SHADOW OVER MEDIA
By Shyam Khosla*
A recent discussion on media ethics at the lawns of the Press Club of India brought into open the huge gap between the run-of-the mill journalists and the club class journalists masquerading as torch-bearer of modern journalism. CNN-IBN Editor-in-Chief Rajdeep Sardesai argued that sourcing stories from the lobbyists had become a requirement of a fast moving electronic media and that those who had been caught on the Radia tapes had committed no serious misconduct. Participants listened to him with respect but hell broke out over his accusation that orchestrated media outrage was the product of “professional envy”. Angry reporters tore into his untenable premises and narrated their own experiences of breaking stories without compromising on media ethics. Some one told Sardesai that all journalists were not in the profession to become celebrities. A senior journalist spoke of resisting allurements and still finding access to major sources on the basis of hard-earned credibility. Others underlined that there were thousands and thousands of journalists who investigate and write socially relevant stories without acting as couriers or agents of corporate lobbyists. Under fire from the assembled media persons, Sardesai had to concede that Radia tapes had revealed trends that were neither good for the health nor the future of the profession.
Mainstream media that is known for its robust criticism and investigative journalism that brought down many a government and exposed several mega scams and miscarriage of justice in high profile crimes, has lost its soul and voice. Paid news syndrome exposed the media as a market-oriented institution obsessed with making money on the sly. Most proprietors/publishers, editors and correspondents traversed the path no conscientious media person should tread. Many of them sold their souls for a few pieces of silver. They published/telecast advertisements as news to mislead readers/viewers during the run up to 2009 parliamentary elections on a massive scale. They spared no one including cash-rich political parties, rich candidates and ambitious businessmen contesting as Independents. Pay per say, was the theme of blackmailers. Many obliged. Some had the courage to resist and suffered as they were totally blacked out in the election season by media that is supposed to inform, educate and reform the society. As if this was not enough to shame the media, some editors whose monthly remunerations run into six figures behaved like middle-men, power-brokers and worse for the corporate India. Their conduct and professionalism, or lack of it, was exposed in tapes of their conversations with Niira Radia – the “famous” and charming lobbyist working for top business houses that continue to claim that they adhere to ethics in their businesses. Several editors and senior journalists played along in helping the lobbyist in her mandate to ensure the disgraced former Telecom Minister A. Raja’s induction into the UPA II cabinet and manipulate the allocation of cash-rich telecom portfolio to him.
The conduct of some big guns in the media has raised questions about blurring of professional barriers. This has severely undermined their credibility. Although the entire media can’t be blamed for indiscretions of a half a dozen famous journalists, their indefensible conduct is a big blow to media as an institution that is yet to recover from paid news syndrome. Niira Radia tapes have revealed several disturbing trends, including deep corporate penetration of political parties, the dirty games big business plays to manipulate public policies and certain famous, not necessarily ethical, media persons getting involved in these murky affairs in the service of corporate India. The tapes have confirmed what we in the media suspected for long namely some senior journalists are a part of the cartel that is hoodwinking public opinion for personal gains and that some of us are middlemen masquerading as professional journalists. The explanations, clarifications and rebuttals issued by those caught on the tapes are amusing and unconvincing. Their attempt is to obfuscate the issue by raising “larger issues” like one’s right to privacy and publishing transcripts of “private” conversations without getting their take on the issue. A large number of distinguished public figures have questioned this thesis. Arun shourie, speaks for many of them, when he says, “These tapes don’t deal with personal details but affect policy and governance. There was nothing personal in them”. It is universally accepted that privacy laws are subservient to public interest. It was not a sting operation conducted by a private party with a personal agenda. These conversations were taped by the Income Tax Department with the written permission of the Union Home Secretary for the purpose of identifying money trail of suspected companies and the suspicion about spying by the lobbyist. What is more important is that no one has challenged the authenticity of the tapes.
While it would be unfair to blame the entire media – of which this writer is a part for the last 50 years – for the unprofessional and unethical conduct of half a dozen editors, it is a great shock and embarrassment for a huge majority of journalists who are professional to the core and are committed to media ethics. Their role models have lost the moral high ground they pretend to occupy. No conscientious journalist can remain a mute spectator to the un-ethical conduct of these worthies. It is not out of place to recall what the late Prem Bhatia, who edited several newspapers, including The Tribune, once said at a seminar on media ethics, “Journalists that sell their souls are nothing but street walkers. Unfortunately, our profession has street walkers as well as call girls – highly paid editors”. What an apt comment on some of our editors. Tapes that are now freely available on the web show that some of these famous media persons show off their links with the famous and mighty “I will speak to Ghulam (Ghulam Nabi Azad) after I leave RCR (Prime Minister’s residence)” and willingly offering to be couriers of messages from the lobbyists to political bosses, “Tell me, what should I tell them?” Another big gun can be heard saying, “I was going to meet Sonia today, but I have been stuck up here, so now it is becoming tomorrow. I have been meeting with Rahul ….” and seeking instructions about the content of the column he would be writing that week. His explanation for arguing in his column exactly what the lobbyist wished is that his views on the gas dispute between Ambani brothers were identical to that of Radiia. How simple! He is so straight!! We are all impressed!!! These celebrities shouldn’t talk about their privacy rights for they were discussing with the lobbyist policy formulations and appointment of ministers known to be corrupt. Supreme Court lawyer Kamini Jaiswal says, “People have a right to know even if these talks took place inside the bedrooms. There was nothing personal about them”.
Corporate media’s deafening silence on the conduct of these journalists is most disturbing. Contrast this with what they did two years ago. TV channels feverishly ran, for days, a “sex tape” that allegedly featured a General Secretary of the BJP. The tape was later found to be a fake. A gentleman’s character and political career were destroyed. None of these worthies even think of apologizing for using salacious gossip. And now they talk of “due process” and privacy rights! They thundered when Tehlka tapes were released and never bothered to find out if the “deal” they talked about was fictitious or real. Corporate media didn’t give an opportunity to those who were caught on hidden cameras to explain their conduct and took what they saw and heard on the tapes as gospel truth. When it comes to their own, NDTV defends and justify Barkha Dutt’s conduct. She demands an apology from Outlook for accusing her of “lobbying and corruption” and tries in vain to explain away her conduct as an “inadvertent error”. Hindustan Times pretends to be a bit sensitive to public outrage. It eased out Vir Sanghvi’s column “counterpoint” but not before giving him space on the editorial page to write a full column to explain his unpardonable conduct. The management changed his designation from Advisory Editorial Director to Adviser HT media. Does it mean he would no longer be adviser for the editorial content? Sanghvi, on his part, says the change of his designation is not linked to the controversy and that his column is taking a break. So, on his own admission, The Hindustan Times has not taken any action for improper conduct of their Adviser. It would be futile to expect these worthies to accept their guilt and resign.
The “secular-liberal” brigade that is too vocal denouncing nationalist groups is equally guilty of their mysterious silence over the flagrant abuse of offices and unprofessional conduct of famous editors. Live Mint’s editor, Sukumar Ranganathan, said that the publication didn’t run the story because it couldn’t verify the authenticity of the documents. “My reporters and editors had no way of finding out… (and believe me, we tried)… Just as a point of comparison, the New York Times spent three months vetting the Pentagon papers,” he said. So, is Ranganathan still not sure of the authenticity of the tapes? Or is it an excuse to explain away one’s lack of courage and commitment? The complete blackout of the Niira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country,” writes G Sampath, the deputy editor of the Daily News & Analysis (DNA) published out of Mumbai. “But what is really scary is that, despite living in a ‘democracy’ that boasts of a ‘free press,’ if you were dependent only on TV and the big newspapers for the biggest news development of the day, you would never have known about the Niira Radia tapes, and the murky role sections of media played as power brokers,” he lamented.
Media can’t take credit for unearthing this scam. It was Government’s own Income Tax Department that taped Radia’s conversation with the high and mighty of the media as part of the process to investigate certain suspected crimes, including spying for a foreign country, with the permission from the competent authority. To raise questions about how and why these confidential tapes found their way to sections of media is to derail the debate on the conduct of professional journalists. Working journalists routinely use leaked or stolen documents to expose misdeeds of politicians and bureaucrats, persons occupying constitutional offices and captains of industry and business. In the present case, some of us behaved like couriers and stenographers. This writer is reluctant to use more appropriate expressions as these are rather crude. An apology is due to professional stenographers and couriers for comparing them with these worthies that roll in money and are accustomed to five-tar hospitality by their sources and lobbyists.
Tapes were made available to two magazines – Open and Outlook. Their editors showed the courage of conviction to publish the conversations in public interest. Only a few mainline newspapers, particularly Hindu and DNA, took up the issue in right earnest. Indian Media Centre is perhaps the only professional body of media persons that raised its voice against the malady. Most media outfits chose to ignore the story as if nothing had happened. What is the Editors Guild of India’s stand on the issue in which some of its leading lights are under cloud? Will it discuss the issue with them and come out with its findings and produce a code of ethics for editors that are the backbone of journalism. One hopes and prays that this great institution has not been manipulated from within. Media Trade Unions that once played a leading role in defending freedom and independence of journalists are too busy celebrating a nice Wage Board report that promises to enhance wages of journalists by 150% on an average. Not a single one of them has come out to condemn these worthies. May be they did speak out but the managements blacked out their protests. Are media trade unions so helpless? Why can’t they hold street protests as they do in support of their legitimate demand for decent working conditions? Did the Press Council of India find time to discuss and debate the issue of great significant for the credibility of the media that is an essential ingredient in a participative democracy? Why can’t the Council take up the issue suo moto to indict those who crossed the “laxman rekha”?