter of the degree of manipulation. In reality, despite the existence of such rules, governments in power often use the state-owned media as propaganda machines and privately-owned media often promote the party or group of their choice – overtly or covertly.

In many so-called mature or developed democracies, media organisations are openly partisan. The audience recognises this and makes allowance for the bias. An example of this was the support former U.S. president George W. Bush received from Rupert Murdoch’s media organisation, principally Fox News.

Whereas governments in the developed world are subtle in their manipulation, in the developing world governments tend to view the use of state media for propaganda as a privilege of office. The electorate in the developing world has also come to expect them to do so. Although legislation to regulate the role of the media in an election campaign may exist in some developing countries, the election commission or the apex official in charge of election management is appointed by the government. So, in practice, such rules and regulations tend to be applied only to media organisations that are seen to oppose the government or support the opposition.

In many developing countries, the governments brook no open criticism or opposition or even backing of their opponents by private media. As a result any bias in favour of opposition parties or candidates tends to be relatively subtle. Manipulation in the design of programmes, including news reports and discussion programmes, and even non-news programmes – such as entertainment shows and movies – is often used for subtle propaganda. Free advertising and scheduling of ads at favourable times are other indirect ways in which media organisations lend their support.

It can be argued that whatever is dished out to the public by media organisations in during elections – whether in the developed world or in the developing world – is subject to “spin.”

The arrogance of the media

What is often seen as the arrogance of the media is a natural result of the media’s ability to control the content and flow of information, whether in the conventional media or the new media. This arrogance is not necessarily always negative in its manifestation. However, in times of election the arrogance seems to receive a major infusion of energy. Even all the pundits who were proved wrong in the last round of elections emerge from the woodwork.

Television, in particular, tends to project individual personalities. Further spin on channel policy vis-à-vis positioning can take place due to the imposition of the personal views or style of presenters and commentators. Truth and fact become finished products, moulded, polished and tailored to achieve a predetermined result. To be fair, this may quite often take place unintentionally. The perpetrators may well believe in a noble ideal and, in fact, presume that they are furthering the ideal. Some go so far as to assume that they know what is best for the country and justify their versions of facts, which they dish out to an increasingly aware and suspecting public.

Gone are the days when the voting populace will swallow anything. Power and authority no longer bring respect and adherence although they may instill fear and a healthy dose of the instinct for self-preservation. This is the age where even pre-adolescent children no longer accept their father’s word as gospel.

However, strangely enough, a large proportion of media organisations – state-owned and private – do not seem to have woken up to the fact that the people, or the voter in this case  are just as smart as the media and, in some cases, palpably smarter.

Also, quite apart from being able to better separate the wheat from the chaff, audiences in most countries around the world now have access to the alternative or new media for a plethora of micro viewpoints and information.

The effect of new media

The impact and effect of the so-called new media based around the internet is both over-estimated and under-estimated. What cannot be debated is that they have provided a platform for multiple voices – from the very extremes of the spectrum to the middle of the road – which would otherwise have been heard only in a micro environment serviced by word of mouth. This does not mean that spin does not exist in the new media. It does, but the very availability of diverse opinions ensures that discerning consumers can evaluate many options before they decide for themselves the reality to accept, which may in fact be a distillation of myriad views.

The other significant impact of the new media is citizen journalism. Although subjective and susceptible to corruption and manipulation, the great benefit of citizen-generated journalism has been the dissemination of news, views and visuals of events that governments and authorities would have otherwise suppressed or played down. Modern Information and Communications Technology (ICT) products such as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and camera-equipped mobile phones have put the power of worldwide instant communication of text, picture, voice and video in the hands of people in the street. As a result their voices are being heard almost as loud as the traditional media.

In this synthesis of the traditional media and the new media, propaganda and promotion, the suggestive and the subliminal, how is the consumer – or the voter – to make sense of the cacophony and develop an informed opinion leading to a responsible decision about how best to use his or her franchise? It is my belief that the key to this lies in the very nature of the audience.

The nature of the audience

Audiences at election time vary considerably, depending on the country and the perceived importance of the election. In the developing economies of South Asia, for instance, politics is a national pastime and interest levels are high even in between elections. This is not necessarily because the public values the importance of their franchise or even because they are less disillusioned with politicians and the political system than, perhaps, those in the socalled First World, but because politics – and elections in particular – provide them with first rate entertainment. However, they vote along party lines, or according to caste or community, as the case may be, with nationalist feelings, racial pride and/or prejudice, and/or religion generally taking precedence over issues, policies and ideology. By contrast, in a country like Australia, where voting is compulsory, most voters are more concerned with the direct impact of policies on their daily lives than the ideologies of their politicians.

Nevertheless, wherever they may be located, and whatever drives their interest in elections, today’s voter is essentially savvy, generally disenchanted with the political process, very aware of the media’s importance in shaping the outcome, and capable of seeing through the most thickly veiled support of a particular party or candidate.

So credibility becomes the ultimate determining factor in the influence a particular media organisation can exert. High ratings do not always equal respect and influence. Political theatre is extremely popular and usually guarantees high ratings. Candidates’ debates dominate prime time viewership in the USA during the presidential campaign season; in fact, more or less the whole world tunes in to CNN to watch the new world gladiators tear each other apart in terms that have become less and less genteel over the years.

My premise is, therefore, that voters distill all the sources of information they receive and form their own opinions, which eventually result in action at the polling booth. A media organisation that best serves them by presenting – in credible form – a diversity of opinions which can help them to form their own opinions, is the one that they will stay with or come back to as their main source of information.

The role of the media has changed from one that influenced opinion to one that helps shape opinion and this never more so than at election time.