Death of media is fake news. But scary, some greedy owners fall for silly con, writes Shekhar Gupta
There is no need for journalists to wallow in shame or commit the moral equivalent of jauhar or mass-sati. Surely, where the Chinese walls between editorial and revenue are breached, a fightback is called for.Updated: Jun 03, 2018 09:19 IST
We, the journalists, are looking really bad. The larger public, the janata, is being persuaded to think we are all on the take. The politician is having a mighty laugh. The Righteous Commentariat is hawking the canard that we aren’t just crooks, but criminally bigoted too. And we are nursing a guilty conscience, forgetting the first lesson of our trade: Checking our facts.
Sting videos always look bloody awful. Even a normal conversation on hidden camera can make you look foolish, especially if it catches you doing something silly. But this camera brings pictures that make some people look much worse than if they were merely caught picking their noses, or scratching in odd places. Some of these are the most powerful people in Indian media. None, I repeat none, of them is a journalist.
So that is the first important fact. There is no need for journalists to wallow in shame or commit the moral equivalent of jauhar or mass-sati. Surely, where the Chinese walls between editorial and revenue are breached, a fightback is called for.
The second important fact: Barring one mega owner, and salesmen in some organisations, none has either offered to sell editorial for money or to sell time/space for a communally-loaded campaign for cash, if routed through their top industrialist friends. Never mind that the tycoons named here, running the largest and most valued listed public companies, would be furious at having been named as likely conduits for converting black money into white. You might wish to ask “Kumar”, Adani or Ambani if they would do that. Having seen the picture from both sides, I wouldn’t worry too much about what sales people say or promise. You do not want to see your salesmen at work just as even committed meat-eaters would rather not watch a butcher slaughtering an animal.
Third: The media’s influence is way more than its financial size or power. India’s richest news media company has a turnover of just over 1 billion in dollar terms (or Rs6,700 crore). Most others do not even cross the four-figure in crores. Compare them with Reliance’s Rs4.3 lakh crore or Aditya Birla Group’s Rs2.9 lakh crore or even DLF’s Rs7,663 crore.
If we are willing to sell out, these tycoons can buy us with their pocket change. It is scary if our richest owners are so blinded by greed that they can’t even spot a ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ type con. Do people who dress and talk like that, with no website, no antecedents, no electronic footprints, deal in hundreds of crores? Don’t you, or an executive assistant, Google the oddball “Acharya Atal” before your meeting? You’re lucky, he didn’t sell you the Taj Mahal. Any journalist with the bullshit-detector switched on in her head would have caught it.
Fourth, people don’t get these nuances. When they see the big guys so jelly-kneed, they see us all as sold. And when some of us will genuinely face pressure and intimidation and threats, we will face scepticism from them: Tell me another! This sting will make it worse. That’s why it is important to sift facts from fiction, self-serving propaganda and self-flagellation.
Fifth, bias for an ideology or a political party, particularly where owners have become politicians is at least transparent. I’d submit that by and large mainstream media in most languages has maintained its sanity. Splashing ourselves in the colours and odours of what Arun Shourie calls North Korean (I prefer commando-comic) channels is stupid. We must raise the right questions on this exposé, but not let it destroy the credibility of the entire institution. If anything, this reminds us of the incredible value the uncompromised ones (and there are many organisations, and thousands of journalists) bring to our lives and liberties. A few self-inflicted hammer blows do not mean the institutional pillar is broken.
Sixth, it’s a dangerously ridiculous—although fashionable—notion that the mainstream media (or just MSM) is broken, and social media is the panacea. Most of the biggest stories to embarrass the Narendra Modi government have been broken and pursued by the MSM, including that story on the prime minister’s infamous suit. It was broken by a paper owned by the media house whose top management comes out looking the most silly, made sillier by their subsequent explanations. On the other hand, 99% of all fake news emanates from the social media.
Seventh, it’s a dangerous fallacy that the sting shows that the advertisement-based model is broken, so let’s find something else: Audience or foundation-funded. It is wonderful if organisations come up through new methods of funding. They increase competition, enrich and diversify the debate, employ and train more journalists. But to believe these can replace market-based journalism is lazy. As is believing that crowd or foundation-funded journalism is necessarily non-partisan. The Guardian is sustained by philanthropy. You may like the side it is on. But is it non-partisan?
Philanthropy is a fine addition to the mix given how digitalisation has lowered entry barriers. But freedom is platform agnostic. It is pompous for one platform, or group to claim moral superiority. If we insist on being holier than cow, the cows will win.
Eighth, none is happier at the latest turn of events than the political class. Samajwadi Party’s Ghanshyam Tiwari on Twitter joyously echoed Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s unfortunate line, that news-media has become a threat to democracy. The BJP-RSS, the establishment, I am sure, are applauding in agreement. And the Congress? Watch Rahul Gandhi’s videos mocking journalists. Why are you so scared? Wait till we return to power and restore your freedoms. Do we want to outsource our freedoms to one party or the other?
Ninth, Are ‘stings’ like these ‘investigative’ journalism? With no prior disclosure or transparency, no institutional affiliation or accountability? Some newsrooms like stings and some don’t (ThePrint included). All the famous exposés overseas, including Wikileaks and Cambridge Analytica, revealed illegal activity that had already taken place, or the stings recorded with secret cameras a deal between a match-fixer and a cricketer. In many jurisdictions a “wired-up” journalist pretending to be a fixer or arms agent and merely checking out if the other guy will be tempted or not will be prosecuted for criminal entrapment. Debate if this is journalism. Particularly when you publish without giving the other side its say.
And finally, many of us carry scars and personal chips with our employers. Let’s not download them on all journalism. Also, be honest. Are all employers bumbling, thieving idiots? I worked for exactly 37 years (1977-2014) at two big media organisations. Was I ever asked to sell news for anything? I would have loved to tell tales about how I was, but defied heroically. I was denied that opportunity by two wonderful employers. One of them also taught us early in our lives a great mantra: Look at easy money very, very carefully. I hope he continues to do so.
So, nice obituary of Indian journalism, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, but premature yet. If people tell you we are dead, it is fake news. And no, we haven’t become a threat to Indian democracy. You are watching the wrong channels.