ONE of the more disturbing features of our media is that after “breaking news the reader is left guessing what, in the end, transpired. For a couple of days in mid-January the media was full of reports about the Zee ‘extortion’ case in which the news network is alleged to have demanded Rs 100 crore in return for rolling back its campaign against steel tycoon Navin Jindal’s ‘misdemeanour’ in coal block allocations.
The Hindu (January 21 ) carried a long edit page article by Sandeep Bhushan which said “in the television news room, the promoter’s fancies and political preferences have taken precedence over editorial judgement.” Bhushan said “the alleged scam points to a much larger story – the growing intervention of owners/promoters in determining the news content in TV broadcast news networks.” Bhushan was critical of editors for crucially acting as the ‘front’ for the promoters in order to provide an appearance of both credibility and acceptability within the industry. The editorial line was increasingly laid down by the media promoter who had his own political preferences and imposed them on the editor who had no other option but follow the orders of the boss. To challenge the boss was to invite dismissal, considering both the editor and the reportes would, in all probability be “on contract”. It is believed that as many as 3,000 journalists had lost their jobs post-2008. In such circumstances why should not reporters and editors write what is expected of them to write-whether it was news or the boss’s views?
According to Bhushan “editorial control is light with regard to reportage involving private corporations.” As he put it “the steady tabloidisation of news, the growing pre-eminence of ‘reality’ television masquerading as ‘hard news’ which consumes hour upon hour of ‘live’ footage points to an emerging system where the reporter is rapidly becoming obsolete and redundant.” It is all very sad, considering as Bhushan remarks, that “the irony is that all this comes at a time when democracy is growing deeper roots across the country with more political awareness.”
Having said all this, I wish to come back to where I started: What on earth has happened to the Zee ‘scam’? is it now a closed chapter not to be resuscitated by anybody, including The Hindu? Is it any wonder then that India, according to Press Trust of India has slid down in Press Freedom Index by nine places to 140 in the list of 179 countries in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index? Isn’t that something to be ashamed of? But then, does anybody care? Who should care: the editor under pressure? The reporter under the editor’s pressure? In Asia, India is at its lowest since 2002 because of increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow. What is equally shocking is the fact that politicians are acknowledging that they are indulging in ‘Paid News’. Newspapers publish ‘news’ supportive of politicians fighting elections for a price.
According to P Sainath, writing again in The Hindu ( January 28) “several poll candidates have owned up to this corrupt practice after the Election Commission and the Press Council of India shot off notices to them. It seems some candidates have accepted in writing that they bought what now go for ‘Paid News’ advertisements, but says Sainath “not a single one of the newspapers they say they gave their money to, has accepted any wrong-doing” – and they include three top-ranked dailies, Names of newspapers apparently involved since November 2008 have been mentioned by Sainath and they include Dainik Bhaskar, Nai Duniya, Aacharan, Dainik Datia Prakashan, Dainik Jagran, Dainik Hindustan, Hindustan Times, Dainik Aaj, Purvanchal ki Raahi, Rashtriya Sahara, Udyog Vyapar Times and Prabhat Khabar.
We have now come to a point when one is not sure whether what one reads in a newspaper is ‘paid news’ or ‘hard news’. What is interesting is that quite a few politicians presently seem willing to confess to their paid news sins. They apparently face penalties. It would seem that just 16 months ago, the Election Commission disqualified Umlesh Yadav, then sitting Member from Bisauli in Uttar Pradesh for a period of three years, for failing to provide a “true and correct account” of her election expenses. She had reportedly skipped mention of her spending on advertisements dressed up as news during her 2007 poll campaign.
As Sainath put it “she was the first legislator ever to bite the dust on grounds of excessive expenditure (and paid news). It would seem that there is no easy way in which ‘paid news’ can be stopped considering that the ‘highest penalty’ is censure and that draws not even an apology. Newspapers are so brazen that they couldn’t care much for just a censure since it would be forgotten in 24 hours. So where does one go from here? Nowhere, the cynics say. The only way to bring an offending newspaper to its senses would be to impose a very high fine on it, something that is not likely to be enacted as law. Besides there is no possibility these days of ever coming across an ‘independent’ editor. The editor, it seems, is no longer the friend, philosopher and guide to his readers when it is more paying to be “your obedient servant” of the promoter. This is professionalism at its vilest. This is nothing new. Just prior to Independence the profession had an editor who, having served a nationalist paper went on to become editor of Jinnah’s publication Dawn. Nobody then complained.
The latest bit of information is that paid news has been rampant in Gujarat during the recently concluded State legislative elections. The point is often made that editor is like a professional lawyer whose task is to present a client’s case as best as he can, without sitting on prior judgement over it. In any event, editors are seldom pushed into the limelight which is just as well. This is in conformity with the times we live in with economic security overtaking ideological aspirations as the main motivating force, moving journalists.
Journalism is just another job like selling vada pav on a Mumbai street. A business like any other. One has to make a decent living, no? And what’s wrong with obeying the boss’s orders?