Wednesday, 29 December, 2010

A question of ethics

From where are today’s young journalists and those aspiring to get into the profession going to draw their inspiration? This is an oft-asked question nowadays, by well-meaning news publishers, editors and journalists. Part of the answer is that it is clearly going to be an uphill task for young and upcoming journalists to retrieve the goodwill of old and earn the respect of readers and those who are written about.

There is no doubt that with media gaining an unsavoury hue in recent weeks, the focus by the management in parts of the media, for the short-term at least, will be on cleaning the stables as it were. Another pertinent question is whether the clean-up operations will continue for long and whether after Radiagate has moved from the front pages of newspapers, some journalists will be tempted again by lure of proximity to power and perhaps money and other attractions to “string a source along”… to no actual good as we have all seen

One person who has come out clearly against all forms of lobbying or currying favour is N Ram, editor-in-chief, Kasturi and Sons (publishers of The Hindu). On a Karan Thapar show hosted by CNN-IBN immediately after the sordid details broke out, he stressed that were the tainted journalists employed by the BBC, The Guardian or The New York Times, they would have lost their jobs. Obviously, The Hindu, too, would not have tolerated such behaviour, he seemed to suggest. Why can’t we set the bar higher, he asked and went further to emphasise that all journalists must be governed by a code of ethics, or by codified rules.

Corruption is as old as the hills, as old as the oldest profession in the world. India happens to be one of the countries where corruption is most rampant. Corruption in the media in India is also nothing new. It is not as though the Radia tapes have opened out a whole new world that was hitherto unknown. What it has brought into the focus is the fact that even some of the superstars of media are dabbling in dangerous territory.

When I was heading the PR function in a large south Indian corporate group many years ago, I had come across fake journalists, those who brandished fake visiting cards to gain entry and helped themselves to dinner and cocktails. It was much later that I made it a point to debar entry to press conferences of all suspicious ‘journalists.’ The sad part is that very few, if any at all, PR and corporate communication practitioners make an effort to weed out the corrupt. For many, the more numbers at a conference the merrier. The management (of companies) in most cases is in the dark or has no clue. I made it a point not to dish out to reporters gift cheques or cash in envelopes. I insisted on gift hampers – products the company manufactured. There were some who asked for special gift hampers to be sent home.

Radiatapes or not, this is the sort of malaise that all well-meaning publishers, editors, PR practitioners and communicators must strive to eradicate. And this is what I emphasised to the participants at a media workshop organised by the Centre for Social Initiative and Management in Chennai recently. More than learning the nuances of good communication, it is imperative to work the right way – to be devoted to credibility, transparency and ethics. Nobody should be able to point a finger at you for a reason you cannot convincingly explain. At the end of the day, when there is credibility, you earn goodwill and respect.

Another worrying aspect is the power wielded by large corporate houses and its top executives and the link they have forged over the years with bureaucrats, politicians and journalists. It also brings into focus the aspect of whether a well-meaning editor in a top newspaper really wields enough clout to weed out the rotten apples or is he or she subservient to the management. How many editors are unwilling to accept a subservient role? And must the management of newspapers, for example, dictate what must go into its pages? These are issues that must be debated, not only in television studios where the same select few appear, but at other forums where the common man or reader can have a say. After all, newspapers and media owe their existence to the people of the country, don’t they?

Media was once considered the fourth pillar of democracy and twenty or thirty years ago journalists took pride in being independent or neutral, though there were occasional offenders. During the Emergency, the media played a significant role and asserted its authority. Two or three newspapers even blanked out editorials to send a silent message to the government, that curbing the freedom of the press was not appreciated. Press freedom was thus zealously guarded by the journalist and the media. It was, according to former chief election commissioner T. S Krishnamurthy, “the best period for media in India”. According to him, over the years journalists got tempted by certain developments. Not only were journalists making money on the sly, there was also management and corporate lobbying. They started contacting political candidates. Payment was very often clandestinely made to individual journalists, or made in kind.

“The media has tasted the fruits of paid news,” said Krishnamurthy, recently addressing members of the Public Relations Society if India in Chennai, and gave the example of a Bombay-based newspaper that did not disclose information sought by the Election Commission. “They have started systematically exploiting the loopholes. It’s a pity that this development is undermining democracy. In a country which was so much proud of its values, where so many leaders sacrificed their lives for freedom, it is unfortunate. This has become popular because there has been a media boom, high growth of literacy, influence of print and electronic media, and the price for paid news is becoming more and more attractive,” he pointed out.

For all well-meaning publishers, editors and journalists in India, Radiagate has not only come as a rude shock, it is also in some ways a defining moment, a turning point in a profession. Change must come, change for the better, by gradually discarding all the rotten apples and the muck that has come to stay. Will it be possible at all, is another question worth asking.

Sashi Nair

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