The Myth Of India’s Free Press
Why India’s press first needs to free itself from itself, before it can free itself from other pressures
In December last year, a certain major media group held an awards function. Since there are numerous such functions and conclaves held across the board now, by all accounts, these kinds of functions are heavily sponsored and are a prime source of revenue for increasingly cash-strapped media organisations. Such events are only able to draw the biggest names in the business world, who are inundated with such invitations, by promising the only quid pro quo that cash-heavy sponsors and invitees are keen to have: a chance to rub shoulders with those in power. However, the organisation reportedly annoyed certain heavy duty ministers by a write up, who then made their displeasure known by boycotting the said function. The media house was left red-faced to the sponsors, and the flop of the show is still hot potato buzz throughout corporate and media inner circles.
Perhaps avoiding situations like this is what the eminent crusader for press freedom, former Union Minister and until quite recently, cabinet hopeful, strategically flip-flopping Arun Shourie, meant when he recommended to the journalists that they boycott ministers and ‘do not invite them to press functions’. While he may have meant it as a punishment to be meted out to supposedly publicity hungry ministers, he forgets that the current cabinet has proven itself remarkably leak proof, from demonetisation to intelligence reports on abducted supposed-spies. Whose loss will it be then, if the press begins to hold its events without ministers in attendance? The math is quite lopsided on that one.
It begs the question, why do media houses need ministers in attendance at any rate? Nowhere in the world are journalists expected to host ministers at lavish functions hosted in ballrooms in which they may give their unquestioned points of view to a select high-net-worth-audience. Nowhere in the non-tinpot dictatorship world are functions and awards sold on the premise of being attended by a specific minister or government functionary, even if ministers, or indeed a president like Obama, are able to attend. For the most part, their attendance is incidental, and not core to the hosting of the event. This is the same reason why bollywood stars are sought after, and often paid off by offering them some meaningless award, to attend: so a sponsor who would otherwise not have access, can get a selfie with them for his children. This access brokerage is increasingly becoming the primary function, and revenue source, of Indian journalism.
Even this is only part of the nexus that has brazenly come into being over the past few decades between politics, media and the corporate world. Public Relations (PR) agencies have entire departments, employing former journalists, set up to write full length articles for cultivated reporters, that by all accounts, are forwarded to senior editors to be printed without a change in a full stop or a comma. Often the senior supervising editor is unaware of the source of the article. Senior executives across industries tell of journalists who seek ghost written pieces because they do not comprehend the nuances of the story themselves. The ghost writer thus has the freedom to insert his personal, and biased, view of the affair unfolding, whether that be elections or policy. PRs freely transcribe entire interviews for journalists (a leading corporate affairs manager for one of India’s top ten industrialists when asked why she would waste resources and time in this way, said this ensures ‘control over the narrative’).
Film star managers transcribe and edit interviews for equally star journalists, and several according to one manager ‘live off my running tab, they’ve never bought themselves dinner in their entire careers’. (It’s appropriate at this point to note for young journalists who may fall into the trap of being ‘looked after’, that much like those who gossip to you will soon gossip about you, those who pay for you will also willingly sell you out).
A leading restaurateur speaks of being bad-mouthed by journalists who are asked to pay their bills. Gifts, ranging from upgrades to business class travel to expensive electronic items, are reportedly sent to reporters’ homes, now that many offices keep a strict eye on what is received. And a certain corporate house’s patented technique is said to keep journalists in their pay by providing them with services that are not legal in order to have information on them to hold on to. Completed articles and interviews are often subject for vetting to a subject before release. Where there is no material ‘deal’—an exchange of products or cash—there is often unstated loyalty, collaboration and a cataloguing of source and journalist who protect each other.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss a lot of this as hearsay, and there are several honest editors and reporters who put out a hard day’s work in every day’s newspaper and magazine. But it is also equally incumbent on the press to acknowledge and recognise that there is rampant corruption of varying levels around and the need to correct course if the Indian media is to regain its lost credibility. As the late Vinod Mehta put it in his memoirs, (I paraphrase) ‘you cannot go after skeletons in the closets of power unless you have none in your own’. Silence is also a complicity that tarnishes those doing honest work.
This state of affairs has been the result of the rise of power-hungry access journalism. The making a virtue of the clique. One that is based less on the merit of the inquiry, evidence and question posed, homework and fieldwork done, or insight offered, and more on whose house and offices one has access to. Corridors of power have returned the favour by realising that positive coverage can be gained by playing with this coveted access, and the press conference, and the formal channel of request has been eschewed for the ‘connections’ of crony capitalism. This is what has passed (for the most part) as a free press for the past two decades. This is what Arun Shourie rues the loss off. It is less freedom of the press and more the freedom to lobby, collaborate, ally and build nexus with.
Nobody wants this made free, the honest journalist the least. Several reporters, underpaid, and overworked, are shut out of the system despite their ability to work hard and do their groundwork, despite a solid knowledge of the field, despite investing in cultivating authentic sources, because of their inability to crack the clique. Take this simple example: Until the current Police Commissioner of Mumbai, Dattatray Padsalgikar, formerly in the intelligence wing and known for his discretion and his strict crackdown on leaks, took charge, crime stories were rampant in Mumbai newspapers, with a tabloid like daily follow up on the twists and turns of the case. These are far and few between now. It is either that there is no more crime in the city, in which case he is a superlative police officer indeed, but it is more likely that journalists no longer have leaks coming to them, which is his more superior skill. Which means that at least some of the previous stories were police plants – a complaint often heard from defence lawyers and the kin of accused.
Only one side of the story was being put out in the press – the side the police wanted to put out. This isn’t journalism, this is access journalism. And it is damaging at every level it plays out on. What it results in for the journalist, is the lost ability to cultivate ground sources for their stories and a lack of skills in seeking credible information and verifying it. This explains a lot of why standards in journalism have fallen in the last few decades. Where almost every reporter twenty years ago was an asset to a news room, however formally unschooled, today even the most highly qualified one is often a burden – articulate but with few foraging skills. Any editor who denies that standards have fallen is lying, possibly to himself – most newsrooms are struggling for good reportage, despite the rise in the sheer number of graduates from various journalism schools. This is because journalism is not taught in schools, only the grammar of it is. Journalism can only be learned on the field, and it is increasingly being turned into a parlour room job. If the complaint is that revenues don’t allow for field expenses, journalism never had money enough to begin with. Just what it gets spent on now, is different: the trade in access.
Increments and pay hikes have been determined by who was married to whom, who has access to whom, and who is seen with whom. Who is entertained by the powerful, who can smooth talk the famous, and not by the skill of the job itself. TV journalism has magnified the good looking and the articulate, at the cost of the meticulous and the surefooted. This is what we have done to ourselves and we have only ourselves to blame for changing how the game was played to benefit a few at the cost of the many.
For a couple of years now, the term ‘presstitute’ has been bandied about as an insult. This is hurtful to the many plodding journalists who do their jobs, and find themselves neither valued within their organisations nor outside it. Several drift off to PR in frustration, thinking they might as well make some money, since there is no value in the job they do. Forget the public that hurls the curses, the media owes a clean up to the idealism with which each reporter joined this profession. The most broken by the system, is the journalist himself.
Journalism is actually a very simple job: tell the truth, tell it as honestly and as fairly as you can to all parties involved. That’s pretty much it. It requires a certain earnestness and idealism. Between activism and the show of access, journalism has been tossed to those power brokers who made it their playground. Nobody wants to see that kind of journalism saved. Most of us would gladly attend its funeral.
At a time when even the judiciary is called upon to make itself accountable, the media can no longer hold the pulpit as arbiter of public opinion. Democracy itself has become more participatory, rather than a generous hand out from the ruling class. We can no longer attack calls for transparency as attacks on press freedom. If allegations of financial misdealings are made, it is owed to the public whose trust one asks for, to clear one’s name. We owe answers on sources, research, fact-checking, authenticity and agenda. Most journalists take pride in the byline. It means one has signed off and stands by a story. Access journalism has devalued the worth of the byline by telling the ground reporter his work doesn’t count unless it has the face of power to it. Where once David held the story, today Goliath sells us the news from his vantage point. Jean Paul Sartre said, when he turned down the Nobel, “a writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is the written word” and that “all the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider to be desirable”. “The writer must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution” he added. Today, journalism is headlined by venerable institutions.
It is facile to dismiss all disagreement and dissent as ‘fascist’ or ‘sold out’. There is no greater evidence of our free democratic spirit than our vehement disagreement with each other. To dismiss debate and dissent as evidence of corruptibility is against the foundations on which the upholders of the free press base their calling. Access journalism, which thrives on keeping the clique close, ensures that dissent is in this way silenced and the interests of the group are protected.
One way of doing that is to dismiss all dissent as ‘divide-and-rule’ and an attack. Is the Indian press really not free? The NDTV fracas made it seem like every media house has bent and crawled. But fact is, only one media house -- the one that has been facing allegations of financial mismanagement and dubious ownership for some years now -- has been raided. Others have not. Criticism of the government and its policies are flowing freely. The cow policy is being slammed, as are Jaitley's financial cover ups, and demonetisation has been widely hailed as a sham. Shivraj Singh Chouhan is a running joke and Yogi Adityanath is severely scrutinised. From digital news magazines like Scroll, the Wire, Newslaundry, the Newsminute, to print's stalwarts, the once Wall against Jayalalithaa, The Hindu, fair-minded Indian Express, equitable Mint, Hindustan Times, and India Today, none have held back on criticism of government policy when required.
The few who are admittedly craven to the government, have chosen to be so, and seem unlikely to be changing their stance under duress. While some of the former have faced online trolling, it is negligible in the larger fact of their readerships. The Wire faced a private clash with Arnab Goswami's The Republic over a story. Nothing in the present atmosphere seems to suggest a crackdown on opinion.
There are dubious ownership deals, which makes functioning suspect, but those are of the media's own making. Raj Kamal Jha, the chief editor of the Indian Express, blazed forth on fascism to the Prime Minister's face when he was invited to hand out the Ramnath Goenka awards. And Aroon Purie of the India Today group took to the India Foundation forum to tell the government it needs to uphold its promise of getting out of business. Neither of them, and none of the others, have faced a crackdown or raid. What some face, is public dissent, and outrage, which is only to be expected in a democratically and ideologically polarised society.
The press may not be regulated, but those that leech off its integrity may be. If the press is to extricate itself from the quagmire of collaborations it finds itself in, corporate business houses, political parties and public relations agencies must be forced by law to declare all ‘business expenses’ and gifts made out to journalists. If we want a free press, all private treaties must be declared to the paying public. An independent press appointed agency must set up a whistleblower hotline for those who claim extortion by agents of the press which may be empowered to act post investigation. Where trips or meals have been paid for journalists by hosting agencies, it must be declared so in print. And journalists married into power must recuse themselves from decision making editorial positions, and declare their involvement where cited. And, as with all the industries that it claims to wave the flag of ethics and accountability for—media organisations must subject themselves to ethics, diversity and sexual harassment audits by external agencies.
We must return to making the credibility of the reporter the flagship of the news. Pink slips should be liberally handed out to those who fudge facts, quotes, illegally source articles, and violate ethical standards. Members of the press must be debarred from holding or lobbying for political positions post their journalistic careers – a practice that sows the seeds of appreciative coverage early on. And media must clean up their business models, pay their taxes, and declare their ownership and political leanings.
Then, when the government raids us, we’ll know to give them hell. But then, Arun Shourie will probably still be a very angry man.
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