Please read this article I wrote about media corruption that I wrote ten years ago:
The Great Media Slide – (Sulekha.com, 16/07/2003)
— By Dasu Krishnamoorty
There is not an area of public life that has not claimed front-page space in the national media for excellence in corruption. Doctors, engineers, judges, sportsmen, legislators, civil servants, lowly employees of the government, industrialists, businessmen, film makers, vice chancellors of universities, everyone of these categories is making its humble and devoted contribution to the corruption industry. We compete successfully with countries in Africa and our own neighbours, according to Transparency International’s reports. It is entirely a different matter that there is corruption in this international certification also. But there is one sector of public interest that does not figure in this gallery of greats. That is, the media. In their modesty, they shun publicity.
A poor V. Narayanan, editor of The Hindustan Times, hit the headlines for plagiarism. Rahul Patel, working for a Gujarati daily Divya Prakash, was caught in Vadodara accepting a bribe of Rs 1,00,000 from an official in return for getting him a big post in the public sector. These cases are the tip of the iceberg that is always submerged. The Indian media too have Jayson Blairs and Rick Braggs among them but they have a sacred and unwritten code of ethics that forbids disclosure. They do not want Press Councils because, they ask, where is the need for a watchdog body when the media themselves are sharper sleuths than police dogs. Let us leave the bush and come to the point. The media are not behind any other sector of the society in the matter of corruption.
We must shed the notion that corruption is always monetary. Moral corruption is not very different. Neither Blair nor Bragg accepted money. Any departure from ethical norms is corruption. If you misuse news space knowing you are doing it, it amounts to corruption. That is what “The New York Times” did. Isn’t it? If you deny space to certain sections of the society it is again corruption. Bureaucrats do favours to industrialists in anticipation of sinecures on retirement. A journalist doing the same is corruption. Many people still believe accepting public office compromises an editor’s position. See this list of editors who became advisers to the prime ministers: Sharda Prasad (The Indian Express), B. G. Verghese, Suman Dubey (The Indian Express), K. P. Srivastav (PTI) and H. K. Dua (The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindustan Times).
Here is a list of top newspapermen taking up diplomatic assignments: K. S. Shelvankar of “The Hindu” became ambassador to the Soviet Union. Kuldip Nayyar (The Indian Express) went as High Commissioner to London. Prem Bhatia (The Tribune) went to Kenya as India’s envoy. There is a long roll of veteran journalists who became members of the Rajya Sabha. Khushwant Singh, for example. Vijay Goel, bureau chief of Swadesh became officer on special duty in the Prime Minister’s Office. Balbir Punj, a journalist, is now the chairman of the prestigious Indian Institute of Mass communication. I am not mentioning M. V. Kamath of “The Times of India” because he became chairman of Prasar Bharathi years after he had quit mainstream journalism.
The Press Council has listed 30 ways of tempting journalists. Subsidised Government housing, flats and land top the list. A feud between owners of newspapers and journalists provided the excuse for preparing this list. An editorial in The Indian Express (29 Nov. 1996) pillories working journalists: “For far too long the Indian media have grown accustomed to their pampered status. Its independence and integrity have suffered on account of its surreptitiously cozy relationship with politicians, especially those in power. Whether in the matter of accommodation or out of turn telephone connections or plain freebies, the media-government relationship is one of symbiosis. No wonder some corporate bodies entertain the belief that the price of favourable publicity is a suit length and a bottle of scotch.”
AFinancial Expresseditorial (15 April 1996) says, “Both the government and the media have to call a halt to hand-outs, whether in the form of cheap accommodation or cash: Mulayam Singh Yadav’s selective largess showed how far a state government would go to woo members of the fourth estate. Not that the government is alone in trying to influence them: corporates are only too willing to give, and business journalists too willing to take gifts and other incentives.” Nearly every Chief Minister does the same thing as Mulayam did.
That these opinions the editors have unabashedly voiced as their own are those of the owners is evident from the following sentences from both the editorials. The Indian Express editorial says, “It is, for example, pertinent to ask why India stands alone among democracies in having a statute to govern labour practices among journalists. Does this promote press freedom or does it legitimise government interference in the media?” Press freedom here means the freedom of the owner to deny fair wages to journalists. The Indian Express has a great record of being the first to contest awards of fair wages to journalists. This explodes the myth that the editor has the final word.
The Financial Express editorial says, “As in other professions, journalists’ salaries and benefits have to be decided on the basis of merit andshould not increase automatically, clerical-style, on a yearly basis. The profession has to be free to reward the efficient and productive and penalise the laggards. Only when it is free from strings of any kind the credibility of the fourth estate is ensured.” This is clearly the voice of the owner wearing the guise of profession in this editorial.
Now the journalists hit back. The following is the rejoinder of the National Union of journalists: “Why is it that you are so blind as not to see ‘the pampered status and freebies’ that you talk of being actually enjoyed by the newspaper publishers? They get land at concession prices at prime locations and then let it out for commercial purposes, confining the newspaper business for which it is given to a small part where ill-paid journalists work in cubicles. Publishers lay down the policies of the newspapers; so, if a newspaper is not fearless in reporting, it is mainly due to the cozy relationship that publishers develop with politicians.”
There is no doubt that the Indian press is freer than any of its counterparts in other democracies. However, freedom here means freedom from the government and freedom of the owner. Where the editors are not free or where the journalists are not free from interference by the owner, freedom of the press can only mean freedom of the publisher. There are no watchdog bodies in India like the Censored and FAIR (Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting) in the United States that tell the readers what stories newspapers have withheld from the public. Readers are totally at the mercies of the media for what they get and do not get. In this context, the editors’ opposition to a Press Council amounts to disowning answerability, which is the essence of journalism.
As a matter of fact, a committee of the Press Council of India opposed the allotment of prime land at a nominal price to newspaper establishments. Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi is a standing monument to the violation of this norm. Newspapers keep one floor and basement for themselves and collect unconscionable market rents for the rest of the floors. This phenomenon repeats in all State capitals. Government is a helpless witness because any move to set things right will be interpreted as an attack on freedom of press. Freedom of the press has come to mean freedom of the owner to flout the law of the land. The question of corruption comes when our editors give anything to defend this right of the owner.
It is an open secret that financial journalists demand and receive gifts of company shares at the time of public issue. In his book The Polyester Prince, Hamish Mc Donald says, “Dhirubhai (Ambani) could not wield the same power over the big metropolitan newspapers. But he could and did cultivate their journalists and editors.” Editors lost all balance in the coverage they devoted to his death; something reserved only for the death of a prime minister. According to Mc Donald, “one who accepted Reliance (Ambani company) debentures for himself and help in arranging bank finance to pay for them, was Girilal Jain, a former editor of The Times of India.”
Today, most of the publishers are from industry and trade. You have jute barons, beedi barons, pickle barons, liquor barons, sugar barons and real estate sharks owning newspapers with large circulations. The common interest of profit at any cost unites them ideologically to operate as an informal cartel. It is they who set the news agenda for the nation and not the editors. The Indian editors can draw consolation from the fact that the editors of the Times (London), The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, all owned by Rupert Murdoch, are no better. The real driver behind the editor is the owner of the newspaper.
The Press Council of India censured the country’s oldest English language daily, The Times of India, in the strongest terms for trying to misuse the services of an editor (H. K. Dua) for the personal benefit of the proprietor of the paper, The Times of India. In a case against the late Ashok Jain, chairman of Bennett Coleman and Co. (owners of The Times of India) for alleged violation of foreign exchange regulations, the owners asked Dua to lobby with political leaders and to write articles in the paper supporting Ashok Jain. When Dua refused to oblige, he was asked to leave.
The Press Council said: “To require an editor to cater to the personal interest of the proprietor is not only to demean the office of the editor but also to encroach upon his status as a trustee of the society in respect of the contents of the paper.” Yet, not a single major newspaper head quartered in Delhi printed a line of the Press Council’s verdict pillorying The Times of India. A sort of solidarity among birds of the same feather. Ajit Bhattacharya, Director of the Press Institute of India, said: “Mr. Dua himself partly went with the diminution of the office of the editor by accepting the title of editorial advisor when there was no editor to advise.” The editor betraying the mandate the readers gave him is unpardonable.
Democracies create a number of institutions to ensure accountability, Parliament being the most visible of them. Those who question the concept of accountability question the validity of democracy. The media stress on self-regulation and opposition to watchdog bodies means a denial of accountability. The opposition to the Press Council means that those who want to judge others refuse to be judged by others. Great principles of equality and what else! This freedom is what Dileep Padgaonkar (The Times of India, 8 April 02), executive managing editor of The Times of India wants when he says:
“The blunt truth is that nowhere in the world has any press council — excluding, perhaps Australia and the Ombudsman system in Sweden — been able to function effectively. This is why the Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj would do a good turn to the Indian media if she throws out the PCI lock, stock and barrel. She should trust the self-regulatory mechanisms of media organisations to uphold journalistic standards. More than the righteous sermons of the PCI and its chairman, readers, viewers and advertisers can be relied upon to distinguish between good and lousy journalism.”
Floor-crossings and defections are a part of the great Indian political epic. But there are ayarams and gayarams in the media too. There is nothing wrong about this editorial hopscotch. But the problem is we associate ideology with editors and these frequent, and unprincipled in one sense, changes indicate seasonal swings in principles hardly becoming of editors. Arun Shourie leaves The Indian Express (which painstakingly pretends to be anti-establishment) and joins The Times of India, a government-friendly newspaper. Then he returns to The Indian Express like a prodigal. H. K. Dua shifts from The Indian Express to The Hindustan Times and from there to The Times of India and then to the Prime Minister’s office. One has lost count of Vinod Mehta’s flirtations. If there is nothing wrong with this, there is nothing wrong with political defections either. Corruption is not a word that can adequately express the betrayal of the readers by the media.
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