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News ::
Prostitution of journalism in India (english)
12 Mar 2003
Prostitution of journalism
Prostitution of journalism
By M.V. Kamath
Newspapers prostitute their pages, they are in this business to make money

T.N. Ninan, editor of Business Standard has noted in a contribution to Hindustan Times (February 19), "palming off advertising in the guise of news is about the worst sin that you can commit in a newspaper." Ninan's two articles in Hindustan Times should be must reading for all students of journalism for they describe present-day reality in the newspaper world as nothing else does. Today's journalists are largely seen as stooges: Their job is to obey orders from higher ups in the management ladder. As Ninan has put it: "The journalists, then, have a choice: do as ordered, or quit."

"When jobs are scarce, more will choose the first option." And journalists had better be careful about what they write. To quote Ninan again: "If an advertiser has a problem with what a newspaper says about it, the complaint will go to the ad department, not to the editor. If the response is not satisfactory, advertising will be withdrawn - and this has been done at some point by virtually every major advertiser in virtually every market."

No regrets Out, therefore, goes the whole business about the editor having an independent view. In many newspapers hired editors have no independent voice. They take their cue from the owner publisher. The question does not arise where the owner/publisher or the person who owns/controls shares himself takes on editorial responsibility, as in the case of The Statesman, The Telegraph, Deccan Herald and The Hindu. In such cases there is No question of tension arising between editor and publisher. Both roles are embodied in one person.

Writes Ninan: "In other words, the editor who is responsible solely for the editorial output is an endangered species and non-existent in the Indian language media." What will happen next? Ninan says, somewhat cynically: "I suspect that at least some publishers will wait long enough for today's perversion to become tomorrow's market practice and then begin copying The Times of India...".

So much for ethics in journalism. Does The Times of India have any regrets? None whatsoever. But evidently to show that it is aware of the current controversy it dared to reprint (February 18) that said: "Just as the rise of PR has influenced news, the ascendance of media buying as a separate service industry is driving the flowering of ads all over the media and the push for unusual positioning on hitherto conservative news pages...

Pushing advertising then, is deadly serious business. Maintaining editorial primacy is increasingly a losing proposition." And that says it all. News in future will be on sale. Presumably editorials, too, will some day also be on sale. Editorial prostitution will become respectable.

It is all about money, honey. But journalists - at least the older ones - seem terribly worried. Writing in Asian Age (February 19) Ajit Bhattacharjea, an old journalistic hand who has himself been an editor, congratulated The Hindustan Times for drawing attention to the threat posed by unscrupulous managers to the credibility of the press.
Bhattacharjea writes: "It has been clear for years that The Times of India leads the pack in selling credibility for cash. While some others have done so surreptitiously, this once-venerable paper now openly sells news space on its metro and society pages to those eager to be splashed on them, thus legitimising the sleazy deal. "If the trend is allowed to continue, space on the main news pages, even the editorial page, will soon be available to the highest bidder. Or her profit-hungry managers may follow suit." Can anything be done to halt and ultimately reverse this trend? Bhattacharjea is sceptical. But he says:

"The ultimate remedy for under-reporting, over-kill and the self-destructive practice of selling news space lies with the reader. This does not excuse the journalist. But only the reader can effectively encourage credible, responsible newspapers and discourage others
by buying one and ignoring the other.

Fortunately, we have a choice." We have a choice? Bhattacharjea is living in a fools' paradise. Few readers bother. In the first place memory is short: readers forget that they are being taken for a ride. As Vir Sanghvi wrote in the paper he edits, The Hindustan Times: "The truly insidious thing about accepting bribes to carry news stories is that the reader doesn't know that he's being taken advantage of. When he reads that a newspaper regards a new car as being the best in its range, he has no reason to suspect that the paper has accepted money to make this judgement." Sanghvi is harsh on such papers. He says: "Proprietors who don't tell their readers that they take bribes to manufacture news stories are like thieves who pick your pocket...

"That, I suspect, is what we're seeing in the Indian media. Readers don't realise that newspapers are cheating them, that credibility is now on sale in the market place and that bribery is an established corporate practice at some media companies. The good thing about the current media debate is that journalists are finally placing the facts before the readers." That is poor consolation. There is no action being taken against erring newspapers. If, as Sanghvi so eloquently says, they are thieves, then the law must be invoked to punish thieves. How does one do that? Citizens are incapable of taking action and the Press Council has no teeth. Can Parliament intervene? It can, provided it has the guts. How many politicians will knowingly take on the all-powerful media?

Gandhi's Gujarat
The tragedy is that some newspapers do not for a moment entertain a sense of guilt. To them 'bijness is bijness'. Sanghvi wants to know why some newspapers are so ready to cheat their readers into believing that stuff that has been paid for has the credibility of news and why are papers "turning into blackmailers, demanding money from politicians before agreeing to cover their campaigns." His answer is: "Greed". Greed, unfortunately, does not come under criminal law and cannot be punished.

Bitterly Sanghvi says: "Newspapers prostitute their pages because they can. The people who run them have no commitment to the truth; no interest in the greater good. And no respect for the readers. As far as they are concerned they are in this business to make money."

And these are the papers who until the other day were ticking off Narendra Modi for bringing Gandhi's Gujarat into disrepute. These papers are bringing not just Gujarat, but all of India and the very profession of journalism into disrepute. But they are selling in millions of copies, aren't they? They are the world's greatest, aren't they? So what is wrong with a little prostitution? We live in a corrupt, unscrupulous world where the
Watchword is Money. That is all that counts. We no more have the kind of editors who
fought for principles. A pity. O I ago, the pity of it!
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