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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Media, turn the mirror inwards


By Swapan Dasgupta

In normal times, in an environment not so replete with competitive denunciations of the ‘corrupt’, it is entirely possible that the sting organised by officials of Jindal Power & Steel Limited (JSPL) on some editors of Zee TV would have got greater attention. Yet, despite the perfunctory coverage, it is reassuring that the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) chairman Justice (retired) J.S. Verma has suo moto taken up the matter for investigation.

The case has a familiar ring to it. The channel had apparently done a report which showed JSPL in an unfavourable light. Instead of broadcasting it, it is alleged that two editors of the channel contacted JSPL and made it an interesting offer: the channel would junk the damaging report if the company agreed to provide some Rs 100 crore of advertisements. If the charge is true and substantiated by the sting, it would seem a clear case of you scratch my back and I’ll ride your Jaguar.

What may surprise the media’s consumers is the relative indifference with which this sensational counter-sting has been received in the media. This isn’t because journalists, like the politicians they love to hate, are inherently venal. Nor is it due to the media emulating the cosy indulgence of mutual wrong- doing  that Arvind Kejriwal believes is rampant in the political class, across party lines. The media didn’t react to the JSPL sting with the same measure of breathless excitement that greets every political corruption scandal because it is aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg. A thorough exploration of the media will unearth not merely sharp business practices but even horrifying criminality.

It used to be said in the 1960s that an enterprising editor of a weekly tabloid in Mumbai had a simple revenue stream to supplement his income from advertising: ‘Rs 5,000 to print and Rs 10, 000 to not print.’ It was a very successful business model and many local politicians, foreign dictators and pompous monarchs were grateful to him for bolstering their ‘progressive’ credentials, for a reasonable consideration of course.

I guess that what may be loosely called the Blitz model has evolved over time and inflation to nurture a media that is a heady cocktail of crusading zeal and collusive criminality. Sometimes both go hand in hand.

Since the Press Council of India chairman Justice (retired) M. Katju is desperate to make a mark, he would do well to suo moto establish a working group to inquire into journalistic ethics. He could travel to a small state in western India where there persistent rumours that those who claim to be high-minded crusaders arm-twisted a Chief Minister into bankrolling an event as the quid pro quo for not publishing an investigation into some dirty practices.

The emphasis these days is on non-publishing. One editor, for example, specialised in the art of actually commissioning stories, treating it in the proper journalistic way and even creating a dummy page. This dummy page would be sent to the victim along with a verbal ‘demand notice’. Most of them paid up. This may be a reason why this gentleman’s unpublished works are thought to be more significant than the few scribbles that reached the readers and for which he received lots of awards.

In Britain, the public confidence in the media has been shaken by revelations indicating the extreme unethical and illegal ends to which journalists travel to get a story. In India, the problem is markedly different. Here, an equal amount of energy is expended in ensuring that there are rewards for non-publication.

Of course I am wilfully being vague because unlike the JSPL I do not have either documents or recordings to substantiate every anecdote. I am relying almost exclusively on my status as a media insider and the oral evidence of those who have been victims of media criminality.

There is little sympathy for the occasional discomfiture suffered by politicians, particularly in the election season. Over the years, however, I have come to sympathise with the predicament of aspiring MLAs and MPs when they complain that a significant proportion of their expenses above the statutory ceiling—in other words, their non-accounted, cash expenses—is used to pay the media. The reason is simple. Increasingly, political parties and candidates are presented with a fait accompli: there is a price that has to be paid for receiving coverage, particularly non-hostile or sympathetic coverage. It takes a lot of courage and enormous political resilience for a candidate to tell these blackmailers to go to hell. Most pay up and leave the rest to voters.

Over the years, critics of the media have focussed their attention on the political and other biases of the media. A free press is by definition partisan, and pure objectivity is an impossible dream. Indeed, most readers and viewers discount the subjective preference and the partisan editorial stands of media organisations. However, in trying to dissect which publication or channel is pro-Congress, anti-BJP and pro-business, attention has been diverted from the media’s rotten underbelly.

Most journalists are decent individuals, trying to be professional even as they have preferences. A small minority of them are however using journalism as a protective shield for their criminality. Like the rotten apples in the political basket, they too need to be named and shamed. The NBSA inquiry is a small step in the right direction. Let’s hope it isn’t derailed.

Sunday Pioneer, October 21, 2012 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sir,

India needs more of intellectually honest journalists like you. However just as people get the government they vote for, they also get the media they pay for (or follow on Twitter in modern times).

-Pessimist