The power of narrative

By Kusum Wijetilleke

“The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics” – George Orwell in Freedom of the Press

During an interview with the BBC in the early ’90s, Prof. Noam Chomsky was questioned on the validity of manufacturing consent given the media’s role in the fall of President Richard Nixon, referring to Watergate. Chomsky noted that anyone with even a passing interest in political history would have heard and read the words “Watergate Scandal,” which refers to a series of revelations surrounding illegal surveillance of political opponents, authorised by American President Richard Nixon between 1972 and 1974. Watergate has been immortalised in the historical narrative of politics, as well as elevating the field of investigative journalism. 

The scandals of Watergate were multipronged but centred around illegal and subversive methods of surveillance and control, pointing to abuses of power directed from the highest office in the land. However, as Chomsky notes, an infinitely more serious and significant scandal was uncovered around the same time, in March 1971 and it is unlikely that many readers have heard the word ‘COINTELPRO’.

The Counter Intelligence Programme (CO-INTEL-PRO) was a series of covert and illegal operations conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) that involved the infiltrating, surveilling and disrupting of numerous American political organisations that lasted from around 1956 to 1971, spanning four administrations. COINTELPRO targeted the full gamut of left-wing, socialist, counter-culture, anti-war organisations, anything the FBI deemed “subversive” including feminist organisations, the civil rights movement and black panthers, several environmental activist organisations, the Communist Party USA and many more. 

These two scandals and their differing treatment by the media in developing a historical narrative uncovers what is both insidious and alarming about the news industry’s transmission of a specific narrative. Chomsky further notes that Watergate was an example of a conflict within a power structure; President Nixon, a Republican, was actively trying to subvert his political opposition and elements within a power structure have some ability to defend themselves. The individuals targeted under COINTELPRO reveal that this was a project aimed at what were deemed as threats to the power structure. These are two very different propositions and it begs an analysis of the principles of the media. Watergate was widely covered in the media then and has been since throughout history, COINTELPRO significantly less so and this provides what Prof. Noam Chomsky called a “dramatic example of the subordination of educated opinion to power.”

A new social contract

In January this year, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa made a half-hour-long speech at an event entitled ‘An Open Discussion towards a Middle Ground’. The remarks began with the suggestion that the public yearns for long-term stability and not simply for short-term, temporary fixes. Premadasa then went on to briefly state the importance of social contract theory, specifically name-checking John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rosseau, three foundational enlightenment thinkers of Western moral and political philosophy. 

Social Contract theory aims to provide an understanding of the source and legitimacy of the state’s authority over the individual, citing an implicit and explicit agreement between individuals and the state. This contract inevitably requires that the individual consents to surrender some of their freedoms to an authority in exchange for the maintenance of social order and of the remaining rights of the individual. Hobbes introduced what he considered to be the original human condition: the State of Nature while Locke and Rosseau consider that individual rights are gained in return for accepting the obligation to respect the rights of others. 

These references to foundational aspects of political philosophy, though brief, are not common themes for modern Sri Lankan politicians and deserve further inspection and analysis as they may reveal much about what the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) stands for and what its political journey forward might entail. It revealed a philosophical underpinning to the Opposition Leader that is not yet appreciated. Of course, Social Contract theory can be complex and the comments were brief. 

It is interesting that Premadasa chose to specifically mention these three figures from the enlightenment. Perhaps he was referring to Hobbes’ understanding of the need for a central authority or Rosseau’s belief that coercion is not a legitimate exercise of power. Note that as per Rosseau, a social contract must aim to promote equality and liberty as the most desirable social values. These were substantive remarks by the Opposition Leader that simply did not receive the media attention it deserved. 

A major daily newspaper did report on the speech but, it came as a front page article with the heading ‘An elected dictatorship with democratic structures is needed: Sajith,’ followed by a subheading written in the style of a quotation but not placed within quotation marks that reads: ‘I won’t say elections should be scrapped but only suggest that an approach similar to the Margaret Thatcher administration in the UK be implemented.’

The headline caught attention, as headlines are meant to, and the Twitter-verse exploded with condemnation of these comments. Even within the absurdism of Sri Lankan politics, these comments seemed completely sensational. A closer analysis of the entire speech by many commentators revealed the aforementioned headline and subheading to be a gross mischaracterisation of Premadasa’s speech and even a downright fabrication. 

A Right of Reply appeared the very next day on the front page of the same newspaper which noted that the mention of a dictatorship was an unambiguous reference to Lord Hailsham’s Elective Dictatorship: “drawing parallels to the present state of Sri Lanka’s Parliament which appears solely accountable to the President and not to the wider electorate that voted for their representatives. The reference to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Iron Lady’ persona was a comparison to the SLPP’s unilateral, insular and non-consultative mode of Government that has led this country to the brink of economic destruction and social chaos.”

The publishing of the Right of Reply suggests that the original headline was being challenged and that said challenge has been noted. However, considering that the headline was a complete mischaracterisation, the newspaper in question should have issued a retraction. Given the seriousness of the comments that were originally published and the manner of the subheading, an apology should also have been forthcoming.

Attention deficits

There are very clearly-drawn political narratives in the local media at present. One concerns the failure of the Government and its policies, which is largely accurate and backed by ample data points and the other is the weakness and ineffectiveness of the main Opposition, the SJB. The data for this narrative is significantly less substantive. The ‘weakness’ of the Opposition should be a given, considering the majority that the SLPP enjoys in Parliament. In terms of being ineffective, the evidence comes from the renewed organisation and vigour in establishing mass scale protests amongst the working classes, farmers and peasantry by the National People’s Power (NPP), led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

It also comes from the fact that the SJB has not made any definitive political unions with other parties including minority parties and that several senior SJB MPs might be jostling for position. This narrative establishes another; that of the unsuitability of the current Opposition Leader to challenge the Rajapaksa establishment in any meaningful way.

Another important aspect to note in the mainstream media’s control of the narrative is its insistence on sustaining the legitimacy of the United National Party (UNP) and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Numerous media channels seem to report on virtually every comment made by the former PM, no matter how banal or inconsequential. It seems that Wickremesinghe is still well-served by the media despite being relegated to irrelevance by the voting public. 

Likewise, the media obsession with every Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) speech and its consistent elevation of NPP surrogates outweighs the electoral relevance of the JVP. If one accepts that the JVP’s promotion as a pretender to the oppositional throne was necessary given the alleged lethargy of the main Opposition, at the very least the basis of this promotion must be clear. There are no American style opinion polls in Sri Lanka. There was a belief that the NPP manifesto would finally justify the media tilt towards the NPP.  Yet this too was defined by a lack of originality, very much a repeat of previous iterations of this movement, full of lofty ambition but low on actual policy proposals. 

Writing in a national newspaper, Uditha Devapriya notes MP Udaya Gammanpila’s recent, nonsensical five-point plan which was substance free: “accepting there is an issue, identifying it, understanding it, revealing the truth to the people, and leading by example by making sacrifices”. A statement such as this barely deserves reportage, but was widely disseminated throughout the press. On the other hand, a long, thoughtful and substantive speech by the Opposition Leader who leads a party with over 50 seats, was corrupted and dismembered without even the courtesy of an official retraction.

Rewriting the present

In the meantime, the President and Prime Minister staged their version of a MAGA rally in Anuradhapura, perhaps part of a longer campaign that will take the party through to an election. The President’s speech indicated his own perspective: that despite challenges, his promises have been kept. Bizarrely, the President specifically mentioned the provision of fertiliser a guaranteed price. This statement alone is worthy of challenge, it might well be completely manufactured; the media cannot report such comments from a neutral perspective.

Tharindu Uduwaragedara, a journalist attached to Satahan Radio (available on YouTube), attempted to at least make a substantive critique of the SJB and Sajith Premadasa pointing to comments by Tissa Attanayake regarding Premadasa’s inevitable candidacy from the SJB as well as comments by other MPs that they are working towards supporting a Premadasa candidacy. This is interpreted by Uduwaragedara as signalling an inherently undemocratic culture at the SJB, similar to that which still exists in the UNP. He explicitly raises the question as to how the SJB might differ from the failed UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe and asks whether the SJB is merely a political vehicle for the personal political ambitions of another Premadasa. 

The critique can be countered but what one must notice is the variety of attacks on the Leader of the Opposition; ranging from a ‘weakness of leadership’ argument to the inability to co-opt oppositional forces. There is an insinuation that the SJB is built around his personality and lacks democratic principles of governance; that there is no clear agreement on strategy with differing opinions amongst senior SJBers. Some of the criticism carries weight, but it seems much of it centres around the lack of definitive manifesto and specific policy positions and how they might be achieved. The SJB can certainly better define some of its positions and contrast these with Government policy. 

There is also an ideological discourse within the senior MPs of the SJB, its advisors and leader. However, the media’s portrayal of these facets are strikingly simplistic. The public should appreciate a deliberative process to formulating policy and strategy, something that is unarguably a major contributor to the current economic and social chaos: the top-down nature of the SLPP policy initiatives that ignore public sentiment and expert opinion. There is also a logical desire for a political party to reveal in totality its policy positions. Yet being so far removed from an election, perhaps it is tactically sound to not release detailed policy too soon, lest the Government finds the time and space to rally opinion against it. The launch of the NPP manifesto has achieved little. 

Uduwaragedara and others seem to be yearning for a better understanding of what the SJB and its Leader stand for and what their core principles are. They could do worse than pay close attention to the references made by Premadasa in the aforementioned speech. The media has a duty to represent the views and comments of all political actors in an accurate manner, a failure to do so does a grave disservice to the political process. 

George Orwell wrote an essay titled ‘The Freedom of the Press’ while working in England, which was meant to be the introduction to Animal Farm. However this essay was never published. It was a commentary on British self-censorship and suppression of criticism of the USSR, a key ally at the time. Orwell is famous for his critique and analysis of the methods and instruments of thought control by force under totalitarianism. Yet Orwell also clearly defined how thought is controlled in free societies: “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. … Things are kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervenes but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”

The Fourth Estate

During the remarks discussed above, the Opposition Leader also mentioned the four Pillars of Democracy: the Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary and the free press, emphasising the importance of the press, which must protect the other pillars in order to enhance and protect the democratic project. There is contemporary research and scholarship that exposes the concentration of media ownership abroad, a process of consolidation of corporate private ownership that controls a larger share of the media landscape, leading to an inevitable convergence of opinion and narrative. There is little doubt that a similar dynamic exists in the Sri Lankan media landscape. 

Even recent history provides well-worn examples of media narratives, mostly around theatres of war. Take the US invasion of Afghanistan when there was little if any evidence of the Afghanistan state’s complicity in 9/11. Take the Vietnam War, one would struggle to find it described as a ‘US attack on South Vietnam’ anywhere in the British Press at that time. 

This brings us back to the social contract and how we might seek its updating to suit modern society. Noam Chomsky, writing in Profit over People in 1999 considers the work of 18th Century British Philosopher David Hume. Hume was intrigued by ‘the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, the implicit submission with which men resign’ their fate to their rulers. This he found surprising, because ‘force is always on the side of the governed.’ If people would realise that, they would rise up and overthrow the masters. He concluded that government is founded on control of opinion, a principle that ‘extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.’

The future of the Sri Lankan project may well depend on the ability of the electorate to see beyond the media narratives that seek to control opinion. Ultimately, it is the people within a democracy that ‘ought’ to determine the winners and losers within our democratic structure, not a narrative driven by the corporate media.

(The writer has over a decade of experience in the banking sector after completing a degree in accounting and finance. He has completed a Masters in International Relations and is currently reading for a PhD at the University of Colombo. He is also a freelance writer and researcher, and can be reached on email: and Twitter: @kusumw)