What on earth is happening to our profession and our professionals? Time was when journalists were held in very high regard as men who were above corruption, men who stood for values and were willing to pay any price. There were men who paid heavy fines, had their presses closed and even suffered imprisonment, men who stayed in chawls and travelled by bus or tram. But their standing was high in society. Today editors drawing high salaries, and enjoying perks, undreamt of in past generations, remain unknown.
Some weeks ago The Hindu carried an article by P Sainath that said that some newspapers were blatantly selling news space to politicians standing for elections. The article did not name names but the point was made candidates paid newspapers different rates for well-differentiated and streamlined packages of news coverage. Nobody seemed to care.
Earlier The Indian Express (September 14) carried a front page 4 cols X 10 inch ad of ICICI Bank charging that “a newspaper carried a baseless article on September 13, 2009, suggesting that the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) has asked the Reserve Bank of India to re-audit sale of loans by ICICI Bank to Asset Reconstruction Company (India) Ltd”. The ad said that “ICAI immediately denied the move” and called the article “grossly inaccurate”, “completely baseless” and appeared “to be a deliberate and malicious plant aimed at damaging the Bank’s reputation”. The ad further said that the Bank “is taking up this matter with regulatory and law-enforcement authorities”. One hopes it has done so. The ICICI Bank did not reveal the name of the newspaper. Was that report ‘planted’ as an advertisement and the newspaper in question was paid for carrying it? One does not know.
Corruption comes in different forms. The Mumbai-based DNA (October 11) carried a story that the Anti-Corruption Bank (ACB) Delhi has summoned more than seventy journalists on charges that they were accepting bribes from a sub-registrar”. The accused sub-registrar was arrested in September by the ACB on charges of demanding a bribe for preparing a sale deed and other documents. During investigations, it seems, the ACB uncovered names of several journalist who were on the official payroll and used to get paid Rs 1,000 to Rs 6,000 per month for not writing against him. According to DNA, “The accused journalists belong to various newspapers, channels and magazines.” There has been no follow-up of the story, what ever happened to those seventy-odd journalists, summoned by the ACB? Or take this story that appeared in The Indian Express (November 15). According to a New Delhi report, a section of the country’s senior-most journalists has suggested that the editors should also declare their assets, just as politicians, bureaucrats and judges and called for revamping the ‘utterly ineffective’ Press Council of India.
According to the report, among those who suggested the media to be more accountable were “some of the prominent and present editors and columnists like Kuldip Nayar”. The point is well taken. Editors should be as accountable to the public as one expects bureaucrats, ministers and politicians to be. They are the ones who lecture on public propriety and high values. Shouldn’t they take the opportunity to get their probity established? The trouble is that the honesty and objectivity of journalists is taken for granted and seldom questioned. The time has come to take a fresh look at their earnings. But one can’t blame only the journalists. Even people in power play favourites raising the hackles of those left out.
Writing in Mumbai’s Afternoon Despatch and Courier (November 9) columnist Virendra Kapoor raised an important point. He said: “Those handling the Prime Minister’s media have to master a couple of basics of their new assignment.” For one, he wrote, it does not pay to play favourites with the media. “Cherry-picking the media party for accompanying the Prime Minister on his foreign visits can always create ill-will.” But a graver charge Virendra Kapoor makes is that the PM’s media advisers “should desist selectively feeding (mis)information to journalists”. As he put it, “Either dispense information to all in the media party or none at all.”
Actually, there is no good reason why the Prime Minister should take a bunch of journalists with him on his plane. Jawaharlal Nehru never did so. Nor, one imagines, Indira Gandhi. Journalists travelling as guests of the Prime Minister in his own plane would feel indebted to him and to the government which makes objective reporting a little more difficult. Is the Prime Minister taking journalists on a safari? Actually in his early days as Prime Minister, Nehru would travel to foreign countries in a regular Air India flight but then those were days when security concerns did not loom so large on the horizon.
Meanwhile, a report in the DNA (November 27) says that most newspapers in Mumbai are seeing their readership drop in the range of four to nine per cent and the biggest losses have been registered by the two city tabloids Mumbai Mirror (which comes complimentary to most readers) and Mid-Day. DNA alone seems to be doing well. Does that story carry any message? Are we slowly seeing the beginning of fall in newspaper readership as is happening in the west? Or is it a temporary phenomenon? Even more importantly, could it be an expression of reader aversion to the fall in quality of newspaper contents?
One has to see the Hindustan Times, which features a riot of colour, detracting from reader attention. The emphasis is not on quality content but on visual intimidation, something to be despised. Readers are taken for granted or dismissed as morons. Incidentally, sports writer surely would be pleased to learn that Andre Agassi has written his autobiography, which is entitled Open and one understands from a New York Times review that it is “one of the most passionate anti-sports books ever written by a super-star athlete—bracingly devoid of triumphalist homily and star-spangled gratitude”. Said the review: “(He) was not clamouring for attention but rather conducting a struggle to wrest some semblance of self-hood from the sports that threatened to devour him.” One wonders what some of our own stars like Sachin Tendulkar feel about their choice of sports. Sachin may have begun with the purpose of conquering cricket but now is cricket attempting to conquer him?