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Time to purge media of malcontent

There was a time, not many years ago, when the editor of a newspaper could march into the news room and instruct the news editor to throw out advertisements to create space for news. These days junior staff from the advertising department, whose monthly entertainment allowance would be more than the miserable, spirit-crushing salary paid to junior sub-editors, are known to swagger into the news room and instruct the news editor to throw out stories to create space for advertisements.

Before I am accused of exaggeration, let me hasten to add that there are bound to be honourable exceptions. But as the cliche goes, exceptions prove the rule. Rare is the media house which has not abandoned old fashioned virtues to embrace modern day vices that militate against the foundational principles of journalism. It stands to reason that media should have suffered enormous erosion of credibility. This also explains why old-fashioned editors are an extinct species.

The venerable Girilal Jain had famously declared, perhaps a tad pompously, that the editor of the Times Of India has the second most important job in the country. The most important job was that of the Prime Minister. His successor Dileep Padgaonkar is believed to have echoed that view only to be met by sniggering laughter. By then the rules of the game had changed and editors were treated as doormats. Girilal Jain would have baulked at his paper entering into ‘private treaties’ with business houses; his successors are at ease with advertorials that are indistinguishable from editorial content. As are editors in other publications.

The precipitous decline in the integrity quotient of media is equally, and visibly, palpable in both newspapers and news channels. If there are papers that kill - or plant - stories for a price, there are channels that cut corners with the truth and renege on agreements with whistleblowers. ‘Whatever it takes’ is a splendid slogan, but that did not prevent CNN-IBN from canning the cash-for-vote tape in 2008. It required an official boycott of the channel by the BJP to force the editor to air the tape, but only after severely editing it.

Examples of such chicanery abound. As do examples of editors who are thoroughly compromised, who have long ceased to be truthful to their profession, preaching rectitude to others. The glee with which the rather unsavoury episode involving Zee News and industrialist-politician Naveen Jindal - the latter has accused the former of ‘extortion’ and ‘blackmail’ - has been greeted by others in media only serves to underscore this point.

While it is for Zee News to defend and explain the alleged actions of its editors, who have been accused of demanding hush money on behalf of the channel, there is no reason to believe that nobody else is guilty of pursuing a similar course to mobilise resources. The Broadcast Editors’ Association has been amazingly prompt in shaming Zee News, but its worthies are not known to have been offended by ETV’s campaign of calumny against Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh after he refused to meet the channel’s financial demands by way of State Government advertisements. Nor did the self-appointed oversight body so much as wag its little finger at the Lokmat Group for venturing into the highly profitable business of ‘paid news’.

Naming and shaming is a game that is entirely one-sided, cheered by those who are titillated by the public humiliation of individuals and organisations. If this game were to be played in a more honest manner, then many among those gloating over Zee’s embarrassment, if not humiliation, would stand stripped of respectability and denuded of reputation. For instance, if Naveen Jindal were to disclose the beneficiaries of his firm’s media spend, there would be quite a few red faces.

Public memory in this wondrous land of ours is shamefully short or else journalists who were paid money by Mulayam Singh Yadav from the Chief Minister’s discretionary fund for writing favourable stories would not have come to occupy senior positions in media. The only good deed Mayawati ever did was to make the list of beneficiaries public soon after she became Chief Minister the first time. In her last stint in office, she gifted crested 12-piece dinner sets to editors whose minions she treated as dirt.

It would be instructive to know which journalist received what as gift from whom this Diwali. That would be both an indicator of the ‘clout’ of the journalist as well as a measure of his or her integrity. After all, not everybody would accept gifts from politicians, power-brokers and lesser pimps who are keen to manipulate media and, sadly, succeed in their efforts to a great extent. Which only goes to show the power exercised by the corrupt amidst us, among them editors.

Some tales are never to be told. Or else I could have penned a book on how many in media, and not owners alone, are easy to persuade and turn into pliant accomplices. Suffice to say there is little to distinguish the world’s second oldest profession from the oldest profession. The credit for that goes to owners of media houses who trade in news and journalists who play middlemen in the guise of journalism.

(A footnote would be in order. I rarely if ever write on media, not the least because I would be running the risk of offending friends and colleagues. But there are times when self-imposed silence must be broken.)

The author is Editorial Director, NiTi Digital

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