'Always good to get [and completely ignore] feedback'
To: Simon Bradwell
Subject: TVNZ coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka
I am writing to you about the piece which aired on the six o'clock TVNZ news last Thursday about the conflict in Sri Lanka. I felt that the wording of your news item was lacking in the objectivity your organisation claims to want to bring to journalism.
Your item claimed that 'many' of the 70,000 people killed in the conflict in Sri Lanka over the past three decades died at the hands of the Tamil Tigers. 'Many' is a conveniently vague word - it may suggest 'some', or it may suggest 'most', or it may suggest 'half'. I think you ought to have been more precise.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of both civilian and military deaths during the current round of fighting are being caused by the Sri Lankan army, which is using firepower that the Tamil Tigers cannot hope to match. To refer to the fact that 'many' people have been killed by the Tigers over the course of the whole conflict during a report on the current violence is to give the false impression of recent events. Journalists have not failed to note the one-sidedness of the recent fighting in Gaza; should they not also note that the fighting in Sri Lanka has a similar quality?
Your news item stated that the Tamil Tigers are 'condemned around the world as terrorists'. This formulation does not specify which people or organisations consider the Tigers 'terrorist'. The fact is that, under pressure from the US government in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, many nations have placed the Tigers on lists of terrorist organisations. Individual governments did not necessarily 'condemn' the Tigers when they did this; normally they simply added the group's name to a list of names, without any internal discussion or public comment.
The Tigers do not necessarily have the characteristics of a terrorist organisation just because the US calls them terrorists. It is important to remember that governments often classify and reclassify groups as 'terrorist' and 'legitimate' depending on political exigencies. The African National Congress was considered a terrorist group by many Western governments; so, of course, was Sinn Fein. There are a number of important governments - the government of South Africa , for instance - which do not consider the Tigers terrorists, and there are large Tamil communities around the world which consider the Sri Lankan goverment, and not the Tigers, as a terrorist organisation.
By choosing to accept the US government's characterisation of the Tamils as 'terrorists' over the different characterisations employed by (say) the South African government and the Tamil diaspora, you are mixing up political commentary with news coverage and betraying your stated aim of covering events objectively. If you choose to acknowledge that some governments and people consider the Tamil Tigers terrorists, why not also acknowledge that others do not? Why the false suggestion of unanimity?
Perhaps, though, it would be better to avoid such a politicised label as 'terrorist' altogether, and try to use more objective and informative language when discussing the complex and tragic situation in Sri Lanka ?
From: Simon Bradwell
Thanks for your email.
According to my research, 32 countries have labelled the Tamil Tigers a “terrorist” organisation. That justifies the line in the story.
It is impossible to specify how many of the 70,000 deaths are directly attributable to the Tigers. Hence the use of the word “many”.
I appreciate your time to email, but I’m entirely happy with the story, and its objectivity, and so is everyone at TVNZ that I’ve spoken to.
From: Scott Hamilton
Sent: Monday, 2 February 2009 3:49 p.m.
To: Simon Bradwell
Subject: RE: TVNZ coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka
you apply the same logic to the question of whether the Tigers are a terrorist group and the question of whether your news item was biased. Because a certain number of states say the Tigers are terrorists, you feel entitled to call them terrorists; because a certain number of your colleagues think your piece was unbiased, then it must be unbiased.
Surely questions of truth can't be resolved by poll? If they can, which poll should we choose? If thirty-two countries consider the Tigers terrorists, then around one hundred and fifty don't. Your colleagues may have thought your piece unbiased, but many other people - I've talked to some of them - considered it flawed.
Surely it is necessary to enquire as to whether a label is justified, before attaching it?
From: "Simon Bradwell"
Thanks again. I’ve said all I intend to about the story.
Thanks for your interest though, always good to get feedback.