The British Asian media and the mainstream media struggle to penetrate the Sri Lankan community in Britain.

The Mike Cooke Group (MCG) celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, a company that claims to be the ‘largest supporter of social, sporting, religious and cultural events within the [British Sri Lankan] community’.

Hamant Verma interviewed its founder, Mike Cooke, to talk about his new flagship publication, the UK Asia Times, a magazine that used to be called the UK Lanka Times. And to discover why this community is often overlooked by the media.

Why did you get involved in publishing when your background is in currency finance?

I am originally from Sri Lanka and have spent nearly 30 years in Britain. I have spent a bulk of those years working my way up in the currency business; starting from a foreign exchange retail sales executive to today having my own currency wholesale and retail operation.

I had always wanted to provide the Lankan diaspora community-specific services such as money transfers and travel services which I have, through my companies Fastcash Money Transfers and Holiday Air.

Several years ago I also noted the inadequate media penetration within the community. We have always had newspapers and news websites providing news from Sri Lanka but there had never been anything that concentrated on British-based Sri Lankans.

I saw a wonderful opportunity to create a publication that reported on the community and shed light on our achievements here in the UK – that was in 2005. After three years of publication, UK Lanka Times evolved into UK Asia Times, which I feel is a natural progression given the popularity that UK Lanka Times had enjoyed, not merely among Sri Lankans, but also Indians and Bangladeshis and other Asian communities.

Why did you create MCG and what titles does it publish?

MCG is, in fact, a holding company that has several subsidiaries that cater specifically for Asians in Britain, from money transfers and financial services to e-commerce, travel and property services.

UKLanka.net is our publishing arm whose titles now include UKAsia Times and Lanka Times in Australia as well as the www.uklanka.net web portal.

It is dire times for the print industry in Britain, with Trinity Mirror alone closing 27 titles and cutting 1,000 staff since last summer. Why choose this time to launch your UK Asia Times monthly magazine?

As I mentioned, UK Asia Times is an evolution of UK Lanka Times, which was already successful among the Sri Lankan community. I firmly believe in spite of the economic downturn that there are tremendous commercial benefits in creating products and services for the Asian community in Britain.

British Asians are perhaps the most successful ethnic minority in this country and they play an increasingly influential role in the most significant sectors of British society, from politics to sports to business. It is a burgeoning community that advertisers are eager to tap into.

What is your short term and long-term strategy with UK Asia Times and MCG Publishing?

In the short term, UKAsia Times will be distributed free of charge throughout Britain. It is still at a relatively small stage in terms of circulation and readership, which currently numbers approximately 120,000.

We are also developing www.ukasiatimes.com that will certainly expand our readership base not just in Britain, but also around the world.

In the long term, the opportunities are endless; we are looking to build UK Asia Times into a comprehensive media business that will span not just publishing and the internet but also broadcasting and event management.

Why does the mainstream media – and the British Asian media to be fair – struggle to penetrate the Sri Lankan community in Britain?

Well, first and foremost, the Sri Lankan community by itself is quite a small ethnic minority, numbering just over 400,000. Those companies that are willing to advertise in a Sri Lankan publication are those that caters very specifically to this community. For a larger organization or a multi-national company it doesn۪t make commercial sense to specifically target Sri Lankans living in Britain.

What۪s more, much like all other Asian minorities, it takes a long time to build a sense of loyalty with the Sri Lankan community. One of my subsidiaries, Fastcash, began operations back in 1999 offering money transfer services to Sri Lanka but it took us a long time to establish ourselves and gain people۪s trust with their money. Today we are the leading money transfer service to Sri Lanka from Britain

It takes a great deal of time and patience to build business relationships [with the Sri Lankan community] but once those relationships are firmly established they are for life.

What do you make of the mainstream media’s coverage of the current conflict in Sri Lanka?

I think it۪s difficult for any media organisation to accurately paint a picture of what is happening on the ground without actually being there. Given those circumstances I think the mainstream British media is doing a good job in providing unbiased coverage of what is happening on the ground.

Sri Lanka۪s ethnic conflict has dragged on for more than three decades and there is a sense that finally things are coming to an end; there is a great deal of hope among Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups, hope for a future without war. I think it۪s important that we capture that hope expressed by people around Sri Lanka than concentrating solely on what is happening on the battlefield.

Reconciliation is a better way forward than revenge and playing the blame game. If it could be done in South Africa, then I don۪t see why it cannot be done in Sri Lanka.

Interview by Hamant Verma, Eastern Eye for BizAsia.co.uk