I had long wondered about the motives of a few media outlets which had engaged in constant disinformation about Sri Lanka while we were engaged in our struggle against terrorism. This has been extremely hurtful, not only in itself, but because it had hardened attitudes amongst some decision makers in Sri Lanka about opening up areas in the North to journalists.

I had myself felt that, whilst security had to be a paramount consideration, more good than harm would be accomplished by allowing journalists to report on the enormous work the government was doing for the displaced in Vavuniya. Around March 2009, I think it was, this position seemed to gain wider acceptance, and many journalists were taken up to see the actual situation.

By and large I believe optimism was justified, and most journalists reported fairly on the facts. Though some negative aspects were noticed, most maintained a balance with regard to these, and generally asked government to comment on what they thought amiss. The result was a better impression, certainly in India, about what was going on, and I think we need to record our appreciation of the objective reports that did much to assuage feelings which the Tigers and their allies had stirred up through misrepresentation of the Welfare Centres.

This seemed to me true of reports in other outlets too, even the BBC, whose two correspondents resident in Sri Lanka did their best to ensure balanced reporting. However some British outlets seemed particularly perverse. Idiosyncratic as usual was the ‘Guardian’, which seemed generally balanced, with a sharp critique of David Miliband to balance criticism of our government, but had one totally false article, about thirteen women found with slit throats near Menik Farm. I checked carefully on this with all agencies involved in what is termed Protection concerns, and none could give me even a basis on which this article might have been built up. I could quite understand then why government felt that particular reporter should not be given a visa again, and be classed with representatives of the more determinedly unfair Western media outlets.

Still, I think it best to engage as much as possible with such individuals, since in general it is a mistake to attribute to wickedness what may arise from incompetence. I tried hard therefore to talk to Channel 4 and Sky News and the Times when I was in London and, though the last two resolutely turned me down, Channel 4 did finally – courtesy of a little help from the BBC Breakfast Programme, where I was able to raise the issue – allow me a chance to respond to the most outrageous of their recent allegations.

So too, when I was in Delhi recently, I asked for meetings with several journalists who have not recently been given visas. I was gratified that all were willing to talk, and indeed they struck me, even one who I felt had misquoted me outrageously, as fairly decent. In general it seems they try to reflect what is reported to them, naturally with the constraint of working within the editorial policy of their papers. In all cases of course one has to remember that papers need to sell, and sensational news is more likely to appeal to readers than anything else.

What struck me most however in the discussions was that they justified stories I pointed out were false on the grounds that they had received the information from officials on the ground, in what seemed several cases from the United Nations. When I pointed out that the senior leadership of the UN had repudiated these stories, the response was that younger officials sometimes felt they had to speak out because their superiors were seen as too close to the government.

I told the UN when I was back in Colombo that this was an unexpected compliment from our point of view. I would still like to think it is true and – though an Indian journalist warned me that sometimes the leadership of the UN said different things to different people – in general I believe most of the leadership with which we have to deal has been quite positive, and certainly opposed to terrorism, unlike the situation that obtained some time back. But there is a problem in that they do not categorically refute the misleading information provided by their underlings, and thus contribute to the multiple suspicions that abound in what should be a straightforward situation.

Journalists of course have different perspectives and, since their primary obligation is not to the people of the country they are serving in, they can privilege their fraudulent sources. In one case, though I was told that a particular story had been subsequently recognized as untrue, and the source for that would not be trusted again, there was no inclination to provide a correction. And by and large my point that, unless they referred to ‘an employee of the UN’ rather than ‘the UN’, they were in danger of reducing the effectiveness of the UN, was not accepted. Such precision would obviously make the story less effective, so in essence those within the UN system who wish to subvert it have a free rein.

I did suggest that the journalists should at least try to look into the agendas of those who gave them consistently negative information. Whilst their view was that these were idealists kicking against the pricks, it was at least possible that some of them were pushing more subtle perspectives, and that in some cases they might have subscribed to the view that the LTTE were freedom fighters who should be assisted. I was for instance aware that some members at least of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission had come to this country with that mindset and, though I was assured that most had changed after they came into actual contact with the LTTE, we could not be sanguine about all of them.

When you add to that those who have interactions only with those denizens of Colombo who are categorically opposed to the government, even to the extent of using the LTTE to bring it into disrepute, you can see why the mindsets of at least some members of the so-called international community could endanger the citizenry of this country. Journalists who come in for brief periods cannot however understand such factors, and thus they see nothing wrong in adopting a simplistic trusting approach to what they are told.

When this accords with a perverse editorial policy at headquarters, we have the excesses noted with regard to the Times in the first part of 2009, and which now seem to be being repeated. It was pointed out in Delhi however that the worst of the stories had been written in London, and certainly the most ridiculous, by Marie Colvin, who was upset that she had not been able to save the Tiger leadership, had been in the Sunday Times. Entertainingly, when I pointed out the absurdity of her claim that Sri Lankan soldiers had shot her deliberately when she came out from her last liaison with the Tigers and cried out in English, raising her hands in the dark, ‘Journalist, journalist’, the response (not from the Times) was that they should have.

But, though I had been told in Britain by journalists not sympathetic to the current government that the Times was emphatically New Labour, and got its information from elements in the Foreign Office devoted to government, the consensus earlier on seemed to be that Rupert Murdoch would support the Conservatives, who seemed likely to win the next election, so we would have less prejudice to contend with. I had hoped therefore hope for less determined criticism of every effort we make, and on those grounds too I had hoped we will let in more journalists and engage with them actively.

By and large this has happened, and the reporting of the latest election suggests that a policy of engagement with the media will bear fruit. It is sad therefore that the Times seems to have returned to the charge again, with its wholly negative reporting of the background to the election. Uncertainty now with regard to the British election might have something to do with this, but I believe we just have to live with the Times. That should not preclude positive relations with media that is less prejudiced, which seems to be the case with most. And, since freedom of information, as with all freedoms, should go with responsibility, we should suggest to the UN, and to those aid agencies that claim to be here to help our citizens, that they must monitor those of their officials who might be pushing a different agenda with the media for their own personal motives.

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