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Media Ethics: something is Rotten in the State of Denmark

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Media Ethics: something is Rotten in the State of Denmark
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In his recent Asian Age article titled A week is a long time in politics, celebrated political analyst and columnist, Swapan Dasgupta observed that the credibility of Indian media has taken a nosedive as a fallout of the Radia tapes and paid news scandal. This is indeed a remarkable admission because the author is himself an influential media voice and a part of the establishment in Delhi. It is also of import that at the peak of the Radia controversy he vouched that the media celebrities mired in it have been unfairly assessed in public perception. Yet, the article went almost unnoticed because that there is a trust deficit in the media is by now a truism- it is alarming nonetheless.

I would contend that the root cause of this evil is the lack of internal scrutiny in the fourth estate and the controversies are merely syndromes. Most top notch journalists—with the exception of the venerable Arun Shourie—and the media groups that aired the Radia tapes—unequivocally defended their colleagues who appeared to be in violation of professional ethics. If the recent events are any indicator, the trade union psyche among journalists has only been reinforced over the years. I will make my case in light of two recent controversies.

The Chief of the Army Staff becomes the enemy within: the specious case for Omerta

Indian Express had accused Gen. V. K Singh, former Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), of attempts to subvert the governments at the Centre and in Jammu and Kashmir. The reports were based on military intelligence documents that are not available in public domain. Gen. Singh refuted the allegations, and accused the editor in chief of Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, of accruing disproportionate assets and committing financial improbity. He also counter-alleged that a coterie inimical to India's interests, comprising Sidharth Varadarajan, the editor in chief of the Hindu, who is purportedly a US citizen, has been seeking to influence crucial defense purchases and national policies through extra-constitutional means. Mr. Gupta, who has sued his media colleagues in the past, is yet to seek defamation damages from Gen. Singh despite his specific allegations.

As any informed reader would attest, Gen. Singh's allegations constitute news because they seek to dent the credibility of the Indian Express articles by lending credence to the case that Mr. Gupta is vulnerable to governmental pressure (Gen. Singh enjoyed a less-than-cordial relationship with the Union Government during his tenure as COAS). Yet, while Mr. Gupta's story was widely reported in the media, Gen. Singh's allegations were not. As far as I know, only three journalists—Sucheta Dalal, Minhaz Merchant and Rajdeep Sardesai have even acknowledged the latter. Merchant sought a rebuttal from Gupta. Sardesai perfunctorily alluded to the potentially defamatory comments against Gupta without divulging specifics. The allegations against the coterie consisting of Mr. Varadarajan have been greeted with radio silence so far.

Reputed columnist Tavleen Singh, who regularly writes in the same Indian Express, accused Gen. Singh of undermining the dignity of the Indian army by washing dirty linen in public. She omitted any mention of Gupta although the same yardsticks render him culpable of the charge of leaking national secrets. This is similar to how, during the Radia controversy, she did not utter a word against the media icons that stooped to lobbying but defended Neera Radia against a trial in the media.

The web portal Niti Central was perhaps one of the few to have campaigned for supporting Gen. Singh when Gupta's allegations surfaced. However, its editor and senior journalist Kanchan Gupta tweeted that “MSM editors seized to be conscience-keepers long ago. They are now ledger-keepers. Outrage rather late in the day.” He went on to advise the readers to introspect: “Look within. You dear reader and viewer keep MSM in business — eg, every link you tweet makes their cash register ring. Think about it.

I would like to think that it is his fraternity that ought to introspect as to why the rot was allowed to percolate this deep. Why did the media not serve as a watchdog on itself and expose editorial corruption early on? After all, it is not the readers who observed the Omerta that exists in the media. In fact, with the advent of social media, it is the vigilant readers who exposed the tip of the iceberg of media corruption. It is they who trended the Radia scandal for a week on twitter while most journalists preferred the eloquence of silence or openly sided with their brethren who were named in the tapes. In this context, the distinction between mainstream media and web portals is but artificial as the latter could well have exposed media scandals. Would it be acceptable if for example, a politician suggests that the electorate ignore the issue of corruption in politics given that the battle has already been lost?

Given this, it is fair to expect that journalists must be subject to the exact same yardsticks that apply to any other professional. Lastly, it is the circulation of news links that at least informs the uninitiated of the state of affairs in the news industry and stimulates the informed towards countering misinformation. See no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil, does not fool anybody in this information age.

The Dehati Aurat strikes 

The next controversy emerged a couple of days before a contentious summit meeting between the Indian and Pakistan premiers. NDTV journalist Barkha Dutt interviewed Mr. Nawaz Sharif after a breakfast meeting and tweeted select quotes wherein Mr. Sharif expressed his reverence for his Indian counterpart. Yet, a senior Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir reported that Sharif had ridiculed Singh as a “dehati aurat” during the breakfast meeting.

A vigilant netizen, Sachin Dixit posted the video clip of Mr. Mir's report on social media and the topic started trending on twitter shortly thereafter. The prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, Narendra Modi alluded to this incident in his Delhi rally on 29 September 2013 and reminded journalists of their citizen responsibilities, without naming any journalist specifically. Ms.Dutt's version of the incident altered as the day progressed—from outright denial to a rural allegory involving a village woman to discourses concerning media ethics of not reporting off-the-record comments. She was outraged that the account of a Pakistani journalist was considered credible. The Pakistani journalist too, progressively retracted his comment, perhaps under gentle persuasion, as Mr. Dasgupta described in his aforementioned Asian Age article.

While it is impossible to conclusively identify the correct version, many including former RAW director, Vikram Sood believe that the original version narrated by Mr. Mir appear to be the most cogent. Journalists like R. Jagannathan, S. Dasgupta, A. Malik defended Ms. Dutt's position relying on the same premise as that of Barkha Dutt’s. Mr. Jagannathan tweeted that “Modi had no business commenting on what the Indian journo should do“. The statement is astonishing in itself as surely the role of the media cannot legitimately be exempted from comments from other citizens including politicians. In particular, if there is a trust deficit associated with the media, as Mr. Dasgupta acknowledges, surely a politician can seek accountability. Mr. Dasgupta also claimed that “journalists are not government spokesmen” and “the good journalist is the one who lets the subject drone on and, in the process, commit indiscretions.” Mr. Malik echoed the same position in his tweets. This line leads to several pending questions which, to the best of my knowledge, have not yet been examined by any media professional.

The questions that never were

1. A citizen would normally be expected to object if a foreign national is undermining the head of her state. Are journalists, who are also citizens, exempted from the same expectation? If so, can journalists resort to patriotism, rather jingoism, as a valid defense? Notably, Ms. Dutt, correlated the credibility of an individual to the color of his passport.

2. Even assuming that a journalist is a professional first and a citizen later, was Ms. Dutt complying with her professional obligations while she was enjoying Mr. Sharif's hospitality? If so, why did she not report the indiscretion that her subject, Mr. Sharif committed? Can her participation in the off-the-record conversation— which she did not intend to report—constitute part of her job? It is worthwhile to note that Ms. Dutt's channel, NDTV has a precedence of telecasting an entire off-the-record meeting between Gen. Musharraf and Indian journalists in Agra in 2001. She herself divulged further details of her off-the-record conversations once Hamid Mir went public.

3. One may however argue that Ms. Dutt indulged in chit chat to cultivate her subject. Even so, since she was privy to Mr. Sharif's disregard for Dr. Singh, she should not have highlighted his purported reverence for him. Is it in accordance with media ethics to depict a subject in a manner that is contrary to the journalist's knowledge of him?

4. Ms. Dutt has been a key protagonist of the Radia tape controversy that is largely believed to have decimated the public’s trust in Indian media. She did not appear to be forthcoming during the initial days of the controversy as many of her media colleagues contended. Should the Radia episode not be considered while evaluating her denial of the off-the-record exchanges in question?

5. Finally, if the rest of the society can be a story, why can’t a journalist herself be, as Ms. Dutt herself asserted?

I should mention here that the web portal Niti central has raised several closely-related questions. However, none of those questioners are professional journalists.

The need for internal scrutiny 

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the professions that command respect are also those that accommodate substantial internal scrutiny. It is customary for scholars and academics to expose the limitations of the findings of their peers. Academic and research institutes as also the corresponding professional bodies incorporate offices that are solely charged with probing and penalizing professional transgressions such as misconduct in research, abuse of authority, failure to disclose conflicts of interest and so on. Conflict of interest norms are for instance, quite stringent in scientific research in the US. As per the norms of the National Science Foundation in the US, a researcher cannot review a research paper or a proposal submitted by a peer with whom she has collaborated in last 4 years. Conflicts of interest of an individual extend to peers whose institutions have considered her for appointments or merely awarded her honorariums for lectures.

On the other hand, it is not clear how journalists manage their conflicts of interests while defending editors of news sites they contribute to or even television anchors who regularly host them. More generally, are there professional bodies that have the mandate to probe and penalize professional misconduct of journalists, and do these bodies effectively exercise these mandates?

With impressive alacrity, BEA, the Broadcast Editors Association, issued a statement objecting to Mr. Modi's comments on journalists barely hours after his speech. The same organization is yet to object to the advisory that the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari issued on the coverage of protests against the gang rape in Delhi which shook the entire nation in December 2012. Neither did it step in when serious questions related to breach of media ethics emerged after the Radia tapes surfaced. Nor did it act after the Supreme Court disparaged the live media coverage of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, which possibly helped the terrorists. Lastly, it did not pursue the workplace sexual harassment charge that NDTV journalist Sunetra Choudhury narrated in writing. Specifically, it is not known whether the BEA sought to persuade her to seek justice when she declined to pursue the matter any further. This professional body is therefore largely ineffective, and its consistency does not inspire confidence either. Rather, its practices remind one of a trade union that selectively pursues the interests of those that are high in the pecking order.

It is pertinent that both recent controversies have the potential to bring serious disrepute to the Government. It is also undeniable that the Indian media has largely been rendered complicit in creating a narrative that seeks to gloss over the monumental failures of the same Government in return for largesse. Media organisations have been rewarded with advertisement revenues. The top echelons of media houses have gone on Government-sponsored jaunts to international trips of Governmental functionaries, for example. This does indeed explain the reluctance of large sections of the media in pursuing leads which could otherwise have constituted major stories.

Yet, the journalists who I specifically mentioned in this article have ruthlessly exposed the failings of the Government of the day and have been severely critical of the de facto seat of power in India, the Gandhi dynasty. They either run their own media outlets or function as independent columnists and political analysts. Their voices are therefore not subject to direct editorial control. Finally, they are all brilliant authors whose articles I personally savor not merely because they voice the opinions that would not have been expressed otherwise, but also because of the sheer quality of exposition. Yet, therein lies the tragedy. Those who could eschew governmental largesse to assume independent stances could not or would not critically appraise their own colleagues. Is it therefore a misplaced sense of camaraderie arising of long-standing professional association that has contributed to this failing? Is this what the erstwhile insider Arun Shourie implied in his now epic “journalists are in bed with each other and with everybody?”

Be that as it may, the honour code that compels the observance of Omerta or a defence by resorting to spurious arguments makes us outsiders wonder whether something is rotten in the state of Denmark!

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