Rajdeep Sardesai: Trial by media stings journos
There was a time when editors were not seen or heard, only read. One of the best illustrations of the original 'ivory tower' approach was NJ Nanporia, a venerable editor at 'The Times of India' in the 1960s. Apparently, Nanporia was shopping in a local market when he found a certain gentleman smiling at him continuously. His curiosity getting the better of him, Nanporia asked the man who he was. Pat came the introduction: "I am your chief reporter sir!"
The story maybe part of the apocryphal archives of the Old Lady of Boribunder, but only highlights how editors in an era gone by rarely stepped out of their cabins. A far cry from today's television era where the editor-anchor is an instantly recognisable 'celebrity'. Self-effacing anonymity is almost a handicap in this age of personality cults that can encourage delusions of grandeur (note: this article is accompanied by a photograph of your columnist, something which would have seemed heretical a few years ago).
It's not just the self-image of the editor which has changed. There has also been a dramatic transformation in the persona of the public relations professional. In the late 1980s, one distinctly recalls how every Diwali we'd look at the business desk with a tinge of envy as the festival 'baksheesh' would arrive for the markets reporter from a rather sad-looking PR manager. The suitpiece has been replaced by I-Pads, but even more importantly, the lowly paid public relations executive has given way to smart-suited corporate communication MBAs.
Where once PR was identified with ensuring a single column space for a company handout, it's now been replaced by high-profile 'advocacy' campaigns designed to influence not just the journalist but the entire policy-making apparatus.
The Nira Radia tapes exemplify this shift. They suggest the arrival of the corporate 'lobbyist' as a distinct entity in the decision-making process, not just as some shadowy operator, but as an upwardly mobile, highly sophisticated mover and shaker. They also confirm that the period of the editor as a detached observer has given way to a more 'active' presence in the newsmaking process.
Unfortunately, instead of analyzing the implications of what this means for journalism and public policy, a section of the media has preferred to focus on individual journalists caught on tape, thereby losing sight of the big picture. That there are journalists who get seduced by wealth and power and with a low moral quotient end up as 'fixers' is one of the profession's worst-kept secrets.
But let's be honest: for the moment there is no direct evidence on the tapes of any illegal gratification, or wider 'conspiracy' on part of the journalists as has been suggested. What the snatches of conversations do reveal is a worrying proximity between corporates, politicians and editors, leading to professional indiscretions and a blurring of lines between 'source' and journalist. But they certainly do not justify the kind of lynch-mob outrage that has accompanied their disclosure. Shock and awe journalism based on assumptions rather than facts may titillate the reader, they cannot bring us any closer to the truth.
The truth is that the Radia tapes are less about mala fide journalism, but more about just how high stake corporate wars, be they over telecom or gas, can eventually 'subvert' an entire system. Then, whether it is decisions on who should speak during a budget debate in Parliament, or how spectrum allocation should be done or even who should be in the cabinet, it is apparent that the entire exercise is designed to protect the vast business interests of a handful of oligarchs with the help of corrupted netas and willing babus.
Where does the journalist fit into this larger scheme? In the classical mould, a journalist should be the guerilla in the system, looking to expose and investigate. Unfortunately, the journalist has been co-opted into the power elite when really he should be the quintessential 'outsider'. As a result, the robust Indian tradition of adversarial journalism has been mortgaged at the altar of cosy networks.
At one level, the ethical decline is a consequence of changing market realities. In a highly competitive news universe, access is the key, a privilege which is often dependent on building personal equations. Film journalists, for example, are expected to give favorable reviews if they want an 'exclusive' interview with a star. Lifestyle journalists rely on sponsored deals to travel the world.
Political journalists get identified with individual and ideological camps to get ahead, often with a brazen disregard for neutrality. Business journalism is even more difficult because the commercial muscle of major advertisers can conflict with the notion of journalistic independence.
When was the last time corporate corruption was exposed with rigour in the media? Most business interviews are soft focus profiles, designed as image-building exercises rather than genuinely inquisitorial. Ramalinga Raju, the now imprisoned Satyam boss, was feted as a role model till a self-confession revealed the rot within. Ketan Parekh's stock market acumen was lauded till it all came crashing down. Perhaps, the Harshad Mehta scam in the early 1990s is the last example of a journalist-driven investigation resulting in financial fraud being exposed.
Ironically, the 2G scam has also been one of Indian media's finest hours, highlighting the positive role the media can play in exposing powerful business and political interests. The CAG report may have been the final nail in A Raja's coffin, but for the last two years, several journalists, both in print and television, have repeatedly warned of the corruption underlying spectrum allocation. The sustained anti-corruption campaigns against CWG officials and Adarsh-like scams are a sign that maybe journalism is slowly going through a process of self-renewal to recapture its lost soul and credibility. Amen!
Post-script: In recent times, the media has lived by the dictum of guilty till proven innocent. Guess the concept of trial by media has now come back to sting the media itself!
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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