Tip of the abyss

Much of the contemporary media sleaze can be traced to the new political economy of corporate greed, crony capitalism and corruption
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

Many journalists located in state capitals seeing the unedifying spectacle of high profile editors manipulated by lobbyists, as played out in the leaks of the Niira Radia tapes, would wonder - so, what's the big deal? "Aren't so many editors following the orders of political bosses or their proprietors all the time," they would inevitably question. The painful and disturbing truth is that journalism and freedom of the press in large parts of the country have been treated with contempt by powerful politicians, aggressive bureaucrats and new money. And the rot has become too deeply entrenched and institutionalised. The tapes were thus just the tip of the abyss.

Earlier, it was just the state governments that extended patronage and privileges to journalists and managed to control what appeared in the newspapers. In Bhopal, for instance, editors and journalists were extended privileges that would make even senior bureaucrats envious. Fancy bungalows plus other favours were extended to them. Some enterprising editors set up roaring businesses on the side, while others snaked their way to legislatures and Parliament. Some smart chief ministers also set aside quotas for journalists for recommending transfers and postings of engineers and bureaucrats. 

Transfers of bureaucrats is a thriving industry in UP and some other states and each of these transfers demand a bribery of Rs 5 to 10 lakh, depending on the quality of job and the district where the officer wants to be posted. Quite obviously, appointment to places like Noida, Greater Noida and Ghaziabad would demand a high price. 

Leaders like Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav had perfected the art of keeping the media on the 'right side' by extending various privileges. During Yadav's tenure as chief minister of UP, a list was revealed of many journalists and Delhi-based editors who were granted subsidised land in Noida. The list revealed the reason why some of the "respected" senior journalists based in the national capital were backing Yadav's muscular politics. Interestingly, when a weekly magazine criticised the UP boss, his confidant Amar Singh (now a disgraced enemy) wondered why the publication was going after them even after getting prime land from them.

The story of the incestuous relationship between the media and politicians is old. The government in independent India was an outcome of a long freedom struggle where nationalistic media played an important role in spreading awareness. Several freedom movement leaders across and beyond the Congress spectrum, including communists and revolutionaries, brought out newspapers, including, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. Communist leader MN Roy's fiery paper Vanguard was seized several times by the British police. That the freedom struggle's pen was mighter than the colonial sword was a pointer that the idea and praxis of journalism was loaded with idealism and vision, and a pronounced sense of conviction, purity and public interest. Newspapers were not a commodity in the marketplace. It had a higher role to play: to inform, persuade, educate.

While some proprietors too aligned with the freedom movement, after Independence, the monopoly of the 'Jute Press' was evident. Besides, 'nationalist' journalists found nothing really wrong in celebrating some of the stars of the freedom struggle who were in the government. Leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, for a long while, were never really subjected to serious journalistic scrutiny. As newsprint quota was fixed by the government, it made ample sense for all the stakeholders in the newspaper industry to be on the right side of the government. 

Ideologically, the government of Nehru identified itself with the working-class/trade-union movement and tried to get journalists fair wages, job security and social security facilities from tight-fisted jute barons like the Dalmias and Goenkas. Also, the presence of an overarching and all-powerful government gave strength to newspaper editors to stand up to the unreasonable demands of the proprietors. National media manned by legendary editors began to set standards by which the press should conduct itself. Their integrity and professional commitment provided sheen to their newspapers and had a desirable demonstration effect on the press in the rest of the country. Although editors were not part of the working journalists movement, many of them helped the agitation against media owners for better wages and improving the work conditions of working journalists. 

As long as the government was occupying the commanding heights of the economy and society in a public-sector-driven economy, journalists getting privileges in the name of safeguarding freedom of the press was not questioned. So many journalists, including 'eminent' ones, were given sarkari accommodation in Delhi and elsewhere, firstly, because of their poor salaries, as they could not afford decent accommodation in the central district, and secondly, it was meant to help them attend press conferences and other events in government offices. In those days only government was news - the rest did not really matter. 

The Government's credibility and respect was seriously hit when Indira Gandhi imposed internal emergency in the country. The press was muzzled and subjected to stifling censorship. Others crawled when they were asked to bend, including some big papers. This brought about a rupture in the cozy relationship between the press and the government. Some senior editors and other journalists bore the brunt of this censorship.  

For a short while, efforts to make the media immune from the government were put in place. The Prasar Bharati Bill was brought in - an attempt to give autonomy to the national broadcaster, Doordarshan.

In 1991, economic reforms were ushered in this country. These last two decades have seen the State withdrawing from various sectors of the neo-liberal economy. A new generation of private sector sustained by aggressive crony capitalists has quickly filled this vacuum. SEZs, real estate, mining, power and now telecom are some of the major sectors that that have beefed up the fortunes of this amoral nexus of genuine industrialists, predator corporates and dubious cronies. 

Besides, often, the State and its armed machinery seem to be transparently aligned with the corporates, even when poor tribals, peasants and ordinary citizens are pitched against them, as in the multiple land struggles all over India, from Nandigram and Singur to Kalinganagar and Jagatsinghpur (the Posco site).  Indeed, the Maoists' growth in the forests of Dantewada and Bastar is often cited as a direct consequence of the brazen manner in which a brutish Salwa Judum was unleashed by the BJP-led Chhattisgarh government to favour big business and the mining mafia, and create a bloody 'inside war'- a tribal versus tribal conflict -- to finally usurp the rich biodiversity and forest land which hides massive mineral resources. Indeed, in these sordid affairs, much of the big media seemed to be aligned with the State and the corporates.

In recent times, therefore, there has been a manifest convergence of interests between the government and the industry. An outcome of this perverse marriage is the building of an artificial consensus on economic policies and the damning of 'successful' public sector undertakings (and agriculture), which are often the mainstay of the Indian economy, as during the global recession. Doing away with government controls was seen as a panacea to all ills like low productivity and corruption. This message was sold and resold many times by the new 'corporate media'. 

Ignored therefore was the 'red tapism', lobbying, loss of ethics, bad professionalism and corruption within big business and corporates. Forces and moral values unleashed then have become far more formidable. Media is becoming a complicit handmaiden of big business. This has resulted in the devaluation of the editor's office. 

Now, many of the editors are clearly appointed by the proprietors for their ability (and flexibility/vulnerability) to fix their business matters and other backdoor interests rather than to bring out a smart public interest newspaper or run a news channel with professional objectivity, brilliance and honesty. Inspired by Rupert Murdoch's 'embedded journalism', India's market leaders have made the editorial college a slave to the marketing department. Now, marketing managers tell editors what kind of stories should be done, or the nature of the slant to be played out. They are also encouraged to devote more journalistic energies doing business news, showcasing celebrities and profiling emerging corporate honchos. 

The newspaper industry was termed by a particular press baron as nothing but another brand, like a toothpaste or pizza, and hence the editor could be easily replaced with a brand manager. Indeed, editors were replaced by managers as an experiment. This was basically to reduce the editor's stature and diffuse the moral high ground and scholarship of editorial leadership. Ironically, many editors themselves crawled and succumbed much too easily and happily so. They allowed the degradation and downgrading of the editorial leadership, which used to once celebrate its autonomy from the corporate structure. In the process, many of them found lucrative/seductive benefits, others became mini-tycoons, while those who stood their ground were effectively sidelined. Or, forced to quit. Or, simply, sacked.

Thereby, commercial promos, especially of Bollywood movies, have become part of news on various channels. Crime, celebrity, Bollywood, sensationalism, superstition and trivia dominate. Those who were aghast at Bunty and Bubli (Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee) actually reading news on NDTV as a promo for their film, later found CNN-IBN doing an action replay with Amitabh Bachchan reading news before the launch of his film. The same shameful episode was followed on Star TV also. The editorial leadership actually celebrated this overlap.

On some business channels, no one can clearly say which interview or breaking news or product launch is actually not driven by some invisible corporate or PR lobby. Spaces are literally for sale, or manipulated, for reasons best known to the owners and editors.

Paid news and response sections became integrated to the newspaper industry. The colour supplement and Page 3 phenomena is unique to the Indian press. This particular phenomena of daily partying and collective voyeurism is significantly absent in some of the finest media houses in the West, even in the US. It is unique Indian media phenomena. Clearly, editorial spaces were compromised, or lost sanctity, in a quid pro quo, and this trend of trivialisation was reflected on the larger ethos, editorial policy and reportage of the daily newspaper. Hence, we would know more about Liz Hurley's love life, than what is actually happening in Gaza or Iraq, or even, in the rural interiors or Northeast of India.

These trends please media owners who want to make money at any cost to bankroll their large investments in large printing presses and multi-editions. Others have varied business interests. The proprietors' soaring ambition need malleable (not hands-on) editors (with fat wallets, expense accounts and luxurious perks) who can network with the government and private businesses to do the necessary fixing or get institutional finance, if there is a need. These editors are also on board mostly when their management palms off sponsored features as news. Nothing really happens behind their back. 

Indeed, a former editor of a newspaper, who was recently savaged by an angry group of journalists in Delhi's Press Club in a debate on Radia tapes, tried to build up a thesis of why editors should not be held responsible for what appears in editorial pages of newspapers. She was responding to the controversy of paid news during elections and trying to prove that editors were not culpable for this unethical corrupt practice. 

Although paid news became a big issue during the last general elections, the truth is that in every elections, some newspapers and TV channels have been making enormous amounts of money by giving space to sponsored news. Political parties and candidates routinely set aside funds for promotion on any of the local TV channels or newspapers. Marketing managers of newspapers and channels put together a tariff card for coverage of elections and control vast expanse of editorial real estate for this purpose. During the 2009 general elections, funds for campaigning were a major revenue source for recession-hit media outlets in Delhi and other regional centres. 

In fact, many regional media outlets, some of which are funded by all kinds of dubious money, made hay during elections. There was no display of any journalistic morals in reporting elections. As most of the newspapers and channels are owned by businessmen-politicians, there was no attempt to maintain even a fig leaf to show integrity and objectivity in reporting. 

This trend is rampant across the states, from Orissa and Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where politician-businessmen actually own massive media organisations, including TV channels. For instance, check out the case of the Pawars, Marans, Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi, and Jaganmohan Reddy, who himself sits over a multi-crore empire. (The riddle is: so how did they make these huge financial empires?)

In many ways, ownership of newspapers and channels is a key issue about freedom of the press and whether editors can exercise their discretion about what content goes in the newspapers. Increasingly, moneybags find editors willing to do anything. They fight corporate battles and do everything that is antithetical to the practice of editorial freedom. 

Some years ago, a few senior editors were at the forefront of the fierce corporate face-off that took place between Dhirubhai Ambani and Bombay Dyeing's Nusli Wadia. Ambanis took over the Sunday Observer newspaper to use its front page to attack the Wadias. Bombay Dyeing was hurt by these attacks, but so was the credibility of the newspaper, which finally closed down. 

The recent exposure of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia's phone intercepts proves her cozy relationship with senior editors and how they are willing to perform any task at her bidding. The phone interception and subsequent leaks, which are blamed on the fierce corporate war between two large business houses, also showcase how government agencies, too, have been suborned by big money. 

The Radia leaks and its consequent coverage (and blanket censorship) clearly indicate where various media houses are located in terms of supporting one company against the other. Initially, some newspapers and magazines refused to carry the Radia exposé as it was presented as text summary of the conversations and they looked fake and "fantastic". Besides, they were hawked by the local representative of a corporate house to newspapers and channels. When these efforts did not meet the requisite success in other media outlets, it was aired on a channel where one of the warring business houses has a major stake. Since then, the newspaper, channel and magazine from this stable has been crying hoarse on Radia. 

This perspective should not detract from the authenticity of the conversations between various journalists and this lobbyist, or how certain editors braved it out, chose to go against the media censorship and dared to report on the Radia tapes. However, it must also be discovered why newspapers like Mail Today or The Hindu are running a campaign on Radia tapes, while others are not. The Hindu editor, N Ram, demanded action against those who figure in the intercepts. At the same time, he gave a clean chit to former editor of India Today, Prabhu Chawla, of any wrong doing, though his conversation with Radia sounds as much inflammatory. So why did N Ram do that? 

The worrisome truth about why news is not treated on merit and is judged instead from the standpoint of commercial worth has to do with the ownership pattern of some of the media companies. As most of the media houses run losses and always need a bailout, some of the large corporate houses, or, for instance, mining mafia dons, are always willing to put in money to earn legitimacy and look for political protection. Some companies use these strategic investments to hit out against their political detractors and business rivals. 

In other words, there is little clarity, at times, on why one personality is being attacked or others are being built up or glorified. Witness the sudden interviews of Ratan Tata and Sharad Pawar in a certain English daily in which they mourn how the current environment was demoralising the corporate sector's India Shining buoyancy and how India might turn into a "banana republic". This particular newspaper, which prides itself on crusading journalistic investigations, uncannily became stunningly silent on the Radia tapes. It even chose not to go slow on the CWG corruption, even as it ran a one-dimensional campaign in support of genetically modified food, Bt Brinjal and the Union environment minister.

Also, the hand of spin doctors in defending the indefensible is never exposed. Hence, if newspaper editors, senior journalists and a certain channel head did not choose to report on the sleazy efforts of interested business houses to get A Raja back as the telecom minister, or 'dress up' the gas deal in the name of 'national interest' while aligning with one big brother baron, they did not find it at all unusual or professionally unethical. This is because they, too, were transparent accomplices while they were "stringing along" or operating as messengers/couriers. 

The Radia tapes have raised many uncomfortable questions about how the Indian media in the era of big money liberalisation needs to clean up its act to make it more credible. Between politicians and corporates, there is too much money floating around - but this 'free market' is like a club, with restricted entry. With big sections of the India media joining this exclusive club of the neo-rich and powerful, its credibility has hit the depths. No wonder, they seem so transparently thick-skinned and cold-blooded about the entire sordid affair - ready to brazen it out all along. Stringing along, as they say. 

Indeed, the ethical and professional burden largely lies on the editors and editorial leadership to stem this messy slide. The least they can do is to exercise their right to resign if they find media ethics being wantonly violated by their owners. Or, when they themselves are tempted to join this sleaze game.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2011

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