Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Paid news controversy...some reflections

The whole ‘paid news’ controversy in India, when a certain Maharashtra minister used local newspapers to write favourable ‘advertorials’ for him, leaves bad taste in the mouth.  It’s not only politicians wanting to deride the fourth pillar, few media houses use an ‘extortionist’ approach for making big bucks by offering potential buyers ‘rate cards’ and ‘package deals’ akin to soliciting done by women in prostitution. 

However, these ‘public women’ are rebuked often even though their job is known to one and all. They do it to survive a stigmatised existence, forced to break social ‘moral codes’ by commoditising their bodies. But what about members of these elite and protected media groups, who solicit the moneyed class the same way, by selling off their minds and souls. And for what — another luxury vacation, this time with special massages? On second thoughts, how will penalising anyone change an all-pervading mind-set?
In its report discussed on April 26, 2010, the sub-committee of the Press Council of India (PCI), raised pertinent questions including the definition of journalism and election malpractices in the era of paid news, where fraud is at three levels: what appears to be an advertisement is actually paid content; candidates contesting elections do not disclose the true expenditure incurred during election campaigns and thirdly, concerned newspapers and TV channels do not disclose their source of earning. Of course, as expected and as the report notes too, there is mostly denial from all sides.
Though self-regulation by media houses is something highly rated in the report, besides seeking a set of real teeth for the PCI, what seems at the heart of issue is not so much about who lost their ethics in the media houses or political ghettos individually. It is where we are headed as a society where greed is not a bad word, where making astounding sums of money, at any cost, is considered a marker of success. Corruption within is acceptable, as long as it brings in currency notes. This attitude is becoming universal, so why pull down a few? In fact, this attitudinal shift is quite visible if I were to jog my memory from the time I enrolled in journalism school, getting disillusioned again and again since.
I can vividly recollect my journalism class of 1999. Our teacher, who is now a professor at Guru Gobind Singh IP University, emphatically told us one day: “Be fair, unbiased and objective as you report real-life stories. Remember, you’re doing it for the sake of getting people justice. This is not for yourself.”  
We were also given a dictum to practice — when in doubt leave out — instead of reporting incorrectly. There was immense value attached to truthful reporting. I am so grateful to all those teachers for having stressed on this so-called useless idealism because it’s necessary to deal with pressures of becoming a journalist today. As also mentioned already, the parameters of new-age success and wisdom are no longer how much you questioned and rebelled for a cause, but how much you gave in and helped in maintaining status-quo.
In 2005, when I joined The Times of India, Delhi, as a trainee, there was tangible high-handedness with which a bunch of us were dealt with, assumption being that we must be Lilliputians in the present world order. The feeling we ordinarily got was that since the last 25 years, we must have preserved nothing but intellectual vacuum inside our empty minds and souls, especially the good-looking women amongst us.  
The induction (or brainwashing) sessions were generally monologues and in one of the sessions, it was clearly stated that ‘those of you who want to change the word with a pen may please step out of the room because we’re a business organisation.’ Aghast at the unabashed marriage between capitalism and journalism, my friend and I somehow knew we wouldn’t last here for long, and gladly enough, we didn’t. But it’s good to know these things from direct experience because if basic ideologies are so hugely mismatched, then that alliance will inevitably turn unholy.
Four years later, I got to hear the same thing from a veteran journalist from the Sunday Guardian, who drove a swanky S-class Mercedes to workplace. I was job-hunting after completing higher education, which according to me, is a personal fight against a system where ‘thinking’ or ‘questioning’ is not a desirable attribute if you want to get-rich-quick as that’s what seems to 'finally' matter. In a five-minute interview, the old man’s reply was to-the-point, and pierced my heart like a poisoned arrow. I started questioning everything I had believed in so far, despite having dealt with an overwhelmingly opposite mainstream opinion through and through. This is what the journalism expert said to me: “You cannot become a reporter. Why do you want to switch lines from public work (he meant social work etc) and enter a different business altogether?” Trying to hold my nerve, I politely asked him, “But isn’t researching and reporting about problems of people, ‘public work’?” Of course he wasn’t convinced and assigned me back to recession blues.
This is not about naming names because how many can one take and how would that help? This corporatised system rubs onto you, eventually, as you keep ‘surviving’ the colonisation of everything that’s inside. I often hear this from a dear friend, who is also a successful journalist, “Who will take me seriously if I carry a stupid-looking phone, or if I don’t drive a particular car or move around with a certain attitude about myself?” Mind you, he comes from an unknown place on the world map but today, after success has knocked his door all over, he wears only branded attire — from underwear to handkerchief — guzzles expensive whiskey alone at night, eats food with a fork and knife and reads the paper perched on a leather sofa, severely multitasking all the time, even in his sleep!  
What does he reveal to us? Is this mind-set peculiar to my friend alone? I don’t think so. Remember giving preparation tips to a friend’s younger sister for clearing viva voce for admission to the journalism department of the same college I went to. I told her, “First understand that by becoming a journalist you want to play the role of a public servant. It’s a job ‘not for you’, it’s a job ‘for the people’ blah blah blah,” just like my teachers taught me. Guess what, she failed the test because I probably pumped her up with too much idealism, which is probably getting more outdated with every passing hour. 
So there are many more people who do not think journalists are to be seen as torchbearers of hope in society. Journalists themselves feel like they’re doing ‘just another corporate job’. Today’s wannabe journalists want to get into the profession for a certain lifestyle it brings along.
Today, one hardly meets anyone who says journalism has something to do with investigating causes of misery in lives of so many people or living a life fighting for causes larger than self.  There is no politician who says I want to ‘be with the masses and sound their voice’ either. So no matter what PCI recommends to journalists or politicians, I have a hunch that like a giant-wheel in fast motion, we’re headed towards further degradation of pillars of a healthy democracy, inherent in which is slow-destruction of basic humanity.

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