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Our news channels could learn a thing or two on self-reporting from the BBC’s coverage of the Entwistle controversy.

ByJoy Bhattacharjya
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The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

Which is more or less true. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.

There there – I didn’t say that! This is Hunter Thompson in a column in The San Francisco Examiner in 1985. Obviously, the uppers weren’t working for him that day. What amazes me is that he said this a good 10-15 years before we would be inflicted on by the likes of India TV.

Ok. I don’t always feel this way, and obviously don’t have access to the kind of pharmacology that Thompson evidently did, so it took an incident about 7,000 kms away to make me start trawling the net for Hunter Thompson and Frank Zappa quotes.

The gist of the matter. The BBC Director General, George Entwistle, has had to resign after a Newsnight report on molestation charges against a former politician was proved to be false. Mr Entwistle resigned as Director General following the November 2, 2012 Newsnight report which led to former Tory treasurer, Lord McAlpine, being wrongly accused of child abuse in Wales in the Eighties.

So far, fairly routine – and boring – compared to some of the earlier News of the World media scandals. But what did get to me was the coverage of the entire event on the BBC News channel and website. The most detailed reportage of the story from all angles is on the BBC news site. And as I write, they are writing about the outrage among British MPs on the huge severance package paid to Entwistle. The stories have been relentlessly followed from every angle. Here’s Mark Easton, Home Editor, commenting on the situation – “An acting director general. An acting head of news. There’s a joke going round that there’s more acting in BBC management at the moment than in EastEnders.

But there is a serious point. What we are seeing at the moment is not the thorough structural radical overhaul promised by the BBC Trust but emergency measures to try and steady the ship.”

The media correspondent Torin Douglas has this to say – “MPs, former editors and broadcasting executives were unimpressed and so, I understand, were members of the BBC Trust……

The BBC still faces very serious questions, not just about its journalism but about how the organisation is run.

This crisis – one of the most serious in the BBC’s history – is not yet over.”

Not outsiders, not gloating competitors! These are some of the most senior editors of the BBC sounding off on the turmoil in their own organization.

It gets better. The BBC has posted Entwistle’s biography online and you can check his exact salary, any bonuses, his e-expenses and travel expenses for every quarter, a gifts and hospitality register and an annual declaration of personal interests. They may occasionally sound stuffy and holier than thou, but the BBC obviously seems to take its ethics code rather more seriously than we do.

Which brings me to my point. If Barkha Dutt’s voice is heard on the Radia tapes, shouldn’t there have been a detailed story on the NDTV website and detailed coverage on NDTV. Not just a personal defense from Barkha. Or if Prabhu Chawla is caught talking shop about the Ambanis with the same lady, should we not expect multiple stories in the group’s many media vehicles.

And the truth is that there is not much point in not doing it. If you are a news organization and one of your senior people has been a bit naughty – there are two scenarios. The first is that you can call in enough favours to make sure that the rest of the media does not pick up it up as a major story. The second is that you do not have the ability or clout to control it anyway.

The first case would have worked till about five years back. Now, with the number of independent news sites and bloggers, you have as much chance of hiding a breaking story as your college grades from your friends (I know, I tried!). In the second case, you are going to get hit anyway. So you might as well report the entire story from every angle and at any rate, at least grab the higher moral ground.

If I sound a bit harsh on the television news business, it’s because I’ve given up on newspaper news a long time back. There was scarcely a ripple when a newspaper supplement in Delhi reported 10,000 screaming fans in a Metallica concert that had actually been cancelled because of security issues. While there are a lot of intelligent and passionate journalists still around, it’s really difficult to believe that you will get accurate information when it matters if the owner of the largest such group openly declares that he is in the advertising business, not in the newspaper business. And if this is the leader of the pack, you can only feel grateful the odd day that the first page of your paper actually features news stories.

So, what are our options? Big business has little say in the running of say, Lok Sabha Television. But I can’t see the big Robert Vadra exposé happening there. And my son’s annual school play routinely draws more audiences than both Sabha channels. So our only hope is if somebody with intelligence, vision, money and a passion for changing the country were to start a news channel. Somebody who dared to make us count our chickens and dream beyond the IIMs. Remember, you heard it first on Newslaundry!

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