Credibility crisis

On the NDTV programme Tuesday evening which was devoted exclusively to media navel-gazing, my co-panellist Dileep Padgaonkar, a former editor of Times of India, indulged in some nostalgia. In the old days, he suggested, a lobbyist would never have been entertained in newspaper offices. So different, the sub-text read, from today when Niira Radia can pick up her mobile phone for a cosy chat with the who’s who of the media about the need to convey the authentic Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) position to the Congress. I could read his despair: What is the world coming to?
The “Golden Age” of Indian media when editors were kings, when noble souls worked for a pittance and when the management wouldn’t dare step into the editorial floor is a lovely idea. It’s also a delightful and self-serving myth.
In 1986, a small Bombay weekly published a report that the then holder of the “second-most important” job in India had subscribed to 3,000 non-convertible debentures of Reliance and paid for it through a loan from a private bank that also serviced the company. To compound matters, it also emerged that Times of India had written a feisty editorial criticising the government for its ban on the conversion of these non-convertible debentures into equity.
A feature of the new Made in Media age is that while journalists (particularly those on TV) have become celebrities, they are also exposed to the one constant pitfall of celebrityhood: unending public scrutiny. India may not have the equivalent of the “Street of Shame” column of Britain’s Private Eye where every peccadillo of every self-important hack is mercilessly exposed in an easily decipherable code, but it required the Radia tapes to dispel the belief that the media is above scrutiny.
Back in 1986, an editor guilty of violating an unwritten code could get away with nothing more than a modicum of personal embarrassment. As with an errant cricketer, today’s celebrity journalist can’t pretend that match-fixing is a minor lapse. The more high-profile the journalist, the higher the pedestal, the more exacting the expectations and more nasty the fall. Having created the illusion of a doughty Fourth Estate that upholds virtue and hounds all wrongs, the media shouldn’t feign surprise if it finds itself at the receiving end of the fierce middle-class indignation normally reserved for dodgy politicians.
The media has suffered collateral damage from the Radia tapes. Many conversations Radia had with sundry journalists were innocuous: some exchanges of real information and lots of media tittle-tattle. But there were three sets of conversations that warrant a little extra attention. First, there were requests to the journalists to use their privileged access to politicians to carry messages and influence important political decisions. Secondly, there were discussions for a “pre-scripted” interview with a corporate notable, including the offer of a dummy run. And finally, there was the guarded sales pitch by an editor of his ability to influence Supreme Court judgments — an audacious hint that was subsequently brought to the attention of the apex court itself.
It is important to note that the initial media reaction to the tapes was the familiar near-total denial. The nothing-has-happened attitude that marked the suppression of the “paid news” and plagiarism scandals resurfaced and persisted for nearly a week. Although all three journalists proffered we-have-done-nothing-wrong personal statements on the Web, there was a public reaction to the media’s double standards, robustly articulated on the social media. For the first time ever, the media had to respond to the enormous groundswell of consumer disgust and demand for accountability. In the evolution of a public, democratic culture, the inclusion of the media in the larger quest for transparency and accountability is a huge step forward.
The furore over the Radia tapes has certainly shaken the media as never before and brought to the fore ethical and professional issues that need to be tackled pragmatically, not dogmatically.
There is, first, the entire question of the media’s relationship with corporates and publicists who come in various guises: lobbyists, public relations companies, brand promoters and advocacy groups. To presume that media must shun them, as Mr Padgaonkar seemed to suggest, is absurd. Corporates need to have their perspectives in the public domain and many companies have outsourced this job to the publicists. With India being driven by energetic capitalism, the media also has a legitimate interest in business. To presume that mere articulation of corporate interests implies backhanders is preposterous. Journalists must engage with lobbyists, perhaps even develop a relationship of trust. But it is important to know when to say “No”, a principle equally applicable to NGOs who have agendas too. There are enough codes of conduct to guide the profession.
Secondly, the suggestion that the identity or nature of sources must be divulged is impractical. Meaningful political journalism involves developing relationships based on discretion and confidentiality. A good source takes years, if not decades, to develop and cannot be frittered away by a spit-and-run approach. Barkha Dutt didn’t err by not divulging that Radia was now a player in the DMK: she was far too valuable a source to be “burnt” for one rapidly-moving story. Her unprofessionalism lay in not reporting the three-way divide in the DMK and at the same time appearing to play courier for Radia.
Thirdly, much of the cyber activists’ disgust stems from the perceived bias of journalists. This is a problematic issue which I, as an opinion writer, don’t have to confront. Each media group has its biases and preferences that never remain a secret. This isn’t unusual. Subjectivity is a feature of media in all vibrant democracies. Its rough edges can, however, be blunted by a fierce commitment to accuracy and meaningful consumer choice.
Finally, there is a seamy underside to the media that was only tangentially apparent in the tapes. The media has paid insufficient attention to the mushrooming of fixers, extortionists and plain criminals in its ranks, more so in the smaller towns. This is the real cancer that has to be eradicated.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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