IN BRITAIN, the hacking of a dead schoolgirl’s cell phone hair-triggered a national outrage that eventually led to the most sweeping inquiry on the media — its culture, practice and ethics — in the history of the country. The inquiry examined everything: the excessive cosiness between politicians and the media; the collusion between police and the media; public grievances against the media; media intrusions into privacy; cartelisation; cross-ownership; the slide in internal governance; and regulation.
Perhaps, it is time now for the Indian media to recall the old parable of the frog as well. If you don’t recognise the slow heating of the waters you swim in, a day comes uncomfortably soon when you find yourself fried. For a variety of reasons, it’s indisputable that the Indian media is coasting in several danger zones now, but are we, as a fraternity, sufficiently willing to acknowledge that? Are we putting in the correctives? Do we even agree the water is hot? And, if so, why?
It is not that there are no warning signals. Few would deny, for instance, that the ongoing Jindal-Zee News extortion scandal is a serious spike in the tank. Over the past couple of years, there have been several others — most prominently, the Niira Radia tapes; the ‘paid news’ scandals; and earlier this year, the arrest of a journalist in Guwahati for allegedly urging a mob to molest a girl more effectively for his camera. How is the Indian media responding to these spikes? How is it reading the symptoms? And is the media’s response sufficient to inspire confidence in the public?
TEHELKA’s cover this week set out to examine these questions because there is a creeping sense of public disenchantment with the media and, given the great freedoms and duties it bears as a profession, the media’s response to challenges within do not just concern the fraternity, they concern the country. If we do not self-regulate effectively, there is a real danger it will begin to be done for us. The tabling of the highprofile Leveson Report in Britain — that great bastion of press freedoms — and the bitter debate it has brought in its wake is a sobering reminder of what can happen when great freedoms are not acquitted with great responsibility — and the public mood turns.
For a variety of reasons, it’s indisputable that the Indian media is coasting in several danger zones now, but are we sufficiently willing to acknowledge that?
So what does the Indian media think about its own conduct? Is it headed for its own catalytic News of the World moment? Or is it ready for necessary introspections? And what are the possible remedies that can forestall the need for a Leveson Report in our country? As media, our strength — our immunities — lie in public trust. This is to offer that public an earphone into a crucial internal conversation.
‘We have been in denial since the Niira Radia tapes. No matter what scandal hits us, we seem to bury our head in the sand and pretend nothing has happened’
Editorial Director, Outlook
IN A sense, perhaps the Zee TV scandal should already be India’s News of the World moment. Certainly, it has enough jolt value. Such incidents do not have to be endemic in the profession to trigger outrage; the shock lies in how low the depths can go.
(For readers as yet unfamiliar with the case, last week, two of Zee’s top editors — Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Ahluwalia — were arrested on charges of extortion levelled at them by the Jindal Group. The backstory is that Zee had been running a series of investigative stories on Jindal’s alleged corruption in the coal allocation scam. In October, Congress MP and steel magnate Naveen Jindal called a press conference in which he suddenly released hidden camera footage that showed the two Zee editors brazenly negotiating a Rs 100 crore deal with his men in return for dropping the damaging stories and setting up a symbiotic relationship for the future. Zee’s contention is that it is Jindal who had approached them with a bribe and the editors were playing along to see how far they would go. However, even if it is true that the Jindal Group made the first offer and so are themselves culpable, Zee’s defence appears incredibly weak because they have no counter-footage of their own to prove they intended an exposé. They also have no explanation for why their editors were trying to push what seemed a Rs 20 crore agreement into a Rs 100 crore deal, if journalistic exposure and not extortion was their real goal. Zee News CEO Alok Agarwal conceded to TEHELKA that the footage looks “disturbing”, but he said the editors were trying to get a contract document signed before they exposed Jindal. He could not explain, however, why they did not then just stop at Rs 20 crore. According to him, the editors were “acting in their own wisdom” and, curiously, no one else in the management knew that such a negotiation — or exposé — was underway. The Delhi Police, however, say the editors’ call records show they allegedly spoke to their boss, Zee TV owner Subhash Chandra, for several minutes from the hotel premises where the meeting with the Jindal’s representatives took place.)
However, despite its many ramifications for the media, many print and TV editors have declined to comment on the case on the plea that it is “sub-judice”. This is not a courtesy the Indian media extends too often to others outside the profession: recall Kanimozhi, A Raja, or Aarushi Talwar’s parents, to name only a few recent high-profile cases. A refusal, therefore, to even contingently condemn fellow journalists on whom prima facie there is disturbing evidence may serve a kind of professional piety — but the silence is likely to have hard fallouts.
Others have argued that ‘paid news’ should be declared an electoral malpractice and also invoke provisions of the IPC. But after the initial noise, nothing has happened
As Ravish Kumar, Executive Editor of NDTV India, puts it, “The question is not about how we see this case, but about how people have started seeing us after this case. This is one more blot on journalism, adding to the bad name it has been earning repeatedly. We are anyway losing our credibility because of our content and cases like this will totally ruin us.”
There are other editors who share this dread. Vinod Mehta, Editorial Director,Outlook, says, “In my 40 years as editor, I have never seen such cynicism about the media in the public. We have been in denial since the Niira Radia tapes. No matter what scandal hits us, we seem to bury our head in the sand and pretend nothing has happened. We say we must do something, but we hope if we procrastinate, it will go away. Instead, each time, it is coming back with greater intensity.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of The Hindu, extends that concern, “We never like writing about the fraternity. To put it crudely, we don’t like pissing inside the tent. The Zee story is definitely a matter for the police to investigate as both sides have levelled charges against each other, but it leaves one very disturbed. What we fail to realise is that the phenomenon of paid news is bound to take you down this road to extortion and blackmail and, despite the mountain of evidence, no one has taken up the issue of paid news. So, it is really time the fraternity looks at all this very seriously.”
It is true the Jindal-Zee case is a very murky one: both sides have much to answer for. Sudhir Chaudhary, for instance, was heading LiveIndia when the infamous “Uma Khurana” sting was conducted by a LiveIndia reporter, Prakash Singh. This led to a shameful incident in which Uma Khurana, a government schoolteacher who the sting had falsely accused of forcing students into prostitution, was almost lynched by a mob in Delhi. The sting was subsequently found to be fake and Prakash Singh was arrested for it. However, despite having presided over this debacle, Sudhir Chaudhary faced no strictures and wound up as Zee News head, while Jindal, it appears, employed the discredited Prakash Singh to engineer his “reverse sting” on Zee News.
This “face-off between two evils”, as independent journalist and educator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta calls it, might be one of the reasons that explains why some in the fraternity have subsided behind an omerta on the Jindal-Zee case. But the clear split in the media between those who are deeply concerned about its falling ethics and standards, and those who believe all is well, extends to pretty much every crisis there has been.
As Varadarajan says, “The biggest threat to Indian media is not necessarily from government or big business, but from within, from our unwillingness to admit there are serious problems. Even in private, off-record chats with many senior editors and proprietors, forget about agreeing on the nature of the problem, they say, there is no problem. The biggest players in the business just don’t want to subject themselves to any scrutiny.”
|‘We have been in denial since the Niira Radia tapes. No matter what scandal hits us, we seem to bury our head in the sand and pretend nothing has happened’
Editorial Director, Outlook
|‘This is one more blot on journalism, adding to the bad name it has been earning. We are anyway losing our credibility because of our content and cases like this will ruin us’
Executive Editor, NDTV India
NOWHERE HAS resistance to scrutiny — and apathy to exposure — been as stark as the media’s response to the dark phenomenon of ‘paid news’. For the longest time, the idea of ‘paid news’ was scathingly synonymous with Bennett, Coleman and Co. In 2003, the Times Group — as it is more popularly known — infamously started a company called Medianet through which celebrities, products and film promotionals could buy space for themselves in its supplements, dressed up to look like bona fide editorial stories. (The group now carries a small disclaimer in Delhi Timesand Bombay Times to say these are sponsored features, but many argue it is not significant enough to catch attention and the stories are still kitted to look like journalism. Besides, it seems excessively cynical — and a total abdication of a rich history of cultural journalism — to assert that the world of cinema, entertainment, the arts and popular icons does not need honest assessments.)
Others have argued that ‘paid news’ should be declared an electoral malpractice and also invoke provisions of the IPC. But after the initial noise, nothing has happened
In 2005, however, even as murmurs about Medianet continued, the Times Group floated the idea of “private treaties” — called Brand Capital — through which, instead of money, it took equity from companies in exchange for advertisement space. Starting out with 10 companies, Bennett, Coleman and Co now has private treaties with 500. Justifiably, this has invited intense criticism about conflict of interest. The question everyone asks is, how can readers trust coverage by the Times Group on any corporate or business story, when it is difficult to track who they have treaties with?
As Hartosh Singh Bal, Political Editor with Open magazine, says, “The Times of Indiahas changed the very idea of what we consider normal. But after the initial questions, almost everyone has gone along with their ideas and things have gotten worse. Now, even other media houses have private treaties. The seeds of all this were sown when (Bennett, Coleman and Co proprietor) Samir Jain asserted he was in the business of advertisement rather than news.”
Such is the disquiet about private treaties, on 15 July 2009, the Securities and Exchange Board of India chief wrote to Press Council of India (PCI) Chairman GN Ray saying it “may give rise to conflict of interest and result in the dilution of the independence of the press”. Recently, both The New Yorker and Caravan magazines have carried critical cover stories on the impact of the Jain brothers — Vineet and Samir — and Times Now Editor Arnab Goswami on the media.
But Ravi Dhariwal, CEO of Bennett, Coleman and Co, expresses extreme exasperation when confronted with these questions. “There is a complete misunderstanding among journalists about all of this,” he says. “Why is our circulation increasing if we were doing so much wrong? Why have we not been hung out to dry by our readers? I’m tired of these innuendoes. I challenge anyone to show us even one example of an unduly positive story on a company that is part of Brand Capital! You have to understand, we do not take shares in exchange for favourable stories. There has never been interference in the editorial decisions of any of the main publications. Whatever coverage we do for money is upfront through Medianet. Nothing is surreptitious. Brand Capital, in fact, is business with risk — we take equity from companies who may be cash-strapped so as to enable business to grow. We feel if the advertisement market grows, we will grow with it. That is the idea behind it. And unlike other media companies, we have never ever taken money for political coverage. Find me one politician who says we have.”
Unfortunately, Dhariwal’s parting arrow hits hard. It is true: Bennett, Coleman and Co can no longer be isolated for the phenomenon of ‘paid news’. In 2010, the media collectively entered an even darker chapter. Although many journalists might be familiar with this story, few ordinary readers would know that in January 2010, acting on several complaints, the PCI commissioned Thakurta and K Sreenivas Reddy to prepare a report on the pervasive culture of ‘paid news’.
The report was submitted on 10 April 2010. In a scandalous move, however, the 30-member PCI deferred publishing it till 31 July because some members felt it would “destroy the credibility of publishers mentioned in it and hurt their longterm interest (sic)”. When July came, the PCI not only failed to make the report public, it did not even append it to the summary it sent the government. Shamefully, the report was only made public in October 2011 — a year and a half later — by order of the Chief Information Commissioner, acting on an RTI request.
READING THAT report is like falling through a dark chute. ‘Paid news’ has now travelled from the relative frivolity of Delhi Times into the political domain, threatening the very basis of democracy. Media across the board have begun demanding “election premiums” and “package deals” from politicians in return for favourable coverage. Stories worded exactly the same appear in different papers under different bylines as exclusives. PR agencies displace journalists at election time. Depending on what candidates shuck out, they might find themselves above the fold in a paper being declared a victor; below the fold a loser. Two candidates from the same constituency might even find themselves declared winners with equal vehemence on the same page. Failure to pay could mean a complete blackout or even a hostile campaign. Paying more could advance you from merely getting “political publicity” to inflicting “political mudslinging”. Politician after politician testified to this dismal state of affairs in the report.
K Ramasubramanian, state secretary of the BSP in Tamil Nadu, said he’d been assured positive publicity for 20 days for a fee of Rs 5 lakh. Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit said he’d been approached by mainstream media to pay for favourable coverage of Rahul Gandhi. Atul Anjaan of the CPI named Aaj Tak,Dainik Jagran and Punjab Kesari as offenders. Yogi Adityanath of the BJP said every paper had a “rate card”. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj said her campaign managers had been approached for Rs 1 crore. The list stretches on. In Andhra Pradesh alone, the paid news pie in 2009 was allegedly worth Rs 1,000 crore: A new “creative” device had been cracked to get past the Election Commission’s spending limit of Rs 16 lakh per candidate. As ads were restricted by the EC rules, the media offered its editorial space instead.
Booth rigging had been replaced by the rigging of minds.
P Sainath of The Hindu, who was among the first journalists to start exposing the advent of ‘paid news’ in politics, demonstrated how Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan had been praised for his “young and dynamic leadership” in three publications —Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times — on different days in exactly the same words. He also exposed how Chavan had got 89 full pages of coverage, though he claimed he had spent only Rs 10 lakh on his election.
‘There is a misunderstanding about (Medianet). Why is our circulation increasing if we were doing so much wrong? Why have we not been hung out to dry by our readers?’
CEO, Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd
In a Rajya Sabha discussion on 5 March 2010, several senior politicians noted the staggering proportions ‘paid news’ had acquired. CPM’s Sitaram Yechury told the House that this disease not only affected the Fourth Estate, “but the future of Parliamentary democracy itself”. ‘Paid news’, he said, was “distorting the electoral system, privileging those with money, demeaning the very idea and essence of journalism”.
Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley was even more hard-hitting. “Industries,” he said, “can shape the economy but media shapes the human mind… Yet respectable media organisations had ‘legitimised’ the practice of ‘paid news’ and several broadcasters had made a cartel and raised rates for political advertisement in 2009”. That, he argued, placed these actions of the media “not in the realm of free speech, but in trade and business, that too with unlawful objective, violating the IT Act”. Any candidate indulging in paid news, therefore, should be disqualified and the media house fined in exemplary terms.
Others have argued that ‘paid news’ should be declared an electoral malpractice and also invoke provisions of the IPC to do with cheating. But after the initial noise, nothing has happened. According to SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner, in the Punjab Assembly election earlier this year, a staggering 339 notices were sent out to media houses and politicians on suspected cases of ‘paid news’. But nothing happened.
Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor, CNN-IBN, sounds a warning note. “The more we prevaricate, the greater the hole we will dig ourselves into. The public mood can eventually lead to a nanny state. There has always been corruption in the media, but it has now become more institutionalised and systemic. So how do we fix it? How do journalists ensure proprietors play by the rule? These are questions that should deeply worry the entire profession.”
But the water has gone back to slow burn. No one is worried enough to undertake action.
TO SUGGEST Indian media needs introspection or peer scrutiny is not to assert all of it is corroded or even that it has lost all of the robustness that should underpin media in a free world. But to arrive at an honest measure of oneself, one must at least remind oneself what an ideal media in a democracy is meant to be.
‘The more we prevaricate, the greater the hole we will dig ourselves into. There has always been corruption in the media, but it has become more institutionalised’
By its most rudimentary definition, a democratic press is meant to inform, educate and entertain the citizenry in a fair, objective, factual and proportionate way. It is meant also to be opinionated, irreverent and inviolably committed to the idea of individual and civil liberties. At its purest, however, it is meant to have the appetite to investigate and question both money and power and hold them to the idea of the greater common good. It is meant not only to reflect the popular mood, but also to stand against it, if the popular ever consolidates into something detrimental to a core constitutional or democratic value.
While almost every editor TEHELKA spoke to feels the Indian media collectively is doing better and more feisty work than an earlier generation of journalists, part of the slow burn in the beaker is that on almost all of these counts, the media has begun to slip.
“A big part of the problem is that journalists have become too arrogant and filled with hubris. This is even more true of the TV media than print,” says Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in- Chief of The Indian Express. “Print itself has bad conscience because it has been guilty of ‘paid news’, but with TV, there is a sense that we are the movers and shakers; we can build or destroy governments and individuals. So, you have very strong positions being taken on TV without due diligence. As the State is getting weaker, this power of the media is becoming more disproportionate. The tall claims made by the CAG on the 2G, coal scam, etc, are a good case in point. Scepticism — a desire to check facts — should be the first impulse of the media, but TV does not bother. Why does every scandal have to be made to look like 2-3 percent of India’s GDP to excite the media? TV just goes with the popular mood and it becomes very difficult for others in the fraternity to take more nuanced positions without sounding pro-government or pro-corporate. In fact, a desire to wait till you can check the facts is almost seen as cowardice or compromise now. We have TV anchors who would have taken us to war with China, Pakistan and Australia at the same time if they had their way!”
Perhaps these are only the surface symptoms. If there is one concern that binds everyone in the media — a concern everyone agrees lies at the heart of what is eroding its standards — it is the intense struggle for revenue.
For instance, Sanjoy Narayan, Editor, Hindustan Times,is part of the fraternity who says he has never seen “the Chinese wall between editorial and marketing” ever breached at HT or other publications he has worked in. But he admits the “intensification of competition and the decline in revenue and profitability across the media” are areas of great alarm. The skimping on resources, the slide in credibility, the dumbing down of content, the absence of due diligence, the low quality of hirings, the scramble for TRPs and visibility, the fact that most media play it safe and don’t dig into the political- corporate nexus of corruption is all a product of that resource crunch, he says.
Intensification of competition is an understatement: India has more than 800 channels — of them, 300 are news channels. Yet, everyone has to vie for the same finite advertising pie. Both in print and TV, there is a disproportionate dependence on advertising, and corporates as subscribers do not pay the cost price of news. (They would pay Rs 150 for a cup of coffee or an imported packet of chips, but not a news magazine.) In the television business, this is further skewed dangerously by the collective delusion of the TRP rating.
Vikram Chandra, CEO of NDTV, is scathing in his analysis. “There is a key structural issue why TV has collapsed,” he says. The Indian TV news business is perhaps the only one in the world that cannot raise revenue through subscriptions and instead spends almost 40 percent of its costs paying distribution fee to cable operators. In the analog format, every cable operator can only put on about 50-60 channels on air, but there are 200 vying to get on, so everyone is willing to pay an extortionate fee. This is a double-edged sword because it then forces channels to be dependent on only TRP ratings for ads.
The trap here is that the viewing tastes of an uber-heterogenous country of 1.2 billion people is gauged by only 8,000 TRP boxes. Of this, only about 200 boxes can be seen as a reflection of English viewers’ tastes. Of these, at least 30-40 can be bought off. “That leaves one trapped in a Chakravyuh you cannot get out of,” says Chandra. “Instead of being rewarded for good programming, one is forced to follow the herd and play to the lowest common denominator.”
But both Chandra and other TV editors see a slow turnaround ahead. “If the government can get its act together, it is possible to turn the business,” he says. “With the movement to digital from analog, the carriage fee will start to go down and a channel can actually gauge who its real viewers are and what sort of programming they will reward. As this mad desperation for TRP ratings goes away, TV programming will improve drastically.”
The clear split in the media between those who are deeply concerned about its falling ethics and standards, and those who believe all is well extends to pretty much every crisis
But corrections in revenue generation are perhaps neither the only danger nor the only panacea. As Shekhar Gupta points out, “There is a very dangerous trend in India now, when media is beginning to get evaluated only in terms of money and balance sheets rather than respect and influence. In itself, media will always be a very small business. The total earnings of the top 10 news channels in India would be just over Rs 1,200 crore a year. So you have a situation now when new “resource” corporates have realised that they can pay 10 times the book value for a media house and just buy it out. The attitude is, ‘you have such tiny financial muscle and such huge nuisance value, let us show you your place’. Whatever they spend is just small change for them, so they can buy out any media house and either neutralise or use that influence.”
Curiously, the remedies to many of the challenges confronting Indian media then lie in the old, undefinable mix between high principles, personal moral fibre and sound pragmatics. For media to preserve its noble calling, first of all, editors must go back to being editors. As former chief justice, Justice JS Verma, says, “We must remind ourselves of what Rajendra Prasad said at the end of the Constituent Assembly debates: ‘The worth of the Constitution will depend on the worth of those who run it’.”
THE REASON Justice Leveson’s report has kicked up a furore is that despite reiterating his unwavering commitment to the idea of a free press, his report is proof that Britain has turned a historic corner. It no longer believes its press is capable of self-regulation. Among some sound recommendations and some worrying excesses that speak of an impulse towards paranoia (a call to share sources, a demand for politicians and police to declare which journalists they met and what they spoke of ), the Leveson Report not only suggests setting up an independent regulatory body — with neither government nor any serving editors as a part of it — it also suggests a statutory underpinning for the body. Piquantly, it is left to British Prime Minister David Cameron to attempt a final stand on behalf of the media — against the public mood — and protect its freedoms from even a shadow of legislative or government control.
In India too, some of these faultlines are already starting to show. Vinod Mehta, for instance, says, “I had always believed that we should be tried only by our peers, but now I’m not so sure of that. Perhaps, we need a mixed bag with men like Justice Santosh Hegde and Justice JS Verma.”
‘Print itself has bad conscience because of paid news, but with TV channels, there is a sense that we are the movers and shakers; we can build or destroy governments’
Editor-in-Chief, Indian Express
Hartosh Bal is willing to go even a step further. “One of the biggest issues facing Indian media that is rarely spoken of is the question of cross-ownership — the same company owning huge slices of print, TV, radio, Internet, et al. No media house should become too big, so how does one arrive at ownership norms? We need to debate and take these decisions, and where can this demand come from but from Parliament?”
REGULATION, OF course, is always a thorny business — assailed by many imponderables. How much is too much; how little is too little? How can one enforce even as one leaves free? If there are to be guardians of conscience, how are they to be appointed? If someone unworthy sits on a high chair, how can the chair itself be safeguarded?
TEHELKA has always been a passionate defender of the press’ right to remain inviolably free and self-correcting. But lapses like the absent peer response to the PCI report on ‘paid news’, for instance, does severely challenge that notion.
‘The media is the watchdog of democracy. Nothing that weakens it should be permitted, but if it is weakening from within, that too should not be permitted’
Former Chief Election Commissioner
Should such gross misdemeanours be left to the workings of individual conscience? Or, should one adhere to what Quraishi says: “The media is the watchdog of democracy. Nothing that weakens it should be permitted, but if it is weakening from within, that too should not be permitted.”
On one principle, however, there can be no doubt; there should never be any pre-facto control over a media group’s right to publish a story. All parsing of mistakes can only be post-facto.
Interestingly, while the PCI remains an institution in disarray, a potentially sound forum is taking shape in the television medium. The National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) led by Justice Verma and four other eminent citizens — Dipankar Gupta, Nitin Desai, SY Quraishi and Chokila Iyer — as well as four serving TV editors, is slowly building up a body of informal jurisprudence through fines, censures and orders.
Justice Verma’s sober gravitas has created a natural alcove of leadership for it. “I did not want to just handle complaints,” he says, “I wanted to help build a framework, a code of conduct.” When the NBSA invited him to chair the body, he asked for some non-negotiables: that he could take suo moto notice of wrongdoing; that he could impose fines; and that as long as any media organisation was part of the NBSA, they would be bound by its rules.
While its membership remains voluntary and merely 25 of 300 channels are part of it (and Rajat Sharma of India TV walked out of it when he was fined Rs 1 lakh), the NBSA is getting cases referred to it from the information & broadcasting ministry on non-member channels as well, who seem inclined to comply with its decisions from outside, mostly out of peer pressure. To make it truly effective, membership of all channels ought to be compulsory, but even Justice Verma is hesitant to articulate how that might be democratically effected.
Just the opening of the conversation is a start. In print too, experiments like The Hindu’s Readers’ Editor — a post independent of the editor — and committed to the readers’ experience and redress of grievance, are gaining currency. As more of the media is called upon for course corrections, it will be our responses to the small doses of heat that will ultimately determine our collective health rather than the panicked response to the super bolt.
With inputs from Brijesh Pandey, Prakhar Jain and Rahul Kotiyal