Sunday, November 28, 2010

With unethical leaders, can the Indian Media be ever trusted?

Picture Source: See end
The Transparency International, an independent international watchdog on perception of corruption in public services lists India at the 87th position, one that is almost unchanged since the last 2 decades. So, it does not come as a surprise when functionaries of government including ministers and government officials are accused of graft in this land-of-plenty-though-limited-to-a-few. The recent emergence of the Radia tapes in public domain now implicates journalists and a couple of doyens at that; doing everything that a code of ethical conduct bars them from. For a long time, media persons have been able to hide behind the cover thanks to the “immunity” that “seekers of truth” deserve from the powerful vested interests in the government. The Radia tapes is important because for the first time it demonstrably reveals the equally corrupt face of the media behind their masks of journalistic vanities.

The media’s greed for gifts and free services have been known for a long time. I have personally watched some IPOs of companies where the rush by media persons , at the end of the press briefing, to collect the freebies stacked near the entrance puts to shame even the rush of hungry & poor beggars at a free-meal event hosted by a charity. Secondly the issue of “paid news” is an age-old one where any one person or company can list their points of views or propaganda in return for gifts or largesse of advertisements in print media. The lower hierarchy of media was anyway always immersed into such quid-pro-quos just like constables in the police forces across the country are. But people take notice only when a senior police officer gets embroiled in such activities. Similarly the Radia tapes too made the country take notice of two of the leading journalists in the country- Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi when they were perceived in their conversations to be “asking for instructions” or “promising to relay message” or even to “disclose an opponent party’s viewpoint” while talking to a lobbyist.

In the past week, both Barkha and Vir have come out publicly in their own defence , the crux of which rests on the phrase of “stringing along a lobbyist for qualified information .” They have asked the readers to judge them not on their conversations but on their columns in the print media. But both Vir and Barkha forget a few premises which must be present for the readers to pass judgement on their unethical conducts. Here are four such premises and counterpoints to their defences for them to ponder over in their impending retirement, one that seems to be looming over their power broking careers.

1. Vir claims in his latest Sunday column in HT that his column reaches 3.4 millions of people. More the reason for a senior columnist like him to exercise utmost caution and demonstrate journalistic ethics to everyone (including a lobbyist) that he will not be compromised. Otherwise , he will forever be considered as somebody who’s making money by fooling the 3.4 million readers by touting the highest bidder’s viewpoint in his column. The viewpoints may be of gas companies or of hotel chains or of anybody.

2. If the conversations point to “stringing a source” for exclusive information where have the information been used? Barkha Dutt did not even run any show to inform the public about which corporate wants which DMK party member as the next minister of telecommunications. Vir appears to have  written a Sunday column in HT after talking to both the competing Ambani brothers on the dispute over allocation of natural gas. Vir says in his latest column that he had been convinced by Radia’s viewpoint that national resources should not be allocated based on private agreements . This is exactly the spin Radia and her client Mukesh Ambani. wanted to give to the issue. Otherwise Anil would be having his way and all power companies including NTPC, ADAG and the rest will be paying a lower rate for buying the gas from Mukesh’s Reliance Petroleum. If power companies buy gas at a cheaper rate then consumers all over India too will not feel pinched at the exceptionally high rate of natural gas that Reliance wants to push on to India to further its profits and to quickly recover the investment made after excavation of wells. Cheaper price of gas for everybody, Mr. Sanghvi, is national interest and not a dispute over private agreements. For that matter, vir could have suggested the Government to scrap the agreement but maintain a lower price. What prompted you to forget that & instead ask a lobbyist,“What kind of article do you want?”

3. Continuing on the issue of “stringing”, one would assume that the person who is getting stringed along has an IQ of 0 and does not understand that he/she can get stringed along. On the contrary, PR professionals and lobbyist recognise that the senior journalists have their foots on the doors of leading politicians and can harmlessly slip a personal message in the course of an interview. In these tapes, Radia , is not even requesting Vir or Barkha to do as per her dictum , she is stating her points in a matter of fact and obvious kind of way. A tone which reflects of an unsaid agreement of exchange of considerations for every “honest” work done in favour of her clients. If she thought that she will be get stringed along , she will not waste her precious hours talking to Vir or Barkha at ungodly hours. Rather she would , knowing her way of operation, do the same with somebody else who she can trust to deliver.

4. Media persons clamour for resignations of any powerful politician or businessman who is accused of a wrong doing at the drop of a hat. Why aren’t Vir and Barkha doing the same ? Vir has at least promised to give his infamous propaganda column “Counterpoint” a break from today. Will Barkha , at the minimum, follow suit with “We the people?”

Reputations do take long time to make and the fall from them also take an equally long time. Unethical practices do not happen as one-off kind of incidents. Rather they get embedded in a person’s routine affairs as he/she looses the power to distinguish the fine demarcating line that exists between use and abuse of powers that are accredited to senior officials in any organisation in the course of their meteoric rise . Reputations are not broken by one single exposure like the Radia tapes rather they are demolished when routine unethical conducts assume monstrous proportions and surface in the public domain for every one to take notice.

Can I trust the print or television news media any more after hearing several times these revealing tapes? The answer is a resounding No, unless both Vir and Barkha are shown the exit doors by their management. I am sure , each of the 3.4 million readers/viewers will have the same view as mine.

Picture Source : Manjul's Cartoons

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