Guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA
The first formal discussion on the Radia-Media nexus by a section of top media professionals this Friday revealed the media’s general reluctance to put themselves through the same wringer of criticality that they so love to put others through. Barring Manu Joseph, editor of Open Magazine, which put out in the public domain the tapes which had been lying for days in the ‘safe’ custody of most media organizations, majority of the speakers argued that the controversy was not about Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt; that there was no proof whether Sanghvi had actually written his ‘most read’ column as he had assured Nira Radia; that we do not know if Barkha Dutt had kept her word to Radia and passed on the message of the DMK’s internal dissensions to the Congress; that pressured by the minute-by-minute demands of 24/7 TV channels, journalists have to make random promises (which they do not intend to honour!); that they have to play along with their sources to extract news etc. The list of extenuating circumstances offered by the media, now getting a taste of its own treatment, was quite revolting.
At the outset, let it be acknowledged that the debate, now gaining momentum, owes its initiation to new/social media: websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter – a whole range of networks now available to the public. Twenty years ago the mainstream media would have gagged this debate. They did try their best this time too to maintain a deafening silence.
But here’s the catch: Celebrities in all professions, including in the media, are now avid social networkers. They keep in touch with their ‘constituencies’ through blogs, Tweets, Facebook posts and websites. Rather than writing indignant ‘letters to the editor’ which never see the light of the day, readers and viewers today access these host of readily available networks to vent their opinions – in good times and bad. Earlier channels of communication have given way to a fast paced dialogue (often cacophony of voices) through alternative media. A circle has been created whereby a disappointed/outraged constituency can attack presumed offenders from all sides. The vacuous programs we have been seeing on television and in meetings like Friday’s [see Vinitha Mokkil’s report below] seem to be efforts on the part of a cornered corporate media to prove its liberal and self-critical credentials. The disingenuousness, however, shows.
Call the Radia-Media revelations indiscretions/ misdeeds/ irregularities or mere guiles to get the story out – the description is irrelevant. Pertinent is that a fundamental code of conduct that journalists are expected to swear by has been breached – and breached flagrantly. Violations have been committed in the name of ‘newsgathering’ – a task once regarded as honorable as were the women and men executing that task. Qualities now junked as ‘unfashionable’ include keeping your sources – however high and mighty – at an arm’s length; extracting the information but not getting swayed by the lucre of power. Once upon a time these were the values embraced, that set journalists apart from ‘the rest’ who played dirty.
The Radia-Media tapes are a testimony to the sweeping and alarming changes that have transformed the newsroom, effectively cleansing journalistic culture of its soul. The news rooms have been taken over by ‘game’-theorists on a mission to maximize profits. Knowledge and information in the hands of the journalist is now a potent tool of power, not only to inform the reader/viewer of the goings on, but also to enter the chambers of power, not as a witness, but as a lobbyist, a participant.
The journalist has secured a place in the pantheon of power wielders; to make merry with the likes of the Ambanis and Tatas, to connive with the fore-ranking members of the political classes, important ministers and the like. This extraordinary sense of power emanates initially with owning a press identity card, then a PIB accreditation card, cleared by none other than the vigilant Home Ministry. Next, you walk the corridors of Parliament with a permanent card of Parliament, as well a car with a sticker certifying you a ‘privileged’ citizen. The path of a journalist is strewn with privileges and the temptation to fall prey to them has proven to be irresistible. Armed with all the accessories of privilege, journalists started cozying up to the blue blooded, corporate tycoons, and ruling party bosses.
Much of the discussion at the meeting on the Radia-Media tapes revolved around fallible, devilish corporations forever endeavoring to influence journalists. The word corporation was repeatedly used to make a distinction between the world of business and the universe of news. This in itself, if I may use a much abused phrase, is ‘false consciousness’: large media brands today function like large corporations, they scrupulously propagate that culture, and most importantly they ‘sell’ news to multiply their profits. Motives and aspirations driving corporations of business and media are by now indistinguishable from each other.
Proprietors want top and middle rung editors to further the business interests of their organizations. Maintaining a dignified distance from the influential and the powerful is a disqualification; low journalistic skills are not. Not knowing where to draw a line that compromises journalistic ethics is as bogus an argument as arguing that A. Raja and Suresh Kalmadi are clean.
The problem, the panelists in the meeting said, is ‘structural’ lodged in the economic logic of earning revenues, seeking more and more advertisements. Viewers and readers are hence expected to treat the offenders with mercy even though the media show none towards those they interrogate every night: hammering ‘tainted ministers,’ tracking down a small fake company in London, following Suresh Kalmadi all the way to China. The speakers on Friday alleged that business corporations are corrupting the media. But media organizations are no longer any different from the corporations in their ambition, culture and logic: selling shares to top employees [journalists, that is] is just one instance of this.
Maligned as they are, a large section of politicians do have to secure the confidence of the people they represent or would like to represent in Parliament and assemblies every five years. For them the ballot is the litmus test. What about the media? Whose wrath do they have to face or blessings do they have to seek to know that they have not strayed? Why is it that the media thinks it can judge everyone – from DGP Rathore to Suresh Kalmadi – but when it comes to reflecting on their own actions the one phrase they offer constantly is self-regulation? Who will watch the watchdogs?
One of the anecdotes doing the rounds among journalists at the moment goes like this: A certain politician-unfriendly journalist asks P Chidambaram whether the Congress is embarrassed by the Supreme Court’s observation about the Prime Minister’s inaction on the A Raja corruption issue. Chidambaram quips back: Are you in the media embarrassed about the tapes?
Not embarrassed, just angry at being caught out.