Indian media has fallen on bad days. Its credibility has come to be doubted and its coverage is considered largely slanted and motivated. Both the press and television channels may command attention but do not evoke respect. Their political analysis is seldom taken seriously and the Ministry of External Affairs finds an echo in their comments on foreign affairs. Yet, not long ago, the same media, less powerful than today, shook the country with what it said. It was the media élan that made history. The government and people would sit up to notice when it broke the news. What has gone wrong is the lack of confidence. The media is not trusted any more. The interest of the corporate sector is too visible, both in news columns and the editorials. A few years ago a journalist would throw press notes sent by the newspaper management with the tag of B.M. (Business Must) into the dustbin. There is no question of ignoring business interests today. The news is literally written on the back of an advertisement. But what is worse is that the papers and channels sell news and editorial space and do not feel ashamed in doing so. The other day there was a seminar in Delhi about the allegations that during the Lok Sabha elections both the print and electronic media not only took money from political parties and candidates, but also extorted readers or viewers to follow their line.Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal, who inaugurated the session, contended that knew how the stories were planted and paid for. Several journalists also admitted that a lot of money changed hands during the election campaign. Nothing came out of the seminar, but a senior political leader told me that if a commission were to be set up to inquire into such dubious practices, he for one would be prepared to give evidence. It came as a shock to me when I did not find even a word about the seminar or Sibals allegation in newspapers or television. Obviously, we are all naked together iii this bath. Some of us have,
The interest of the corporate sector is too visible, both in news columns and the editorials. A few years ago a journalist would throw press notes sent by the newspaper management with the tag of B.M. (Business Must) into the dustbin.
however, approached the Press Council to set up a committee to go into the slush money used during campaign. I have written to the Chief Election Commissioner but he has not even acknowledged the letter. His pro-Congress views are well known. Charges of corruption were also made during the last Lok Sabha elections. But then the quantum of payment was small and the number of newspapers and TV channels involved was limited. This time it seems there has been a free for all. Names of leading newspapers and TV channels are freely hawked in the bazaars.
Even otherwise, the press in India has humiliated itself since the Emergency. With the exception of very few journalists, others caved in to pressure or price. L.K. Advani made an apt remark after the Emergency: You were asked to bend, but you began to crawl. Since then the mystique of journalism has been lessening by the day and the media has been reduced to tittle-tattle. Celebrities from the cine world or cricket are the only personalities that count where the media is concerned. Newspapers copy the TV channels in sensational reportage, and the latter in turn copy the newspapers in pontificating.
I must admit that I found journalists in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had more gumption than scribes in our media. Pakistan had martial law and the journalists defied it and got lashes. In India the Emergency at best could detain people in jail. Still, we failed shamefully. During the recent caretaker government in Bangladesh papers sustained democratic values and stood alone when everything around them was falling prey to sycophancy and conformity. A few journalists in Sri Lanka dared the government to silence their criticism. One of them was even bumped off for his writings.
True, politicians tend to use us. They have their own interests to serve. But then we play into their hands. When we slant the news and accept money for putting across a particular point of view, as happened during the recent Lok Sabha elections, we were not truthful and fell from the professional standards expected in a democratic structure. Why the press is called the Fourth Estate? It is because it is one of the pillars on which the democratic edifice rests.
After reading newspapers or watching the television channels I feel as if a new version of the Emergency is starting to unfold where truth has become a relative term and where there is nothing left like values. India is not a banana republic run by and for opportunists who will stop at nothing to line their own pockets and wield power.
Corruption is not confined to politicians, public servants or the corporate world. Media has blackened its face as well. Not only have reporters or correspondents changed their copy or withheld the information for considerations. Editors too are involved in a big way. The grapevine is buzzing with stories of corruption and journalists, but for obvious reasons these do not find their way into print.
I think that there should be more transparency in the case of editors. My suggestion is that they should annually fire with the Press Council of India a list of their assets and of their spouse. If they do not want the press council to come into the picture, they can put the list of assets on the internet. Editors should not only be honest but should have the reputation of being so. Honesty in money matters is important for editors, and it is crucial in running newspapers.