Where does the buck stop?

 Traditionally the nexus between big business and politicians has been facilitated by sections of the bureaucracy. Now, we find sections of the media has become a part of this corrupt nexus, not as principled protagonists but as bit players.

All of us like our egos to be massaged. Journalists are no exception. Senior journalists come into contact with rich and powerful persons. While in proximity with such individuals in the course of their work, they delude themselves into believing that they too are as powerful as the people they meet. Psychologists call this “delusions of grandeur”.

When we journalists meet ministers, industry heads and others in positions of power and authority, our intention is to gather information and disseminate it to educate our readers or listeners. But when we delude ourselves, there is a problem.

There is no evidence to show that the top journalists who figure in the taped conversations were in receipt of illegal funds. But the conversations do appear to indicate that they were not only friendly with the controversial corporate lobbyist but also willing to bend backwards to do her bidding.

Whether popular TV journalist Barkha Dutt did speak to Congress leaders, or Vir Sanghvi did contact Sonia and Rahul Gandhi or not, what they did do is to keep her (Niira Radia) happy; they did appear to share a comfortable, cosy relationship with the lady.

There is nothing wrong in having a professional relationship with a person as Niira Radia, who represents two of the richest people in the world - Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata.
But what is wrong is that, in the so called lobbying process, they have crossed the Lakshman Rekha or limits of professional conduct. When they cross the limit, they cease to be journalists; they are more than journalists and you may call them anything - lobbyist, racketeer... Going by the face value of the tone and tenor of the taped conversations, these journalists appear to be going beyond their “journalistic duties” and obligations.     

  Journalists’ proximity to the rich and famous is not a new or recent phenomenon. Former editor of a prominent newspaper, the late Girilal Jain, was reported to have said that he is the second most important person in India, next only to the Prime Minister. In the present instance, the Radia tapes have only brought it out into the public domain.

Less than honourable

Again, journalists indulging in non-journalistic activity is not at all news. Wheeling and dealing by journalists has gone on for donkey’s years. What is news here is that there are still sections of the media who are willing to turn the spotlight on other journalists if they appear less than honourable. If this helps to restore a balance, it is a good trend.
Those exposed are predictably unhappy and may complain of having been defamed and their privacy being invaded. Women plaster mud on their faces as a skin treatment to make them look beautiful and their skin to glow. Maybe, the mud flying around will similarly cleanse the media a bit. Even if this sounds far fetched or old fashioned, a larger section of the media would benefit.

Systemic rot

Journalists being plied with exotic food, drink and junkets in order to obtain favourable coverage is as old as the media itself. But the new and pernicious trends affecting the working of the media have gone beyond the greed of individuals and become a part of it, including respected media houses.

It is also an old practice with ruling dispensations to nominate senior journalists to the Upper Houses of Parliament and Legislatures. But mere acceptance of such positions does not render them corrupt or venal. My own classmate Chandan Mitra has become a Member of Parliament recently. Kuldip Nayar was an MP in the past but no one has ever accused him of corruption.

Coming back to the critical question: Where does the buck stop? There are no easy solutions. It is a question of individual ethics and morality. To put it simply, journalists need to maintain a professional arm’s length distance with their contacts.

—  As told to Gayathri Nivas of Deccan Herald.

(The writer is an independent journalist and educator. As member of the Press Council of India, he was on its sub-panel which recently prepared a 71-page report titled “Paid News: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy”.)

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