Media, money and moral misconduct in times of greed and graft

Today, despite belonging to the industry, I have to sadly acknowledge that, while there are some honourable exceptions, the media is mostly synonymous with greed corruption and power-broking

 Media, money and moral misconduct in times of greed and graft
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Sujata Anandan

Sometimes attempts to reform society may have unimaginable fallouts.

The outrage over most leading media houses in the country today selling their integrity for a few crore rupees, I believe, would not have happened had former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan not used a strong hand to control election expenses of political parties. Prior to the mid-1990s when Seshan reigned supreme, there was no concept of the ‘advertorial', an advertisement dressed up as an editorial, which the lay person would find very difficult to distinguish, one from the other.

I remember in Mumbai at the time even candidates of leading political parties were terrified that just riding in a car while going door-to-door would be written down on their expense sheet as videographers appointed by the Election Commission followed them around town. They could not even relax over a drink at a restaurant in the evening with friends for the same reason. But the worse off were independent candidates who did not have the backing of apportioned party funds to pass off as individual expenses. While mainstream political parties were allowed advertisements in newspapers, independents who had hitherto depended on placing their mugshots in the classified pages of newspapers and appealing to people to vote for them were almost driven out of electoral politics. The next election year, many of them had come up with a strategy to beat the Election Commission. They did not have the kind of party workers that mainstream political parties utilised for door to door campaigns and had to mostly depend on themselves and their families. So while Shiv Sena and BJP  candidates took to accosting  temple goers for their votes and the Congress workers stalked morning walkers, joggers' and laughter clubs, some enterprising independents cut through that trouble by simply haunting newspaper offices until they got the attention of individual reporters.

I noticed the vernacular newspapers were more popular with these independents than mainstream English language newspapers, for obvious reasons. But even as they buttonholed individual reporters and cajoled them into publishing substantial reports, they gave rise to corruption in the media. They had to compete with mainstream parties, so they were not satisfied with small single column reports about themselves. They were willing to pay the individual reporters for larger half- and quarter-page reports and thus began the advent of the advertorial, or paid news, in the newspaper industry.

It is very horrifying now to learn that managements in media houses are not beyond attempting to polarise society or even cause communal conflagrations for a few crore rupees

Until now the mainstream parties were still making use of traditional advertising space. But soon the managements of newspapers caught on to what the individual reporters were doing and decided to institutionalise the entire process of paid news. By the early part of the century, I noticed that the mainstream parties were actively approached by advertising executives for 'packages' in the papers. But even politicians now decided to milk the greed to strategically place advertorials against their rivals across media outlets. The competition between them led to huge bonanzas during election season for newspapers. One election year, when certain upright editors of a particular newspaper in Pune protested to their management at the selling out of editorial space, they were told off by the owners and handed termination letters. The message was clear—put up or shut up; else, get out.

The trend has taken root also because, in recent years, newspaper owners have accorded more importance to their management executives than to their editors. In earlier years, I recall, one of my editors sent a particular executive packing because he was bothering a reporter to publish a puff piece about an organisation that did not really fit in with the paper's editorial policy. Word went out to all that at corresponding seniority levels, the editorial staff's decision would stand against the management’s and that editorial decisions were sacrosanct and not to be overruled for any consideration. But soon after the culture of advertorials took over, I noticed, management executives took to attending editorial meetings and, instead of going by their own reporters’ instincts, editors began to be dictated to by these executives on what might interest the readers or not. Management executives predictably saw  readers' interests was largely over clogged pipelines, overflowing gutters, lack of water supply, potholed roads, etc. These were issues that should have occurred naturally to civic reporters but, in the entire exercise, the instincts of other reporters who would have been nosing behind closed doors to expose much more than civic amenities going wrong, went for a toss. Over the years, the paper ended up as a chronicle of the municipal corporation rather than of deeper issues plaguing society.

It is, however, very horrifying now to learn that managements in media houses are not beyond attempting to polarise society or even cause communal conflagrations for a few crore rupees. This kind of moral transgression should be expected when marketing executives are given more importance within newspapers than editors, and money becomes  the centre point of all editorial content. When I began my journalism more than three decades ago, the profession was still looked upon as the mission it was during the freedom struggle and not a commercial enterprise. As a young reporter, I was told by my earliest editors that life as a journalist would be a hard uphill struggle to bring the truth to readers, and that if I succeeded in improving the life of even one individual through my writing, I should consider myself successful. “We are the watchdogs of society and, please note, a journalist's life is no better than a dog's life. There is no glamour here. Only hard work and long hours."

That spirit of social service has been thrown to the winds as most media houses have become commercial enterprises. Once upon a time, only those with huge businesses in another industry would venture into media as a part of their corporate social responsibility. Today, despite belonging to the industry, I have to sadly acknowledge that, while there are some honourable exceptions, the media is mostly synonymous with greed corruption and power broking. And, as is obvious from the Cobrapost exposè last week, a complete lack of conscience or social and moral integrity.

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