Daily Archives: 18 July 2011

Why Indian media can’t laugh at Murdoch’s plight

SANJAY JHA writes from Bombay: Rupert Murdoch, the emperor of media leviathan News Corporation, shuttled on a transatlantic flight over a tumultuous week-end that saw a popular British Sunday tabloid bite the dust, never to rise again.

News of the World (NOTW) was founded prior to the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, but closed with a 72-hour notice period in tragic infamy on account of startling revelations about its surreptitious hacking of private mails and messages, in a manner both macabre and sleazy.

For Murdoch, the closure was not a generous act to protect the Holy Grail but a calculated trade-off for acquisition of the more alluring BSkyB.

Greed is a driving ambition, often meeting a ruinous end.

It could happen in India too.

Despite much heart-burning and pious pontification, the Press Council of India report on paid news accumulates dust in dark dungeons, like used files. It does manifest our questionable standards, the media’s inability to smother its own insuperable demons.

While we hyperventilate to the world, our own backyard emits a sordid stench. Paid coverage is stealthy advertising, which legitimizes self-promoting campaigns on unsuspecting readers posing as dispassionate reporting. It is indeed an ethical violation of astronomical proportions, but everyone seems nonchalant, blissfully blasé about it.

Dileep Padgaonkar once famously stated that The Times Of India editor was the “second most important man in India”. That was not hubris or a silly exaggeration , it was a near-factual assessment. But today no media big gun can make such lofty claims.

Multiple channels and news publishers have made mass distribution of news our new business reality.

Once I waited every Sunday morning to read Khalid Mohamed’s review of a Bollywood blockbuster. Now several experts miserly dole out glittering stars on Friday itself, even as thousands of faceless bloggers become the new film critic.

It’s literally first day, first show.

Media is now truly democratized; so truly there are no king-makers. With Facebook, Twitter and blogs gathering high-speed on the social networking highway, media activism has also assumed formidable power to influence public opinion, so far considered the sacrosanct preserve of an elite club.

India’s subterranean media revolution is underway.

Media organizations must also frequently take core ideological or strategic positions on sensitive issues, it will enhance their quality. That’s what often distinguishes the print media from television. The snarling watchdog needs to be just that; it can’t have a shrill bark, a toothless bite and lazily snooze when Rome burns, reacting only under extreme provocation.

For instance, last year when Shiv Sena became a quasi-sarkar in threatening to black-out Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan, the conventional protocol of TV channels of giving both sides a voice was rather superfluous , even preposterous.

Even to a naïve outsider, Shiv Sena was indulging in unlawful transgressions exploiting media platform shamelessly to espouse its parochial claptrap. The worst indictment of the media is when it willingly succumbs to made for TV manufactured events.

Whatever happened to professional discretion?

Aren’t leaked reports also obtained often with at least moral illegality with an in-built clause of quid pro quo?

In a country bedeviled by innumerable scams, a deadly diabolical nexus between criminal elements, political leaders and business-builder behemoths, media is critical. But discharging that onerous responsibility is not a child’s play.

Like WikiLeaks, one foresees alternative mediums to emerge to fill the gaping vacuum created by status quo coverage these days . Investigative journalism has become comatose in a commercially dictated news content age. Something is gone missing.

Are we becoming tabloid-like, allowing any bearded spiritual free-agent, violent wife-beater or a just-released bone chopper to capture India’s attention? Can we then be so self-righteous as to take umbrage under “mere reporting”?

Oh, come on! For all the political faux pas of the government, the media should have used its own grey cells to fathom Baba Ramdev’s bona fides. The modern-media is society’s crucial “ influencer”, not a reseller of titillating tales. Media integrity is a non-negotiable instrument. We need to enforce it.

I hear several grumble ; why does the media never do a comprehensive follow-up to serious unresolved issues instead of chasing the next wife-thrashing maverick promoting his televised marriage? Whatever happened to several disproportionate assets cases against powerful CMs?

Who really covertly leaked the Radia tapes, and why?

How is Lalit Modi “ officially absconding” and purchasing large mansions in downtown London without a valid passport? Whatever happened to the Srikrishna report on the Bombay riots?

Narayan Rane had publicly stated that he was aware of powerful people who knew about 26/11 terrorist attacks—really? If so what happened? Despite singular success stories like Jessica Lal, the CWG and 2G scams, Gujarat riots and several successful petitions, paradoxically enough, media itself is losing the perception battle.

Aamir Khan’s Peepli Live! ridiculed media to atrocious levels but to appreciative applause.

In India, where our daily lives resembles a cacophonous collage of absurd and horrendous tales, news television often degenerates into infotainment category. The truth is that good news is boring.

It’s like breathing. It’s predictable, monotonous, rhythmical, but it is also bloody necessary.

Or else we have the kiss of death.

We are too often celebrating India’s unseen imminent demise, our own pornography of grief. It is time we appreciated that even thorns have roses. At least one channel has begun to share a daily dose of cheer.

Competitive journalism is natural marketing warfare, after all, newspapers and TV channels are not in the charity trade. But intent is pivotal. Phone hacking is unambiguously unethical. Bribery pay-offs of police personnel is contemptible. Killing news to protect favoured parties is equally lamentable.

But isn’t paid news also guilty of disingenuous, distorted presentation of facts?

In the long-run , media houses that practice quintessential consecrated ethical behaviour will survive. Others will flounder.

The editor is media’s conscience-keeper, its guardian angel. They are the ones who must separate the wheat from the chaff, and ensure that the chaff does not get headline attention. But the quarter to quarter pressures of EPS for the publicly listed media companies can result in editorial compromises.

The editors need to be sacrosanct, inaccessible to advertisers and CEO’s business plans, working behind a Chinese wall. Editors should have no employee stock options, and must not be on boards of these companies either; that will eliminate conflict of interest issues.

Instead, they should be compensated by equitable fixed salaries, benefits, bonuses, and given flexibility for research projects, reimbursed higher learning expenses and encouraged to author books and take up teaching assignments.

We need to de-link organizational bottomline numbers with editorial policy.

Editorial independence is a must; they cannot be the brand managers with brains. Also, celebrity editors could do with relative anonymity . Anonymity powers the personal brand. Proximity to suave glib talking industrialists or political power-brokers can be jeopardous as was evident in the Radia tapes.

David Cameron flushes crimson on his selection of the arrested former head of NOTW, Andy Coulson. Tony Blair too is red-faced. And more is still to surface.

Every media company must make public its own independent advisory board with an ombudsman , besides an industry watchdog. Ethical workshops are needed, as young recruits can be susceptible to short-cut methods for quick career windfalls.

Press, public relations , big business and the politicians will have to tread with circumspection as there could be grave overlaps on account of the vested , conflicting interest of each. The unholy nexus is no longer a well-concealed secret. The path is slippery , shaky and serpentine. It is easy to become the news of the world. Very easy.

Good night and good luck!

(Banker turned web entrepreneur, Sanjay Jha is the founder of Cricket Next. This piece originally appeared on the website Hamara Congress)

Image: courtesy Time


Did news TV twist Rahul 99% line on terrorism?

BASUDEV MAHAPATRA writes from Bhubaneshwar: The manner in which AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s statement on stopping terror attacks before they occur was reported by TV journalists last week, and the way it was presented by news channels, hardly fulfilled any purpose of journalism.

On the contrary, it exposed news television’s passion for tabloid journalism.

As someone who was present at the Rahul Gandhi press meet where he made the statement attributed to him, I was shocked at how the statement was first reported by news channels, and even more shocked that no news channel tried to convey the true sentiment of the statement.

With one channel sparking the controversy by manipulating the statement, every other channel just wanted to do the same to steal the show. On some channels, the statement was spliced into pieces and carried one after another in different bulletins through the day.

Soon after Rahul’s session with media representatives in Bhubaneswar was over, the first piece of his statement that appeared on some news channels was:

“…terrorism is something that is impossible to stop.”

I, being the representative of a 24X7 Hindi news channel, was immediately asked by my desk whether Rahul Gandhi had made such a statement.

My reply was obviously, ‘No’.

Even though I tried to clarify saying, “Rahul never said that, but what he meant was that it’s not possible always to stop a terror attack before it happens”, I felt I was not believed to be telling the truth. However, I maintained my stand in the live “phono” I was asked to give instantly.

I soon crosschecked the the video of the Rahul’s session with media and found that the piece carried by some channels was an engineered one and unfaithful to what Rahul Gandhi meant.

Here’s what happened: replying to a question on whether terror attacks could be stopped before they happen (the question came after Rahul had broached the issue of corruption and insisted that strong measures should be initiated to stop corruption before it takes place), Rahul said:

“It’s very difficult to stop every single terrorist attack. The steps that have been taken by our government over the last couple of years are quite profound steps – the improvement in our intelligence, the way we did about fighting terrorism, the ideas that we have to fight terrorism at the local level, we have improved in lips and mouth.

“But terrorism is something that is impossible to stop all the time.

“There is an attack on Bombay that has taken place. But you will not have heard of all the attacks that will be stopped. So, it is something that we will fight, it is something that we will defeat, and it is something that we work towards. But, it is very very difficult to stop every single attack.”

Further to clarify, Rahul said that he didn’t mean it impossible but difficult to stop.

The complete statement hardly found a space in any of the bulletins of the TV channels. But the piece that was used in bulletins did plenty to negate the true intent of the statement, which I found was completely a wrong way of using anybody’s statement and an unethical practice of journalism as well.

While the whole statement in its complete form was never shown, reactions on the manipulated piece were taken from leaders of different parties to create a political controversy and add more life to the news item.

We may edit or engineer somebody’s statement or sound bite in order to make it fit to our space or time. But, in every case, as a display of the journalist’s obligation to the truth, the intent of the statement must be intact and clear from the part that is used.

This very first principle of a journalist was openly sacrificed by most TV news channels just to make a sensational item out of a portion of the statement.

Such a practice will never help in creating a healthy environment for the media to grow and exercise its freedom. It may bring some instant TRPs and momentary business but, on the other hand, it may also increase the risk of losing the credibility and trust of the general public permanently.