WARNING: FAG PRIZES ARE A MORAL HAZARD
© Duncan Graham 2007
Late last year print journalists from around Indonesia were treated to some wise words about social responsibilities and the dangers of taking bribes. The media’s role in a democracy and the need for fairness, accuracy and balance were rightly stressed.
The problem is that this sage advice was delivered at a dinner paid for by a manufacturer of toxins. It was articulated by people who were supping with the devil and had forgotten to bring a long spoon. They’d allowed their good names to be associated with one of the nation’s principal dealers of death and disease.
In many other countries, including Indonesia’s near neighbors, the media award show in Surabaya, East Java, where these speeches were given wouldn’t have been held – or it would have been boycotted. That’s because it was sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer – in this case Sampoerna, owned by the US-based Philip Morris.
The glitzy event, staged in a five-star hotel following a fine dinner, had some crass moments but was mainly a pleasant evening with sophisticated hosts. Mild, even cool. The winners collected cheques for Rp 18 million (US $2,000). For many this would have equaled six month’s salary or more.
Of course the whole lavish bun fight was staged for two purposes only:
First – to relentlessly push Sampoerna’s name and link it with standards of media excellence.
Second - to seduce wordsmiths so we’ll give the tobacco lobby an easy ride on the rugged road ahead. For the weight of public opinion is tilting the scales slowly against this manufacturer of a product that’s killing thousands of Indonesians every year.
At this point an interest has to be declared; I enjoyed the food and soft drinks. If that makes me a fellow traveler then I must wear the label. With shame.
Having confessed this sin it’s time to make amends – a job made a mite more difficult because I was the recipient of Sampoerna’s hospitality. No doubt my fellow hacks at the function already feel the same constraints. Never bite the hand that feeds you.
But bite we must if the media is to rescue its credibility from these nicotine-pushers operating behind smokescreens of corporate care. And the time to do it is now, because plans are underway for another media seduction this year.
Doubt not that the looming fight to bring Indonesia into line with governments that put the health of their citizens above the need to stay sweet with the multinationals is going to be rough and long. Unlike its customers the tobacco industry isn’t going to expire anytime soon – big profits are at stake.
However the fag-factories won’t use that argument. Instead they’ll highlight the loss of jobs and sponsors should the health professionals and their backers get their way.
These spoilsports and pleasure police (for that how they’ll be portrayed) want all tobacco advertising banned, taxes bumped up and a raft of other controls imposed.
These may well cripple the tobacco industry; they should also stop millions of Indonesians getting crippled by heart and lung diseases.
This is the media’s fork in the road; do we accept or reject the medical claims that cigarettes kill and maim?
If we reckon the 12 warning words on the bottom of every pack sold in Indonesia are a health hoax then we’d better start researching the evidence and publishing the facts. (The French aren’t so mealy-mouthed. They say it straight: Smoking Kills.)
However if we accept these warnings are soundly based and properly made then we have a duty to alert consumers. But who’ll believe we’re not pulling punches if at the same time we’re taking the tobacco lobby’s goodies?
No responsible reporter would promote illicit drugs or go soft on this ghastly trade. Yet if the scientific evidence accepted by the World Health Organization is correct, the chemicals in cigarettes kill far more than illicit drugs and bring misery and poverty to millions.
Sampoerna wants its media prizes to become an annual event and has already called for nominations for this year's awards. The Poison Pulitzers?
Extinguishing that ambition is easy. Journalists' unions and the national Indonesian media chains like the Kompas-Gramedia network and its affiliates and the Jawa Pos Group need only blacklist tobacco company prizes.
That shouldn’t be difficult; major employers already say they outlaw envelope journalism – the practice of newsmakers paying reporters to write favorable stories.
Without the mainstream media’s support the awards will have zero credibility. No professional would ever want to list such a tarnished trophy on her or his CV.
Quality journalism deserves recognition. Let’s find a sponsor – but one that doesn’t kill. The tobacco industry needs the media more than we need their blood money and smarmy sycophancy.
It should butt out of our business.