From watchdog to lapdog
IN the end, all it took for me to be compromised as a journalist was one box of mithai at Diwali time. I had been in the profession barely a few months when the editor sent me off on an assignment to do a story on how film personalities and sports stars were being used as brand ambassadors. In the course of the story, I interviewed the usual suspects – advertising gurus and product managers. Two weeks after the story was published, one of the managers whose product had been written about rang up to tell me how much he had enjoyed the story.
A week after, at Diwali, I received a box of sweets from the manager. A fortnight later, he rang up again, this time to inquire if the newspaper could do a story on a client of his. I put him onto our business desk, a story was filed by the business reporter, and since then every Diwali, there is one box of sweets I am assured of.
In the years since being a cub reporter, I have realised that a mithai box is only loose change in the institutionalised corruption that is part of the journalistic profession. From the Maharashtra politician who plies you with a basket of grapes every season, to the airlines boss who upgrades you from economy to business class, to the restaurateur who offers you a free meal for two – the side benefits which come with being a pen-pusher or a recognised television anchor can take various forms.
In each instance, the system operates on a clear quid pro quo. The politician who sends you grapes is only ensuring that you remember to be kind to him the next time he stages a walkout in Parliament. The airlines boss has made certain that any criticism of his attempts to curb competition are not made public. And the food chain owner is making sure that when he invites your magazine to write about his restaurant, he will get virtually free ad space in the news columns.
Indeed, much of the matter in the colour supplements that have now become essential accompaniments to mainstream broadsheets thrives on the principle that there is no publicity like free publicity. So, whether it is fashion shows or the opening of a restaurant or a film premiere, there is a pool of journalists who will be more than happy to play along with the party.
In particular, when it comes to celebrity journalism in the country today, the lines between reportage and public relations are slowly getting blurred. Film producers take journalists to outstation shoots so that glowing articles can be written on the stars of the film, or else, a three minute story can be flashed on prime time news. Publishers invite reviewers to wine and cheese evenings so that the author can be given a three column colour spread the next day. Sports management companies invite sports writers and channels to cover an exhibition match in Goa so that a bit of publicity for the sponsor’s product can be mixed with adequate sun and sand.
Take also the so-called ad supplements that are now frequent additions to all newspapers. Most of these supplements are little more than large dollops of public relations with a small spoon of editorial matter. For example, journalists are taken on a full, all-expenses paid holiday for the Dubai shopping festival. The newspaper gets ad revenues, the festival gets publicity, and the journalist gets a perfect junket. Or, the supplements that celebrate one year of the NDA in power, or the birthdays of Jayalalitha or a Bal Thackeray. The newspaper editors might argue that such supplements are revenue earners, but the fact is that they do end up compromising editorial integrity (notice how the words ‘sponsored feature’ that accompany such supplements are usually tucked away in a corner).
Or take some of the so-called hardcore corporate reporting in the country today, both in newspapers and on television. The arrival of the pink paper was seen by many at the time as a welcome break from the stodgy business reporting that focused on commodity prices and business handouts. But there is a growing trend within a section of the upmarket business papers and business programmes on television to appear less as detached observers of corporate news and more as partisan cheerleaders. The ‘backpresent’ concept at the end of a press conference that certain business houses seem to have perfected – whether in the form of an expensive pen or even better, a holiday for the family in a resort, or best of all, company shares – is only a reflection of how corporate journalism can be compromised.
As indeed can the political journalist who enjoys the privilege of travelling with the prime minister or the president on an official tour to Brazil or Malaysia or some other equally exotic location. The external publicity department in the ministry of external affairs has perfected the art of ensuring that a journalist is kept suitably lubricated at all times. How is the Black Label whisky and box of chocolates that are left in the hotel room of any journalist any less of an inducement than the gifts offered to army officials on the tehelka tapes?
And yet few, if any, of us journalists even bother to consider that this may be a corrupting factor, an attempt by the government to break the dividing line between journalist and establishment and ensure that the press writes positively on the ‘achievements’ of those in power. Why else should a 200 dollars per head boat ride along the Potomac be part of the official perks of being on the prime minister’s visit? Or a night on the town in Paris, with champagne and caviar thrown in for good measure?
Some of the old-timers would whisper and suggest that this ‘corruption’ of the media is only a new trend, that it is only a reflection of a general fall in journalistic norms and values. That is a whole load of rubbish. Let us get it straight: the kind of media corruption that we are witnessing today is no Murdochian conspiracy as some would have us believe. It is the product of an incestuous system and a journalistic milieu which for a long time has survived on mutual benefit.
Is it not true that journalists of a previous generation happily allowed politicians to bend the urban development laws so that housing societies for journalists could be built in prime locations? And, to that extent, isn’t it fair to conclude that some of the other journalistic societies of more recent vintage are only a continuation of the tradition set by journalists of a previous era? If anything, the close links between journalists, politicians and business houses were first nurtured in the licence-permit raj years when the power of state patronage was even greater.
Of course, things have taken a turn for the worse over the years. For one, the system has become far more brazen in its operation than ever before. A Mulayam Singh Yadav can openly admit to having given cash ‘rewards’ to certain journalists, even while those who dared to oppose him became the target of a halla bol campaign. The BJP has appointed favoured mediapersons on various boards and panels, not because of their journalistic skills, but simply because they happen to be part of the same social-cum-political circuit. The left too, has its own patron-client relationship with the media world. On a recent trip to Kolkata to cover the West Bengal assembly elections, a CPI(M) apparatchik assured me that the entire trip had been ‘organised’, from the air-conditioned ambassador that would take me into interior Bengal to hotel accommodation. He seemed a little surprised when I said that I would be looking after my hotel and travel needs.
It’s no different with corporate houses who have select journalists on their payroll. Again, there are state governments which will ensure that certain journalists are given properties from the state quota even if the journalist has already acquired a property from the same quota. There are journalists too who will flaunt their farmhouses with great relish, though just where a journalist saves enough cash to acquire prime farm land remains a mystery.
The avenues for journalistic corruption have also increased. A crime reporter in a small daily in Allahabad can use his political connections to ensure the transfer of a police officer to a posting of his choice for a fee. The chief of bureau in a slightly bigger paper in Lucknow can ensure that the state government pours in a sufficient number of government ads in the newspaper. In Delhi, a senior political reporter can ensure an appointment for a businessman with an important civil servant for a fee. A financial journalist can use privileged information to engage in insider trading at the stockmarkets. And at the very top of the journalistic pyramid, an editor may be able to ensure that a television channel gets the benefit of a major satellite project in return for a prime time news programme. Indeed, as the stakes get higher, the ‘journalist as fixer’ concept has become more and more prevalent.
This is at one level partly due to the proliferation of newspapers in the country. Many of the small and medium newspapers in particular can hardly sustain themselves as independent, unbiased, uncompromising guardians of truth. For many of them a softer and more lucrative option is to use the newspaper as an instrument for ‘buying’ political or financial clout within the system.
In a small town, a journalist who otherwise earns around four thousand rupees a month can often only take the leap forward by becoming the conduit between the local establishment (MLA, corporator, etc) and the local economy (small-scale businessman or trader needing political patronage). The proprietor too, uses the newspaper as a product for acquiring leverage within the local community. In recent years, there have been a growing number of instances of journalist-proprietors accused of using their newspaper only as a device to ‘blackmail’ local authorities.
Nor is the phenomenon of media owners being driven by non-journalistic motives any longer confined to the small town newspaper. The market-driven owners of the big media houses have struck their own corporate deals. The classic example is the beauty pageants organised under a newspaper brand where the medium is reduced to a vehicle for promoting the beauty business in its various forms. Today, there are television channels that are owned and managed by politicians (Tamil Nadu provides a perfect example), whose sole aim is to promote the interests of political parties. With dotcoms too, the pattern of funding itself leaves considerable room for manipulation of the news business by those whose interests may range from rigging the markets to settling corporate rivalries.
Another reason for the problem is the changing self-image of the journalist, and his role in a democratic system. For a long time the journalist’s role was seen to be that of an independent observer of events. But observation alone can be rather tedious, and not very financially productive either. So, over the years, the journalist has chosen to move from the margins of the fourth estate to being firmly on the centrestage, closer to the first estate. Ideological corruption is as much a part in this process as anything else. A journalist can get close to a political party, business house or an individual in a manner that compromises his independence. Having acquired that proximity, the journalist can then use his clout on a larger scale, playing kingmaker in cementing political alliances at the centre, or in providing the link between a minister in the Union cabinet and a business house in need of a favour.
Today, journalists in the major metropolises are no longer anonymous scribes hiding their talent behind an unsigned editorial, or a simple ‘by a staff reporter’ byline. Instead, they have taken on different identities: sharp-suited television anchors, page three celebrities, Rajya Sabha MPs, prime minister’s confidantes.
In the process of becoming power centres in their own right, the journalist has acquired a new profile and status within civil society. Ironically, in the process of acquiring this new image the journalist has become less of a watchdog and more of a lapdog of the system. For once a journalist is corrupted – either ideologically or financially – his space for challenging the system and playing an adversarial role keeps shrinking. As does the space for an honest journalist (and contrary to popular perception, most journalists are still committed to a degree of professional integrity).
Unfortunately, few mediapersons have chosen to even look at the extent of the problem. Perhaps, it suits us not to look inwards since the reflection in the mirror won’t look very attractive. Perhaps, it suits the newspaper owners and channel bosses to keep the status quo since they have been prime beneficiaries of a corrupted system. Certainly, none of the so-called media watchdog bodies, be it the Press Council or the Editors Guild, have chosen to focus on media corruption – political, ideological or financial.
There are no rules or regulations that govern media ethics, or tell us whether it is acceptable for a journalist to receive a gift from a corporate house, or a junket from a ministry. With no clear-cut guidelines, it has become almost open season for those who wish to manipulate the system to their advantage.
For my part, I must confess that the two bottles of Black Label that I received on the prime minister’s trip to New York last year are still lying in my bar waiting to be opened. Perhaps, I’ll uncork them soon enough, if only to celebrate the corrupting influences in journalism.