By Arab News
By M.J. Akbar
I can’t quite determine which part of the story made me laugh, and which brought on tears, when I learned that some zealous functionaries had passed around envelopes with Rs500 notes to journalists in Satna, India, who had been summoned to report on L.K. Advani’s anti-corruption campaign. It was not Advani’s fault; he was victim of a prevailing system. However, as pitfalls go this was a bit of a crater dip.
But laughter is thin icing on a very rotten cake, and the cake is media. The journalists were indeed summoned, not invited. They were paid at the previously negotiated price of Rs500 each. What wrenched the gut was that no one refused. This was not an isolated incident; that is obviously the going rate in Satna. But do not imagine that the isolation is limited to Satna. Few cities are as corrupt as Delhi when it comes to keeping journalists happy with the right level of lifestyle-expense compensation. The more cynically bleary among the media tribe are probably consumed by only one nagging, if private, thought: why did those reporters sell themselves so cheap?
The incident says far more about Indian journalists than Indian politicians. That, for me at least, is enough reason for a long sob. The problem is not limited to temptations proffered to a handful of underpaid journalists. There are newspaper owners who, instead of giving a salary to correspondents expect them to send proprietors money for the privilege of hiring them. The deal is not complicated: These owners want a cut out of the cash that they know their correspondents make from local businessmen or administration. Paid news is not just about writing pretty things about the powerful. Much more money can be made by not writing a story. This syndrome creeps up to the very top in a few instances.
That, it needs to be stressed at this point, is the saving grace: The instances are few. I can vouch for that, and am proud of colleagues, whether reporters, sub-editors or editors who would not dream of pocketing an envelope. There is a recent case of an editor of television news who resisted both severe threats and lucrative flattery from those in power; equally, or even more, important, the proprietors of his company backed him fully. It was an exhilarating instance of good journalism and steely shareholders, the perfect guarantee for a free media. Nor are all politicians corrupt. Both Manmohan Singh and Advani have been in public life for over five decades; neither has a spot against his name. But the venality of those who are on the take, in both politics and media, has eroded the credibility of two institutions critical to democracy: Parliament and media. The first is under intense public scrutiny. The second is the subject of much-needed widespread debate.
This debate needs to include the most mammoth example of paid news in our system, All India Radio and Doordarshan. Their editor in chief is the Union minister of information and broadcasting. Journalists working in AIR or Doordarshan accept this as part of their working terms. Here is an instance from today’s AIR news bulletin, which I heard while writing this column: AIR was loyally celebrating the fact that inflation had dipped to just below 10 percent, when any balanced story would also wonder why it was still so high when this government has been promising for years that lower inflation was just around the corner. This is a very mild example, of course. Government journalists do not waste any time on partisan loyalty. When the ruling party changes, their stresses and deletions shift.
Governments feel totally comfortable with such control. Their logic seems convincing, on the face of it. Government has as much right to the editorial policies of its media as any other media baron. This is deceptive. Ministers have not created AIR and Doordarshan out of private investment; they do not pay for losses out of their private pockets. They have appropriated tax money and made it the source of personal power. Doordarshan is public media, not a government channel; its statutes are determined by public interest, not government bias. The new chairman of the Press Council is the articulate Justice Markandey Katju, who has just retired from the Supreme Court. He has already entered the debate with a few cautionary remarks on excess. He must expand the horizons of argument so that the present media crisis becomes an opportunity for catharsis.
Neither Parliament nor media like the idea of regulation; MPs bristle when they feel that the Supreme Court is intruding into their space. Media is even more jealous about its privileges. But if both want to retain their rights, they have to take another look at their duties, and find the self-regulation that will punish those who have compromised. Otherwise, there will be nothing left to laugh about and much to moan