Trial by media stings journos

By Rajdeep Sardesai
03 December 2010 13:52 IST

There was a time when editors were not seen or heard, only read. One of the best illustrations of the original 'ivory tower' approach was NJ Nanporia, a venerable editor at 'The Times of India' in the 1960s. Apparently, Nanporia was shopping in a local market when he found a certain gentleman smiling at him continuously. His curiosity getting the better of him, Nanporia asked the man who he was. Pat came the introduction: "I am your chief reporter sir!"

The story may be part of the apocryphal archives of the Old Lady of Boribunder, but only highlights how editors in an era gone by rarely stepped out of their cabins. A far cry from today's television era where the editor-anchor is an instantly recognisable 'celebrity'. Self-effacing anonymity is almost a handicap in this age of personality cults that can encourage delusions of grandeur (note: this article is accompanied by a photograph of your columnist, something which would have seemed heretical a few years ago).

It's not just the self-image of the editor which has changed. There has also been a dramatic transformation in the persona of the public relations professional. In the late 1980s, one distinctly recalls how every Diwali we'd look at the business desk with a tinge of envy as the festival 'baksheesh' would arrive for the markets reporter from a rather sad-looking PR manager. The suitpiece has been replaced by I-Pads, but even more importantly, the lowly paid public relations executive has given way to smart-suited corporate communication MBAs.

Where once PR was identified with ensuring a single column space for a company handout,  it has now been replaced by high-profile 'advocacy' campaigns designed to influence not just the journalist but the entire policy-making apparatus.

The Nira Radia tapes exemplify this shift. They suggest the arrival of the corporate 'lobbyist' as a distinct entity in the decision-making process, not just as some shadowy operator, but as an upwardly mobile, highly sophisticated mover and shaker. They also confirm that the period of the editor as a detached observer has given way to a more 'active' presence in the newsmaking process.

Unfortunately, instead of analyzing the implications of what this means for journalism and public policy, a section of the media has preferred to focus on individual journalists caught on tape, thereby losing sight of the big picture. That there are journalists who get seduced by wealth and power and with a low moral quotient end up as 'fixers' is one of the profession's worst-kept secrets.

But let's be honest: for the moment there is no direct evidence on the tapes of any illegal gratification, or wider 'conspiracy' on part of the journalists as has been suggested. What the snatches of conversations do reveal is a worrying proximity between corporates, politicians and editors, leading to professional indiscretions and a blurring of lines between 'source' and journalist. But they certainly do not justify the kind of lynch-mob outrage that has accompanied their disclosure. Shock and awe journalism based on assumptions rather than facts may titillate the reader, they cannot bring us any closer to the truth.

The truth is that the Radia tapes are less about mala fide journalism, but more about just how high stake corporate wars, be they over telecom or gas, can eventually 'subvert' an entire system. Then, whether it is decisions on who should speak during a budget debate in Parliament, or how spectrum allocation should be done or even who should be in the cabinet, it is apparent that the entire exercise is designed to protect the vast business interests of a handful of oligarchs with the help of corrupted netas and willing babus.

Where does the journalist fit into this larger scheme? In the classical mould, a journalist should be the guerilla in the system, looking to expose and investigate. Unfortunately, the journalist has been co-opted into the power elite when really he should be the quintessential 'outsider'. As a result, the robust Indian tradition of adversarial journalism has been mortgaged at the altar of cosy networks.

At one level, the ethical decline is a consequence of changing market realities. In a highly competitive news universe, access is the key, a privilege which is often dependent on building personal equations. Film journalists, for example, are expected to give favorable reviews if they want an 'exclusive' interview with a star. Lifestyle journalists rely on sponsored deals to travel the world.

Political journalists get identified with individual and ideological camps to get ahead, often with a brazen disregard for neutrality. Business journalism is even more difficult because the commercial muscle of major advertisers can conflict with the notion of journalistic independence.

When was the last time corporate corruption was exposed with rigour in the media? Most business interviews are soft focus profiles, designed as image-building exercises rather than genuinely inquisitorial. Ramalinga Raju, the now imprisoned Satyam boss, was feted as a role model till a self-confession revealed the rot within. Ketan Parekh's stock market acumen was lauded till it all came crashing down. Perhaps, the Harshad Mehta scam in the early 1990s is the last example of a journalist-driven investigation resulting in financial fraud being exposed.

Ironically, the 2G scam has also been one of Indian media's finest hours, highlighting the positive role the media can play in exposing powerful business and political interests. The CAG report may have been the final nail in A Raja's coffin, but for the last two years, several journalists, both in print and television, have repeatedly warned of the corruption underlying spectrum allocation. The sustained anti-corruption campaigns against CWG officials and Adarsh-like scams are a sign that maybe journalism is slowly going through a process of self-renewal to recapture its lost soul and credibility. Amen!

Post-script: In recent times, the media has lived by the dictum of guilty till proven innocent. Guess the concept of trial by media has now come back to sting the media itself!


Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Nice article by Mr. Rajdeep!

The media is the 4th pillar of the democracy and if this pillar too becomes infested with termites- may be it will spell the doom for the democratic system-bringing the whole edifice crumbling down!

When the media personnel collude with the corporate lobbies or the politicians in the mis information campaign or cover up of the corruption cases at high levels- may be that is the most harmful blow meted out to the poor common man on the streets!

It is true that the journalists and the media personnel too come from the same society from which so many corrupt come! And the media men too may have many temptations- to toe a particular line or to black out a particular news, or not to follow up a particular issue- but if they succumb to the lures- may be that would mean the end of any hope for the corrective action- by the poor under informed citizens- in this country of scams!

Unfortunately the investigating agencies created and sustained at tax payer's money dont have sufficient teeth to nail and punish the corrupt because may be they lack the much needed autonomy to investigate their own bosses! Under these conditions, the common man feels that exposing the corrupt powerful criminals- is the greatest patriotic service by the media to help the underprivileged masses of this rich country with poor people!

- Vishwas Prabhudesai, Loliem | 06 th December 2010 19:24


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