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News on sale? That’s nauseous

Democracy lovers,wake up. What you and I value highly is being increasingly devalued. What you and I cherish and pride in is endangered....

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
November 15, 2009 2:46:02 am

Democracy lovers,wake up. What you and I value highly is being increasingly devalued. What you and I cherish and pride in is endangered. The danger comes from a familiar foe: corruption.

But aren’t we all too familiar with this foe,and yet unable to curb his depredations? What’s new about the danger he poses?

Just that the foe has opened a new front.

Corruption in two of the four pillars of democracy,legislature and executive,has long been a part of the national debate on what is ailing our polity. In recent years,corruption in the judiciary is also being discussed,albeit in markedly muted voices,the fear of inviting the contempt of court whiplash still deterring many an intrepid investigative reporter and commentator.

But what about corruption in the media,the fourth pillar that sustains our democracy? Since the media also act as the messenger,the messenger is understandably uncomfortable talking about the malady within this once-hallowed institution. But all those who care for the health of this dependable protector of democracy should know that the disease is spreading.

It is an open secret that some of the most successful and perennially self-congratulating “superbrands” in India’s newspaper business sell their editorial space to commercial entities and celebrities,without letting their readers know that the news and features that they read are paid for. But far more disturbing is the recent phenomenon that a growing number of newspapers,magazines and TV channels across the country are selling their election coverage,both at wholesale and retail prices,to political parties and candidates.

I had witnessed it first-hand during the Lok Sabha election in May. Nevertheless,what I heard from numerous sources about its lurid manifestation in last month’s assembly election in Maharashtra was shocking. So brazen had it become that,on the day election results were announced,Loksatta,the highly popular Marathi daily belonging to The Indian Express group,devoted its entire editorial page to deploring this troubling trend.

Similarly,The Hindu carried a searing commentary last month by celebrated journalist P. Sainath (‘The medium,message and the money’),in which he wrote: “The Assembly elections saw the culture of ‘coverage packages’ explode across Maharashtra. In the financial orgy that marked the elections,the media were never far behind the moneybags. Not just small local outlets,but powerful newspapers and television channels,too. No money,no news. Many candidates complained of ‘extortion’ but were not willing to make an issue of it for fear of drawing media fire.”

It is necessary to be blunt about who these “extortionists” were. Who were blackmailing parties and candidates? Who were doing the deals about the price for per-column-centimetre news,the premium to be paid for blacking out news about other candidates,and a higher premium for printing negative news about rivals? Not reporters and editors,but media owners themselves. The deal that was struck by owners had to be dutifully implemented by the editorial staff. Almost every serious candidate who aspired to win had to earmark at least a couple crores for such “media management”. What a mockery of freedom of the press! Freedom comes with the obligation of integrity. Integrity brings credibility. And it is credibility,and not profitability,which is the most precious badge of honour for everybody associated with the noble profession of journalism.

But who cares?Who should care?

First of all,readers of print media and watchers of TV media must care. They are citizens of this country,and have a vital stake in India’s democracy. Just as freedom of the press is sacrosanct for media owners and must be defended,readers have the right to demand that the freedom is exercised as per the highest ethical and professional norms of journalism. The government and the election commission have a responsibility to ensure that readers and affected candidates have effective outlets to voice their protest. Since the media are playing an increasingly powerful role not just in elections but also in our national life,the time has come for Parliament to codify citizens’ enforceable rights vis-à-vis the media.

Second,the time has also come for all concerned and conscientious members of the media fraternity to combat the scourge of corruption that is darkening the name of their profession. Their number is not insignificant. Nor is their collective power to be belittled. Sadly,organisations of professional journalists and media owners,like the Editors’ Guild and Indian Newspaper Society,are almost dysfunctional when it comes to self-regulation.

Lastly,why is the political class silent about this problem? If the media makes a noise—which they must—about corruption in politics and government,shouldn’t those political leaders who are upright (their number too is not insignificant) make corruption in the media a matter of public debate? Why shouldn’t this issue be discussed in the upcoming winter session of Parliament?

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