Whatever the justification given by journalists whose names have come up in the `Radiagate' expose, there is no question that it has forced much-needed introspection. For years, the cosiness between prominent media persons and both politicians and the corporate world had become blatant. But rarely to the point where it was flaunted as it is today. In many ways, the 24-hour-news format and television have made this evident with anchors using first names, and cracking `inside' jokes during live telecasts with prominent people.
Yet, these issues have been in the cooker for a long time. At some point they were bound to boil over. The fact that this has happened now is welcome. It allows for some air, and hopefully light, to enter the murky world of influence mongering.
As far as I am concerned, the first signs that journalists had no problem with their rights being curbed were evident in June 1975 when Mrs Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and imposed press censorship. Barring a few, journalists and newspapers fell in line. They simply flipped over and played dead.
After that as the state withdrew, the world of commerce took over. And once again, there was little protest. Journalists were renamed “brand managers”. No problem. The dividing line between editorial and management vanished. No problem. Editors were declared redundant. No problem.
And then came Medianet, which openly sold editorial space. No problem. A few of us in Mumbai tried hard to provoke a discussion amongst fellow journalists. If the largest newspaper in the country could sell editorial space, then why should readers believe us? What was the guarantee that all news was not paid news? Hardly anyone expressed an interest in the subject.
And then came the private treaties. Again, one thought journalists would object but hardly anyone raised an eyebrow as more than one newspaper adopted the model.
Then you had paid news during elections. This was written about but here the focus was on the politicians who paid and not the media houses that accepted and the journalists who wrote the pieces. For that matter, what about journalists who write articles that are part of the private treaties between newspapers and businesses? (An illustration is the series carried in The Times of India on urban issues sponsored by Lavasa, the hill station near Pune that has come under the radar of the Ministry of Environment.) Our outrage did not interrogate our own culpability in the paid news business.
And now we have this ??" journalists joining in discussions on how to lobby for cabinet berths, journalists virtually taking dictation on the line to take in a column, journalists offering advice to lobbyists on how to position stories in their newspaper etc.
If truth be told, none of this is shocking. Those who have been in the profession long enough know how power corrupts journalists. Have we forgotten the editor of a leading newspaper who sincerely believed that his was “the second most important job” in the country? How many times have we heard our fellow journalists boast about their contacts and how they can get anything done? How many journalists have used such contacts to jump queues, to get out-of-turn allocations for everything from housing to seats in an airplane? In the bad old days, when it was difficult to get things like gas connections and telephones, it was the done thing to use these contacts to jump the queue. And no one thought there was anything wrong with that. In fact, if you did not use influence, you were considered a fool.
The question we as journalists face post-Radiagate is: Who should set the norms? Some journalists have their own norms and principles, irrespective of the media organisation they work for. And a few media organisations have specific rules and codes. These codes cover actual favours taken by journalists, including freebies. But what do you do about influence mongering? Is that a corrupt practice? There can be no code, nor any policing on this.
I believe that the first step on the slippery slope of compromise that ultimately puts in jeopardy a journalist's reputation, credibility and professionalism is taken much before they reach the pinnacle of their careers.
Ultimately, journalists have to ask themselves why they are in the trade " to push agendas, to be kingmakers and queen makers or simply to do a job? Sounds old fashioned, does it not, to even mention something like this?
(Click on the link above to read the original)
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
My Column on The Hoot on the recent controversy over the Niira Radia tapes in which several journalists were involved.