Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1

Time for Media Soul Searching, but how!

Patricia Mary Mukhim

Journalists churn out millions of words in their lifetime. Whether they write what they do out of love for the profession or simply because the job demands it of them is a matter of personal soul searching. But having been in this profession (now unfortunately termed as a racket after the ‘paid news’ blitzkrieg) you begin to wonder at times why you write what you write. To be fair to journalists, there are any number of people with axes to grind who would love to fire the gun from their fragile shoulders.  While seasoned scribes can smell ‘planted news’ a mile away, the rookie often gets caught. Believing that he has a ‘scoop’ he rushes to the newsroom to key in his story of the day. He tells the desk he has tried to call the other party but ‘they could not be contacted’ (That’s standard excuse when you’re chasing deadlines). Editor passes it after asking a few elementary questions such as whether he has cross-checked his facts. Mr. Scribe says he’s done it all. The desk spices up the story and out it comes in the next day’s paper. Glee is followed by a stentorian call from the management. A legal notice has arrived at the newspaper office demanding a defamation suit of Rs one crore and all that legal crap.                                                                                                      
    The scribe is summoned and asked to give his side of the story and the rigmarole follows. All newspapers have their standing legal counsels to ferret out the loopholes in the litigant’s plaint. More often than not, some compromise is made. The newspaper publishes an apology (which for editors is like eating crow). The rookie has learnt the lesson of his life. Henceforth he is wary of even authentic news and smells a rat where there is none. What usually happens is that reporters learn to tread the straight and narrow and as a result they dare not venture into investigative journalism unless pressured to do so. Most reporters spend more time at the press club filching stories from colleagues and depend on press releases to show their output for the day.                                           
    Journalism has come a long way since those bad old days when powerful people kept a reasonable distance because they feared journalists and their poison pens. Today things have come a full circle. There is a happy bonhomie between journalists, politicians and the business lobby. Some of our current crop of politicians, particularly the top few in the UPA government, have their hand-picked journalists to get their own points of view across; not critical views that the public need to know but views that are comfortable for the minister, so he can cut both ways. He can take a dig at fellow politicians and also convey to the Government through the media what he cannot do at a cabinet meeting or a political party meeting. In fact we journalists have provided cosy platforms where politicians speak to each other through our channels.                                                                                                               Journalism seems to be going down the way of all other institutions in this country. Paid news which became the defining trajectory for a section of the media during the last Lok Sabha election has become the content of many a debate. P Sainath in a caustic article in The Hindu (August 5, 2010) titled “The empire strikes back- and how,” has castigated the Press Council of India for evidently suppressing the contents of its own report on the paid news outrage – a report that apparently names and shames the movers and shakers of this new media business. Sainath says this was one opportunity for the media to cleanse up their Augean stables and set right the code of misconduct they had adopted as a stratagem to get rich quick. But apparently, we have missed the bus!                                                                                                      
    A panel discussion to commemorate the death anniversary of Ramnath Goenka, which was aired by a channel, discussed ‘paid news’ with extra flourish and a sadistic  sense of fulfilment that its payback time for journalists. After all, opportunities to critique the fourth estate are so rare! Several parliamentarians in the audience, among them Sachin Pilot, Kumari Selja, Naveen Jindal, Arun Jaitley et al were asked if they were approached by journalists during the last parliamentary elections. They said they were. Not only were they asked to pay a certain sum so that their campaign trial was covered minute by minute. The poker- faced journalists also stated upfront that if they did not comply they would receive negative reportage. That statement from politicians whom we as journalists have learnt to crucify for every wrong move, was akin to being nailed on the cross. It was a mortifying moment to know the depths to which we have sunk.                                                                          
    But mere breast-beating is not going to help. There is need to evolve new ideas to deal with the challenging and gargantuan demon of ruthless globalisation which has co-opted all of us into its hideous groove. Life is getting tougher by the day. Media persons have aspirations, more so because they themselves promote those aspirations, but their incomes are not exactly enviable.  In the small towns and mohallas  journalists live from hand to mouth. The management cock a snook at the various wage board recommendations. Frustration is writ large in the faces of most scribes and often times they drink themselves silly and even to death.                                                                                                                                   
     In the North Eastern region of this country, some crafty politicians have emulated the southern political gladiators, namely Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi to set up their own television channels spinning out 24x7 news. Such channels usually follow their bosses wherever they travel. Recently, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s Health Minister had travelled to Mumbai where the chief minister Tarun Gogoi was to undergo a by-pass surgery. All the information that was to be conveyed to Congress acolytes and Gogoi’s constituents back home, including those who were performing puja for his quick recovery, was done so through the channel and through Biswa Sarma whose wife ostensibly owns this multi-crore rupee channel.   
    Instead of paying journalists to cover their dusty election tracks and also attracting a penalty in case they refuse to pay, most politicians today feel its better to set up their own news channels. This puts the whole notion of a free press on its head. Can a press owned by a politician claim journalistic freedom? Yet there is no gainsaying that this trend is fast picking up and becoming the norm. So is the media entering a new, irreversible era in India? It is bad enough that media barons are today global capitalists and from all discernable trends it appears that this is the only way to survive. Even the more conservative media leaders seem to have joined the rat race. The slogan is, “if you cannot beat them, join them.” So people like Sainath might be lonesome, forlorn wanderers and prophets in a media world which is fast gravitating towards the razzmatazz and the razzle-dazzle of the new media. How else do you explain a news channel lapping up Bollywood gossips after 11 pm and selling it to us viewers? And then they have the gumption to cite TRP ratings for doing what they do!                                                                
    I feel a sense of déjà vu for what was once a fiercely independent media of which I was happy and proud to belong to. That’s now in the past tense. How do we salvage what’s lost? Is it still possible? Paranjoy Guha Thakurta speaking at the 65
th anniversary of The Shillong Times, in Shillong had accused media practitioners of being not just pet dogs but of having graduated to being lap dogs of politicians. That was not taken too kindly but I guess we are all getting there! Who will save us from ourselves?


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati