News Without Principle

Journalism is not the only broken institution in India—but restoring its moral values is an urgently necessary step toward ending a national culture of corruption

The practice of public figures demanding pre-publication approval will cripple press freedom in India. Above is a slide run by Karan Thapar before the broadcast of an interview with P Chidambaram in 2008. VINOD K. JOSE
01 January, 2011

THIS-SCAM BLESSED YEAR has become an imperative to bring back higher moral principles in our public life—from journalism to politics to corporate governance.

“Journalism has not been this much fun for a long time,” a newspaper vendor named Ashok told me earlier this week. In this misty, sleepy Delhi winter, more and more people are stopping by the carpet of periodicals Ashok sells on a footpath outside one of the city’s nicer residential colonies. “Outlook, Mail Today and Open have been in demand for the last couple of weeks. And more people buy Times of India too,” Ashok said, rubbing a glass of hot tea in his palms.

It’s no wonder Ashok’s business is booming—the shock and masala on display in the headlines over the last several months has been unprecedented: CWG officials appropriating government funds; top army officers and politicians taking possession of apartments meant for the families of war martyrs; and a smart policy-pimp facilitating the loss of billions of rupees from the exchequer in the course of helping her clients exert influence in Delhi.

Now that it’s over, one thing can be said for certain about 2010: it will provide abundant research material for future historians seeking to understand how India really functions. The graduate students of tomorrow will need to pore through hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines, and thousands of posts on blogs, Facebook and Twitter—not to mention the rapidly expanding collection of leaked recordings of Niira Radia on Outlook’s website.

At the end of this year of scams, is there anything to be learned?

If such lessons do exist, they must be larger than the tearing down of a few outsized personalities: the tarnishing of reputations is always titillating fare, but it tells us precious little about how to repair the tattered morals of public life. The bigger scandal here is not about Vir Sanghvi or Barkha Dutt, Suresh Kalmadi or Ashok Chavan, Ranjan Bhattacharjee or Niira Radia, Tarun Das or Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata.

The best way to understand the historical significance of India’s year of scandals is to forget the individuals who walk—or wish to walk—through Delhi’s corridors of power: the real story is the rotting foundation of the corridors themselves. Recall that it took a global economic crisis and a crippling recession to expose the greed and dishonesty permeating American financial institutions: our own crisis of corruption, seen in this light, reveals the fragile underpinnings of the idea of a ‘new India.’ Many of our journalists have no allegiance to any higher calling; they are content to serve as lesser gears in the corrupt machinery of power. Our government, in the service of its obligation to facilitate the creation of wealth, is eager to let powerful friends in the corporate sector bend laws and defraud the treasury. Our largest corporations, dependent on government largesse, leave nothing to chance: their vast fortunes can purchase any decision in Delhi.

The character of a country is written in the values it professes, even—and perhaps especially—when the real conduct of its public life falls well short of those lofty ideals. Hypocrisy, as the saying goes, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. But when few even bother to pay lip-service to morality, and the rot of corruption permeates every public institution, what will be left?

It may be easier, in fact, to explain how we got into this mess than to find a way out. For the sake of brevity, I will pass over the degraded state of politics, the judiciary and business, and focus instead on the institution to which I belong: journalism.

The corruption in journalism starts small, with the individual reporter. It’s not necessarily financial—though the ceaseless gossip about who’s on whose payroll is sufficiently disturbing—but corruption needn’t involve money, and a journalist with no ethical standards can still sleep soundly by reassuring himself that at least he’s not taking bribes. Journalists, like everyone else, enjoy being made to feel important—and flattery is cheaper than a briefcase filled with 1000-rupee notes. Politicians have long been masters at this game: they call out your name in a scrum of other journalists; they invite you over for a private lunch or an off-the-record drink; they send you a Diwali gift, or favour you with an official tour or a juicy bit of information to buy your loyalties. The new breed of public relations professionals—better known today as lobbyists—have learned these tricks well, and deploy them with even greater skill. When ‘success’ for journalists is defined as access to power and its brokers, corruption provides a sure route to the top.

Above the level of individual reporters and editors, we find increasing institutional corruption—though this rarely sees the light of day, given the unwillingness of most publications to cast aspersions on their peers. Yet one hears far too many stories about media houses—even those who tout their own integrity and independence—bending ethics to accommodate advertisers or financial backers.

The phenomenon of ‘paid news’—in which publications charge a fee for fawning coverage of the buyer or negative pieces on his or her rivals—got a thorough airing after the 2009 elections.

And the third kind is even more alarming: Indian journalism as a system is habituated by an arrangement where someone very powerful in the public office—a minister, a businessman, etc—will choose only those journalists who they think can be influenced easily, and ‘plant’ the stories they’re comfortable with. In such cases, interviews are granted to a journalist only after all the questions are furnished beforehand and approved by the interviewee, or the final text/tape of the interview is played back to the interviewee and approved, or both together. A brief look at the Radia tapes provides ample evidence of this practice:

“I stopped the Business World story and shifted it to Business Today, because I got the questions I wanted... and not the questions that they wanted.” [Radia talking to Noel Tata]

“Between me and you, we had got an edited version” [Nita Ambani’s staff Srini with Radia discussing the Shoba De profile of Nita Ambani]

“It has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run through with him [Mukesh Ambani] before… We have to rehearse it before the cameras come in.” [Vir Sanghvi telling Niira Radia how he would do an interview with Mukesh Ambani]

Editing, in this scenario, is outsourced from the newsroom to lobbyists, businessmen and even ministers. And as more journalists and publications consent to this soft corruption, powerful figures don’t hesitate to insist on such special treatment. Consider the interview conducted by Karan Thapar—one of the country’s most respected journalists, and someone I respect—with the current Home Minister, P Chidambaram, in 2008. Chidambaram, then serving as Finance Minister, refused to grant an interview unless he was given the opportunity to approve the tape before it aired and retained “the right to clear it [the tape] or deny clearance without giving any reason.”

Thapar, to his credit, did not attempt to hide the terms of this arrangement—which were displayed on a slide before the interview. I am told that Chidambaram did not, in the end, demand any cuts—but his brazen demand for pre-broadcast approval is a reminder of the audacity of public figures today, who expect fawning treatment from the press—and can always, it seems, find someone whose ethical standards meet their low expectations.

This may have something to do with the explosion in media outlets over the last decade—nowhere more than on television, whose glamour and visibility have made it the standard-bearer for Indian journalism as a whole. A former BBC hand once told me that television was “75 percent logistics and 25 percent journalism: Your look, performance on the camera, ability to manage the cameraperson, driver, video editor, lights, luck with the equipment and technology, all these take 75 percentage of your thinking, and the time for research and preparation. What you end up doing in the name of journalism is more style, and very less substance.”

With television leading the way, style has definitively vanquished substance—and journalism has acquired the trappings of a glamourous profession, one that trades in images, sensationalism and sound bytes instead of analysis or investigation. Newspapers and magazines now compete to be as shallow and superficial as their TV counterparts, while young journalists angle for jobs in front of the camera. Journalism schools devote more and more time to training students on the technical business of television production at the cost of foundational courses in political science and history. Television’s emergence as the dominant news medium has transformed print media as well: reporters spent less time reporting each story, while the stories themselves get shorter and shorter. All one needs today to be a ‘success’ in print journalism is the basic capacity to write a sentence in English and a handful of contacts and official sources.

As a result, the best investigative journalist in the country today is the CAG—the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Whoever pays close attention to what the investigative agencies of the government are doing can ‘break’ a story by repeating what officials say they’re doing or about to do—you just have to type up your notes faster than the competition. Running a close second to the CAG are the legions of vested interests happy to deliver tapes and documents that embarrass their rivals to your doorstep. Just as ministers, businessmen and their lobbyists are happy to serve as your editor, outside organisations now happily do the work once performed by reporters. Journalism has thus moved, gradually, away from the days when reporters went out and found things on their own: going through files, analysing connections, and travelling to remote locations have all taken a back seat to the fine art of waiting for juicy quotes and sensational sound bytes.

It is not too late, however, for journalism to rediscover its own higher purpose, and the process is a simple one. It may be comforting for journalists to hear that they are less corrupt than politicians or businessmen, but the duty of journalism to hold other institutions to account means an honest reckoning with our own failings is long past due. We need to change the way that we train and hire young journalists, and the way that we esteem and reward their work—for its style rather than its substance. We need to remember that while it is the job of officials and CEOs to keep secrets, it is our job to try to reveal them—and not because it sells papers or drives ratings higher, but because democracy cannot function without transparency. We must remember that the laurels of our profession are not invitations to the right dinners or drinks in the company of the powerful. We must cultivate sources, but not let sources cultivate us.

Journalists are not elected by citizens or shareholders, but we remain accountable to the people whose trust in the accuracy and integrity that enables our work. Much of this has now been squandered. But history will mock us if we don’t act quickly to put it right.