WHAT has gone totally wrong with the media, both electronic and press? To read in Deccan Herald (December 4) that Zee News editor and business head Sudhir Chaudhary and Zee business head Samir Ahluwalia have been arrested “for trying to extort Rs 100 crore from industrialist and Congress MP Naveen Jindal’s company, to stop airing a negative story about the company’s alleged involvement in the illegal coal block allocation” make one feel like crying. Of course, the charge, as it is, is an allegation. It has to be proved in a court of law, even if Delhi Deputy Commissioner of Police SBS Tyagi says the “arrests have been made after recording statements of all the parties concerned”. But what have we come to?
I began my own journalistic career way back in 1945 when salaries were low, often were not paid on time but it was honour to work for a newspaper whose editor suffered endlessly at the hands of the British rulers, but those days are obviously gone. Writing in The Hindu (December 4), the Press Council Chairman Markandey Katju quotes Madhu Kishwar, a senior journalists as saying that “many media people can be bribed and manipulated” and that “the huge salaries which many top media people get (some are said to get packages worth several crores annually, often linked with TRP ratings) enable such media people to lead fancy lifestyles with huge cars, houses and bank balances thereby making many of them (not all) docile hirelings of their Corporate masters”. It is a crying shame.
The Zee editors apparently did not ask for cash for themselves. They wanted Jundal Steel & Power Ltd. to spend Rs 100 crore on advertisements to Zee News. Reportedly, Jindal tried to bribe Samir Ahluwalia with Rs 25 crore to suppress the coverage that Zee News was telecasting on Coalgate, if Deccan Herald is to be believed, which carries more such information. (Incidentally, according to Asian Age (June 19), a New Delhi city court has made it clear that news writing without any ‘ulterior motive’ to expose corruption issues for ‘public good’ cannot be categorised as defamatory).
One holds one’s breath till the Zee News case is fully resolved, one way or other, but what is the answer to the current reported – and noticeable – breakdown of all ethical standards? It is not just Zee News that is under the scam. In a recent column in Outlook the weekly’s editorial chairman and founding editor-in-chier, Vinod Mehta had this to say. To quote him fully: “People like me in the media can no longer get up on our soap box and preach morality. Our own house is dangerously dysfunctional, riddled with venality. For a long time, corruption in the media has been either ignored or suppressed by the media themselves. At an Editors’ Guild meeting six months ago, I proposed to all editors that they voluntarily declare their assets and these be regularly updated and put up on the Guild’s website. Nothing happened. Some of us have been repeatedly warning that external self-regulation for the print media can no longer be put off. Alas, each paper insists on regulating itself through its own corrections/clarifications column. Now, it is hardly a secret that editors hate acknowledging that they have published fabricated news; even if a correction is printed, it is tucked away on an inside page. We vilify a person on the front page, and put the regret on page 17! In the past few days, the Director General of the BBC, who is also its editor-in-chief, resigned, taking responsibility for a mistake the BBC had made. How many editors-in-chief in India would do that? The print media is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon. It knows that it is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon, yet does nothing. Do we have a death wish?”
Vinod Mehta’s comments on the media have been reported here in full. But who cares? Going back to Markandey Katju; he has some comments to make on how to “regularise” the media. He wants regulation, not control, of the media, the difference between the two being that whereas in control there is no freedom, in regulation there is freedom but subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest.
As he sees it, this regulation should not be by the government or any individual “but by an independent statutory authority which can be called the Media Council. According to Mr Katju, most of the members of the proposed Media Council (which should have representatives from the broadcast media also on it) should be media persons, not appointed by the government but elected by media organizations.
Says Mr Katju: “This Media Council should have punitive powers including the power to suspend licenses and impose fines, but such punishment should be given by the majority decision of the Media Council and not by the Chairman alone.” As Mr Katju sees it, “today the Indian people are suffering terribly from massive poverty, unemployment, sky-rocketing prices, an absence of health care and good education for the masses. The Indian media should help our country abolish these great evils…..” Mr Katju seems to be living in a fools’ paradise. He should read some of our newspapers. I feel ashamed even to name them. They are full of pictures of semi-naked women sitting in attractive poses and no one seems to question the editors.
Why should we worry about young men assaulting women or attempting to rape them, considering the provocative pictures they see daily in some of our leading newspapers? Not they but the editors of such papers that need to be judged. And then there are pictures of social celebrities – pages after pages of them – and one wonders whether they were ‘paid pictures’ just as we have “paid news”. And to think that many of these newspapers have high circulation! But perhaps we should not blame editors (if such of them exist). The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the publishers and owners of the newspapers to whom what in the end matters is not their newspapers’ credibility but the bottom line.
The tragedy is that some newspaper editors seem no longer defenders of public rights but upholders of their employers’ demands. As critic rightly pointed out, business is business, and let no one question it. Besides, isn’t it marvellous to have an annual income of crores and one can consort with the rich and powerful on equal terms?