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Once More With Feeling

Suspect media ethics and zero media regulation. Will there be a solution till journalists agree to call each other out?

Ethics of Media

Why is it that films, panel discussions, seminars etc on media ethics, paid news, media regulation or any media-related malaise have such poor attendance from the fraternity? Put together any summit/conclave with Priyanka Chopra, Fatima Bhutto or Karan Johar talking about leadership and you’re assured attendance.

Why do you think that is?

Quality of content? Seriously! Have you attended/seen a FICCI/CII event or some of the sessions at an HT/India Today Leadership summit/conclave?

Scale of event? Perhaps.

Sex appeal? For sure.

The booze and food? Hmm…

Suhel Seth? Present!

The India Habitat Centre had a screening of Satish Jacob’s film “Is the Fourth Pillar Crumbling?” followed by a panel discussion. Actually it wasn’t really a panel discussion as claimed. And it wasn’t really a film either. It was a longish news report. The format for the panel discussion was a 5-6 minute monologue by the panelists.

Satish Jacob is a veteran who’s had a long innings with the BBC. He’s also been with Statesman and Patriot in his earlier days. Around 40 people (maybe 50) showed up for the screening, mostly friends and family. The ones you may know were Dinesh Trivedi (former Railway minister) Javed Naqvi (columnist and journo). Then there was the panel, whose observations you can check out below.

There were other ripe old journalists (friends of Satish who he thanked). If you discount the one student and some of his family/relatives, the Newslaundry team was the youngest bunch in the room. We may actually have taken the average age down by half a century.  

So why such poor attendance by media professionals? Especially the young lot, the sunshine of our TV news watching lives? Not just here but in any such event including the ones which the Foundation for Media Professionals organises? Media ethics, paid news, regulation – shouldn’t they be seriously interested in these issues? But aren’t.  Possibly media ethics to those in newsrooms and studios is what health and hygiene standards are to cooks and helpers at dhabas and eateries. All know it’s important, but who really gives a shit. (Valuable tip: As an enthusiastic gajak eater if you ever see how the famous Morena gajak is made – you wouldn’t).

Those who attended had this to say about the low hack attendance.

So Satish Jacob screened his “film” which was really an anguished cry over what’s happening to journalism in India. He has good reason to be anguished since he’s had a pretty awesome career and seen action most journalists would give an arm for. His book (co-authored with Mark Tully) Amritsar – Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle is one of the best pieces on Punjab militancy I’ve read. I highly recommend it. Wish I could say the same about his film. I cant. If print is your forte and keyboards your friends, playing with cameras and editing machines unless you know how to can make a seasoned professional look like a clumsy amateur. The film told us about the horror of paid news, the erosion of ethics, the failure of self-regulation. As pointed out by Vinod Mehta below, nothing that we hadn’t heard before.

Satish Jacob had interviewed representatives from Jindals (reference: Jindal – Zee spat), Manu Joseph, Shoma Chowdhry, Shekhar Gupta, Paranjoy Thakurta and… wait for it – Manish Tiwari. They all gave us their perspective on paid news, media ethics, regulation etc.

Here are the audience comments and questions.

So when did this horrible decay that all lament about, happen? The Radia tapes episode for many is the turning point, 24-hour TV news for others. But dear veterans, each time you say this is a new age thing I’m reminded of Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s lines.

Apne yug mein sabko anupam gyat hui apni hala.

Apne yug mein sabko adbhut gyat hua apna pyala.

Phir bhi vridho se jab poocha ek yahi uttar paya.

Ab na rahe wo peene wale. Ab na rahi wo madhushala.

The new crop wasn’t even born during the Emergency, and remember the “crawled when asked to bend” line? Was for you lot. And how true it was. Khushwant Singh and gang aren’t exactly spring chickens. The seniors were bought in ways other than gifts and gizmos since pre-liberalisation we didn’t have iPads and iPhones; they had dinners and garden parties and sarkari positions. Old timers still prefer that mode of payment and many are making the most of it even now. The post-lib era dudes and dudettes have material lifestyles to aspire to. Ask Vir Sanghvi. He’ll tell you. What? He has a show on fancy stuff on TLC channel – custom made for someone or the other. Indira Gandhi managing to destroy every institution, on your watch. Rajiv Gandhi got away with more than what Modi can’t live down – and the media darling was celebrated by you. Sure, knowing English, wines and designer fabrics helps in getting treated with kid gloves but about 3,000 Sikhs were roasted, raped and slaughtered on your watch. As a kid all that I remember from that episode is that I learned that Indira’s name was also “Priyadarshini” and we had lost a mother figure. This generation hasn’t let Modi move on the way dimpled Rajiv waltzed away from his carnage. So quit blaming this generation or TV. The rot was always there. Now we see it. If anything this generation is more combative. I can’t imagine an Arnab taking an advisory lying down. He’d want the nation to know and would bite the head off the advisory-issuing authority, unless it’s Raj Thackeray who’d issued it. Then he’d question in a polite yet firm way and charm his cheerleaders into more combat. Or a Barkha or Sagarika going down without a fight. Deepak Sharma from Aaj Tak got into a scrap with Khurshid at a presser. Ashutosh pissed Kanshi Ram off so much that he was slapped. Rajdeep I feel is the Gandhian among the journos. He doesn’t battle. He wants to be everybody’s buddy and Mr Popular, which is so annoying. Anyway. The rest would fight. Rajdeep would say something obvious like why can’t we all get along and take deeper breaths and improve our lungs. But overall this generation fights better than the generation above fought.

So basically you can watch the videos and see what the event was like on this media ethics issue that’s been done to death many times, and was done once more with feeling by Mr Jacob, what now? A visibly impatient Madhu who tried hard to stay humble (Madhu!) said let’s move on. Where does the discussion go from here? What next?

So I will try to do her proud and present some scenarios and suggestions.

The two scenarios of regulation and why they are doomed to fail.

Scenario 1:

Govt regulates the media. ’Nuff said. If I have to get into why this is dangerous you have been living in a cave for the past 2 decades and its time to go back babaji. Kumbh is over.

Scenario 2:

Self-regulation by a body of editors and media professionals? Ya right! Manu Joseph correctly states in Is the Fourth Pillar Crumbling that with the kind of egos and personalities involved – that can’t work. We’ve seen this model falling apart in the past. In 2009, India TV withdrew from the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). Rajat Sharma was pissed off that the self-regulatory body slapped a fine of Rs 100,000 on the channel for allegedly airing a fake interview with Farhana Ali, a US-based analyst. Not that they hadn’t screwed up, but Mr Sharma felt their version of the apology on air was enough and they need not pay a fine or carry the apology the NBA prescribed. So he walked out. It’s not rocket science. Think about it. Rajdeep, Barkha, Sonia, Aroon Purie sitting with a Katju-type at a hearing on some screw-up made by say… Arnab. The first murder would be over who is Katju’s 90% and who is the 10%.  Then imagine a fine being levied on Arnab and Times Now? Paint if you can a picture of Arnab-Katju engaged in a twist. Imagine Arnab has been asked to pay a fine and apologise for what the others perceive as irresponsible jingoism on the Indian soldiers beheading issue.

Arnab: Please listen to me, I must tell you that I asked because the nation wanted to know…

Barkha: But Arnab. Where was the nuance, there must be nuance…

Katju: Shut up. All of you. Idiots. Arnab pay 1 crore and kneel before me and call me Lord Vader. And come to the side of the 10%.

Sagarika: So Katju says call him Lord Vader. Arnab says nation wants to know. Barkha wants nuance…

Rajdeep: Such hate, such anger. I need to go to my happy place. Song for the day – Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai. SD Burman’s haunting melody and Rafi’s magical voice. But Arnab. You should pay. This editor’s take is – We should all be good and kind. The nation deserves better anchors and reporters. We should all be better people. We should all look within us and…

Katju: Shut up!

Arnab: OK stop him. I’ll pay…I’ll pay whatever you want and become the mascot of Aman Ki Asha and carry a white flag across the border but stop Rajdeep please.

Barkha: No nuance. He states the obvious.

Sagarika: Barkha says he states the obvious, Arnab says someone stop Rajdeep, Justice Katju says Shut up!

OK seriously. That wouldn’t happen. The more probable scenario is they’d all sulk and not talk to each other or they’d kill each other and no one would pay jackshit of a fine.

Editors and journos can’t get along and make a body work. Check this link to the “NDTV inquisition” of Barkha. Other than Manu Joseph the rest are people she is on buddy terms with and then this is what happened. So give them the power to suspend each other’s license or levy fines? Right! They’ll agree to that as soon as A Raja or Kalmadi agree to a Lokpal.

Scenario 3:

A statutory or constitutional body consisting of journalists, social activists etc empowered to fine, suspend license etc. Look at what the govt has managed to do to other such bodies. Can you imagine the lobbying to get on the board of this organisation? And when journos get into lobbying for posts it’s never pretty.

SO, here is my scenario 4 that will work.

No commission, no committee, no trying to get along hold hands and make rules that make all happy. Won’t happen. Do what comes naturally to you. Bicker. Call each other’s bad work, bad. Call out the crap when you see it. For some reason till a year ago or so it was considered polite or dignified not to mention competitors in a story or report stories on them. I myself have heard Barkha say something to the effect of – we aren’t as loud as some channels. And don’t resort to jingoism. But we won’t take names. Nidhi and Rajdeep too often take digs about “certain channels” being loud and noisy etc. If you mean Arnab, say Arnab and Times Now. If you think it’s classy not to take names, it’s not. No one’s appearing dignified in case our newscasters are under that misconception. They seem either too chicken or compromised. And it’s already started. So what if the first few include Caravan’s hatchet-job on Arnab, I’m sure it will graduate to more serious critiques.

Naming people is classy. It’s honest, straightforward and brave. Healthy competition is good for the consumer and overall for the market. And trashing the competition is an important part of that exercise. NDTV’s case against Nielsen was dismissed by a court in the US, others should report it with the glee we all know they feel. The “a certain channel” or “a certain media house” way of reporting/commenting on other media organisation isn’t a courtesy extended to politicians or parties or aam aadmis. When did you hear a report that went “a certain MP from a certain party was caught accepting money for asking questions in parliament”? Or “a certain bus driver from a certain unnamed slum was arrested for rape/murder/fraud/robbery etc”? You name names, that’s the norm. So why not of each other?

The problem has been that news channels aren’t fond of battles between equals. The battles they prefer are the hugely unequal ones. An Arvind Kejriwal or Anna against the Government. They might take a stand there –for the underdog or the safe Government poodle. Or when they go at some poor sod like the Talwars or a hawaldar who’s been caught accepting a bribe on video or some such adversary with nothing to fight back with. It’s a no-contest, their goose is cooked. But if it’s between two channels then they don’t want that battle. There’s no certainty of victory and no chance for glory in defeat. It’s not towards an end. It’s just an exercise in keeping checks on each other like you do with others. News media is called the fourth pillar not because it has an investigating agency reporting to it or any powers to fine or suspend licenses or arrest anyone. The power which keeps others in check is the power to report, to put it out there. If they use only that power and nothing else where other media houses are concerned we already have a self-regulatory mechanism in place without trying to make them do something out of character – like getting along. Even if an Arvind or Anna is beaten by a UPA there’s the glory in defeat of a David versus a Goliath battle. So unless victory is assured or glory is assured a TV channel will not take a stand. That is why I think they don’t go at each other like they should.

Much as I respect Vinod Mehta who has had an impeccable journalistic record and has been fair and rational (although I think he did have a crush on Sonia Gandhi even if Outlook wasn’t Congress’ poodle as many believed during the mid-2000s) his claim that – give him one room, 4 editors and a couple of hours and he will come up with a self-regulatory mechanism rings hollow. Why?

Mr Mehta, if you’re too coy even to name the name of the offending channel in your wind-up retort in such a sparse gathering, you really think you’ll be able to reprimand or fine or suspend an errant news organisation when the shit hits the fan?

Contact Abhinandan

Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/45560034@N05/8221965773/]

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More from Abhinandan Sekhri


  • Dr. Ambekar

    I am Dr. Madhukar Ambekar lived in UK for the last 35 years. A Children’s Specialist by profession worked for NHS and now retired. I have a hobby of monitoring Western Media and writing them if the news is distorted. I have several such reports with me. I do a presentation titled “INACTION IS THE WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION”. My point is not self boasting.

    British Media at least does not support if there is a “Prima Facie” against a political leader, a priest, a teacher or professional doctor or Lawyer or any institution which has some thing to hide from public gage. There are several examples just one to quote.

    Lord Geoffrey Archer was accused of perjury and was sent to jail for total for 4 years. The Government then was in dilemma as to when he is released can he come back as Lord to House of Lords? A retrospective law was made to stop him coming back to House of Lord. There are similar example where Cabinet Minister were sent to jail and no Political party ever intervened in the proceedings of the court. Media must have some reputation of it’s own of honesty until that happens in India it is a “Dollar hungry Media”. How ever one may discuss “Ethics and Regulations”. I hope I am right in my assessment of my own.

    Dr. Ambekar.
    LONDON
    E-mail: drmnambekar@yahoo.co.uk

  • Dr. Ambekar

    I forgot to give the Geoffrey Archers introduction. Here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Archer
    Dr. Ambekar.

  • sumeetpareek

    @abhinandan:

    Bhai sahab! Jordaar! Kaise likhte ho inti achchi angrezi? Maja aa gaya!

    Loved all it. Some parts I would like to specifically congratulate/thank you on would be – the questions following your ‘why do you think that is?’ / the apt harivansh bachchan lines / this generation being more combative / the h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s scenario 2 conversations / your (the only hope) solution (I have another one inspired from bollywood and internet too though btw.) etc.

    ^ Sorry. Jitti english aati thi puri bol di.

    Good work. Keep it up. Cheers to the new age journalists! and to quote a stranger – “Kuch daudyein zindagi mein kabhi khatam nahi hoti, na hongi.”

  • Canada Car Buyer

    @abhindan : Excellent Post !!! however, with regards to, your Vinod Mehta’s naming names comment. I would like to point out that, in the last video where Madhu starts about “we talk and nothing happens”, she also, though inadvertently, missed out the “one proprietor” (I think she is referring to TOI). Although, I must add, in all its fairness, that she did mention some names, “well known” names, but names nonetheless.

  • Anirudha

    Appreciate the feelings part, Abhinandan. Well done!!

  • Chitra

    Madhu, Abhinandan, way to go – more power. Journalism is a service. Public health is a service. Cannot be sold and consumed like shampoo.

  • Trisha Ray

    I took up Journalism as my UG course all full of hopes and dreams about crusading for justice. But the sad reality is that mainstream media is too cut-and-polished (read: TRP-oriented) and the more altruistic ones are often ignored. Love the fact that you don’t mince words :)
    Oh and how DO they make Morena gajak?

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