Cobrapost’s Operation 136, an undercover sting operation on the biggest newspapers and TV channels where top executives to owners of the media entities agree to not only spread communal disharmony among the citizens but also tilt the electoral outcome in favour of a particular party for the right price, has not just exposed the depths of the lack of morality and ethics that the fourth estate in this country has stooped to.
It has also brought to fore the nonchalance with which news can be and is being tailored to suit the agenda of the highest bidder. It also underscores the paradigm shift in a profession, which has always been known to be driven by its responsibility to the citizens as watchdogs of the society rather than kowtowing to the powers that be.
There are exceptions like the Bengali newspapers Bartaman and Dainik Sambad. But what is alarming is that what used to be an exception has become the rule. The truth is that with integration of India with the global economy and free market sensibilities ruling the roost, media has been reduced to just another business. It has become as unscrupulous as the arms or the oil or the real estate business. Only one thing matters in the neoliberal domain and that is the bottomline.
Sanctity of news, veracity of facts, conscientious journalism have been sacrificed at the altar of profits and more money. Vineet Jain, managing director of Bennett Coleman and Company Limited which owns The Times of India, Times Now and The Economic Times amongst numerous media entities, had clarified this long back. In a 2012 interview with Ken Auletta in the New Yorker, he said, “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business.”
The tragedy is that today the fourth pillar of democracy has itself become a threat to democracy by selling its soul for money. If the principal watchdog which is supposed to bark at the slightest instance of danger to the society becomes the lapdog of the government of the day, who will raise the people’s voice? Who will bring the wrongs to public notice? These are the issues at hand the media industry and journalists have to introspect about. Journalists can’t be resigned to the inevitability of a post-truth world.
Big media has always been susceptible to the lure of big money. We have seen fraudulent chit fund companies and dubious educational institutions emerge as top advertisers and going on to run their own newspapers, channels and magazines. There has been a massive failure on part of the regulators and the regulations are also fairly antiquated. A toothless institution like Press Council of India is not up to this job. The government of the day is mulling moves to regulate social media while turning a blind eye to these developments in the mainstream industry of information dissemination. It suits the agenda of the current government and the RSS which runs this government.
This is where institutions like the Election Commission ought to step in. When it comes to political news, it must ascertain whether a media organisation is serving a fair and balanced picture, is circulating fake news or is trying to tilt the balance in favour of some political party. Another eye-opener has been that media organisations are as guilty of dealing in cash and suggesting means like hawala routes to circumvent the system as any other company though they may wax eloquent on the present government’s resolve in tackling black money. This makes media companies vulnerable to pressure from governments which may send their investigating agencies to dig out skeletons out of the closets.
“The press is one of the vital organs of modern life, especially in a democracy. The Press has tremendous powers and responsibilities,” said Nehru. The tragedy is that today the fourth pillar of democracy has itself become a threat to democracy by selling its soul for money. If the principal watchdog which is supposed to bark at the slightest instance of danger to the society becomes the lapdog of the government of the day, who will raise the people’s voice? Who will bring the wrongs to public notice? These are the issues at hand the media industry and journalists have to introspect about. Journalists can’t be resigned to the inevitability of a post-truth world.
This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday