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Friday, December 3, 2010

Credibility crisis

By Swapan Dasgupta

On the NDTV programme last Tuesday evening which was devoted exclusively to media navel-gazing, my co-panellist Dileep Padgaonkar, a former editor of Times of India, indulged in some nostalgia. In the old days, he suggested, a lobbyist would never have been entertained in newspaper offices. So different, the sub-text read, from today when Niira Radia can pick up her mobile phone for a cosy chat with the who's who of the media about the need to convey the authentic DMK position to the Congress. I could read his despair: what is the world coming to?

The "Golden Age" of Indian media when editors were kings, when noble souls worked for a pittance and when the management wouldn't dare step into the editorial floor is a lovely idea. It's also a delightful and self-serving myth.

In 1986, a small Bombay weekly published a report that the then holder of the "second-most important" job in India had subscribed to 3,000 non-convertible debentures of Reliance and paid for it through a loan from a private bank that also serviced the company. To compound matters, it also emerged that Times of India had written a feisty editorial criticising the Government for its ban on the conversion of these non-convertible debentures into equity.

A feature of the new Made in Media age is that while journalists (particularly those on TV) have become celebrities, they are also exposed to the one constant pitfall of celebrityhood: unending public scrutiny. India may not have the equivalent of the "Street of Shame" column of Britain's Private Eye where every peccadillo of every self-important hack is mercilessly exposed in an easily decipherable code, but it required the Radia tapes to dispel the belief that the media is above scrutiny.

Back in 1986, an editor guilty of violating an unwritten code could get away with nothing more than a modicum of personal embarrassment. As with an errant cricketer, today's celebrity journalist can't pretend that match –fixing is a minor lapse. The more high-profile the journalist, the higher the pedestal, the more exacting the expectations and more nasty the fall. Having created the illusion of a doughty Fourth Estate that upholds virtue and hounds all wrongs, the media shouldn't feign surprise if it finds itself at the receiving end of the fierce middle-class indignation normally reserved for dodgy politicians.

The media has suffered collateral damage from the Radia tapes. Many conversations Radia had with sundry journalists were innocuous: some exchanges of real information and lots of media tittle-tattle. But there were three sets of conversations that warrant a little extra attention. First, there were requests to the journalists to use their privileged access to politicians to carry messages and influence important political decisions. Secondly, there were discussions for a "pre-scripted" interview with a corporate notable, including the offer of a dummy run. And finally, there was the guarded sales pitch by an editor of his ability to influence Supreme Court judgments—an audacious hint that was subsequently brought to the attention of the apex court itself.

It is important to note that the initial media reaction to the tapes was the familiar near-total denial. The nothing-has-happened attitude that marked the suppression of the "paid news" and plagiarism scandals resurfaced and persisted for nearly a week. Although all three journalists proffered we-have-done-nothing-wrong personal statements on the web, there was a public reaction to the media's double standards, robustly articulated on the social media. For the first time ever, the media had to respond to the enormous groundswell of consumer disgust and demand for accountability. In the evolution of a public, democratic culture the inclusion of the media in the larger quest for transparency and accountability is a huge step forward.

The furore over the Radia tapes has certainly shaken the media as never before and brought to the fore ethical and professional issues that need to be tackled pragmatically, not dogmatically.

There is, first, the entire question of the media's relationship with corporates and publicists who come in various guises: lobbyists, public relations companies, brand promoters and advocacy groups. To presume that media must shun them, as Padgaonkar seemed to suggest, is absurd. Corporates need to have their perspectives in the public domain and many companies have outsourced this job to the publicists. With India being driven by energetic capitalism, the media also has a legitimate interest in business. To presume that mere articulation of corporate interests implies backhanders is preposterous. Journalists must engage with lobbyists, perhaps even develop a relationship of trust. But it is important to know when to say 'No', a principle equally applicable to NGOs who have agendas too. There are enough codes of conduct to guide the profession.

Secondly, the suggestion that the identity or nature of sources must be divulged is impractical. Meaningful political journalism involves developing relationships based on discretion and confidentiality. A good source takes years, if not decades, to develop and cannot be frittered away by a spit-and-run approach. Barkha Dutt didn't err by not divulging that Radia was now a player in the DMK: she was far too valuable a source to be 'burnt' for one rapidly-moving story. Her unprofessionalism lay in not reporting the three-way divide in the DMK and at the same time appearing to play courier for Radia.

Thirdly, much of the cyber activists' disgust stem from the perceived bias of journalists. This is a problematic issue which I, as an opinion writer, don't have to confront. Each media group has its biases and preferences that never remain a secret. This isn't unusual. Subjectivity is a feature of media in all vibrant democracies. Its rough edges can, however, be blunted by a fierce commitment to accuracy and meaningful consumer choice.

Finally, there is a seamy underside to the media that was only tangentially apparent in the tapes. The media has paid insufficient attention to the mushrooming of fixers, extortionists and plain criminals in its ranks, more so in the smaller towns. This is the real cancer that has to be eradicated.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, December 3, 2010


Ketan said...


I do not agree with this part of your assessment: "Barkha Dutt didn't err by not divulging that Radia was now a player in the DMK: she was far too valuable a source to be 'burnt' for one rapidly-moving story ."

What criteria are used to determine the news-worthiness of a clandestine affair? Where does 'shielding the source's unethical-bordering-on-the-illegal acts to extract news end?' What if the act of the source itself is much more startling & deserving of wider public knowledge than the very info the source might provide?

Siva a.k.a nondi said...

Swapan, you are the MAN!! media needs today

Anonymous said...

Swapanda, you should fix the fonts in your blog posts, its too bold, dark and small in size. This Ariel bold 12 not good for long reading. please change to 'verdana or helvetcia or Segie UI.

Anonymous said...

Swapanda, what's your take on the MSM (main stream media)'s silence regarding SIT's clean chit to NaMo?

Anonymous said...

please add 'subscribe by email' button in your blog, using the feedburner service of google. This way we get automatic updates of your blog in our inboxes!

Thanks and regards.

Ravi said...

The social media is cross with Barkha not for not reporting the three-way divide in DMK. That was well-known when Maran was shunted out in UPA-I. Barkha's folly lies in not reporting the extreme interest of corporates to have their favorite person as Min. of Telecom. Considering NDTV/Barkha's slant towards Congress, it can even be forgiven that the story did not make it at the time of UPA-II formation. However, it is unpardonable that the story did not make to atleast 'The Buck Stops Here' when the 2G scam exploded in the public domain. Barkha has not answered this at all. There is no error of judgement on the part of netizens in this respect.

sachin dixit said...

i agree to an extent that barkha erred in not reporting the story but she is paying the price for her pro congress reporting which seen in the light of the conversation in tapes fits perfectly in to the viewer's perception of barkha.

it is high time n that journos need to get beck to the basics but for that greator freedom from editors n media houses is required as they r the one who can create or destroy the grounds for a fearless journalism.

Vinay Khaitan said...

There were a lot of ways for this news to be disseminated without killing the goose which laid the golden eggs.

She could have at least broken the news that corporates have a keen interest in fixing the portfolio of ministers.
She didn't need to refer to Radia for it.
However, if Radia didn't allow to refer to even this piece then probably Radia was not a valuable source at all. She would just allow the news to be broken which she would like to be broken. But that would then amount to planting the story.

However, the tone of the Barkha Dutt in tape is simply not of talking with the source, unless she is a very good actress and trying to make Radia feel that she is part of Radia's nexus.

SAN said...

I disagree with you taking cudgels on behalf of barkha.Is she a very upright person to be shielded.She is no better than nira.

Siddhartha said...

I feel, journalism needs to have a licensing scheme (that can be revoked when journalists are found to be unethical) and an oath at the beginning of the career just like doctors do. Without a formal scheme of self-regulation the occupation is going to the dogs.

One more thing. Media being a profit-seeking business can not claim itself as the main stakeholder of the fourth estate. Interests of democracy (a collective interest) and interest of markets (interest of the individuals/corporates who seeks profit only) are not same. There is a clear conflict of interest here. Media should declare whether they are profit-seeking or non-profit organization (like wikipedia). If they are for-profit then [1] they must stop claiming to be a part of the fourth estate and [2] they must be subject to same oversight and regulation other businesses are.

sachin dixit said...

i agree to an extent that barkha erred in not reporting the story but she is paying the price for her pro congress reporting which seen in the light of the conversation in tapes fits perfectly in to the viewer's perception of barkha.

it is high time n that journos need to get beck to the basics but for that greator freedom from editors n media houses is required as they r the one who can create or destroy the grounds for a fearless journalism.

JayKumar said...

Its for sure now that media cant get back the name and fame what they had it in the past post-Radia tape, post-SIT reports on 2002 riots.

On CNN-IBN Karan Thapar debating that journalist also must disclose their income every year. Now for what purpose they want to come to public forum when we all know they have very good relation ship with politicians then better would be for them that they remain as mirror image for political parties only.

He also talks of having internal ombudsman but what good will it serve the common man is what needs to be asked?

Will today all media house come together and apologize to Mr. Modi for defaming him all this past 9 years?

I personally very much worried that another report on 2002 riots which will be tabled in state assembly as it is not to be submitted to court of law Justice Nanavathi and Justice Aksay Mehta's inquiry report on Godhra train burning to post Godhra riots will destroy sultanate of media and will fall like pack of cards in very few moment when it will be read out in state assembly.

In physics we might have all read theory of atoms which says atom consist of nucleus, electron and protons when atom is charged with energy electrons travel to outer orbit and when discharged that electrons comes back to its normal state, now same concept is applicable to media also they where charged with energy i.e money from politician when it is going to stop they need to cover sanitation problem in that area of X and Y city, road crack issues on their news channel and not high profile cases on their channel.

"Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
Dharma himsa tathaiva cha"

What it means: - Non-violence is the ultimate dharma. So too is violence in service of Dharma.

We cant preach and practice ideology of Buddhism or Jainism on non-violence when our identity is at risk. Non-Violence was never a core ideology of Hinduism and we all know it very well.

satyam said...

good one... though i believe barkha dutt was the face of the ACTIVIST media...and i vividly remember her crucifying the NDA during the tehelka expose with superlative brilliance...poor george and bangaru had to go....and today i see her caught in that same TAPE culture she championed so effectively where none could get away by just saying that the tapes were DOCTORED...that STING TAPE was the evidence lock stock and barrell...
irony is she is using arguments in defence that bear a disquieting resemblance to ones given in 01....and REJECTED by HER

george said...

Dear Swapan,
I wish you would use some of your considerable erudition on behalf of people like Dr. Binayak Sen,denied bail for two years, now being tried in a Chattisgarh court where, it appears norms of justice are not being followed, instead of always being on the side of the rich and famous.

Chandar said...

Dear Swapan

I am sure you must be aware of the Press Council of India's attempt to prepare a report on 'paid news'. I am giving below a link which gives the original report of the sub committee and the watered down version which was finally released by the Press Council.

It must be evident that the malaise is deep. The question is 'how deeply involved is the media in the corruption'

Best Regards


Anonymous said...

The credibility of Indian journalism is on a steep decline for sometime now. The Radia tapes is another milestone in the media's downward spiral.

The recent outrage witnessed against the media is the result of a build up against the journalistic fraternity at large. Radia tapes are an excuse; a rightful excuse, nonetheless.

Why? Because, we are tired of celebrity journalists, hire-by-the-hour intellectuals and political pimps practicing their double standards from TV studios and preaching us morality from their imaginary towers of sanctimoniousness. We want the media elite to be held responsible by the same standards it claims to held the others every day.

Unfortunately, I do not see it happening.

Anonymous said...

Agreed that Barkha not reporting the source in 2009 is perfectly alright. But not so in 2010 when the 2G scam was "Breaking news" on NDTV more so when Barkha says "Judge me by my coverage". She can go hammer and tongs asking Raja to resign but not have a sentence saying "there were corporates who were interested in getting Raja into Telecom". One sentence. So much for credibility.Huh!

She kept on harping to the ethics argument(and also Rajdeep Sardesai in editor's guild meeting) but really do these people have the right to ask the ethics question when they can make all idiotic news as "breaking" and "first on TV" "exclusive report", "we are the first to report" blah blah.Didn't these channels air the news about the arushi family without getting the parent's views. Aren't these the ones who proclaimed the Le Martine principal without even getting his side of the story.If you live by the sword you die by the sword.