On the Success of Ethics

Can the Indian journalist and media proprietor survive this gilded age?

01 December, 2012

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a public function at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The audience included several prominent cabinet ministers, the heads of some of India’s foremost business families, and the usual retinue of senior journalists and former diplomats. Almost all of them were a generation or two older than me, and before the function formally began, the room buzzed with gestures of bonding and comradeship—like an alumni reunion or a gathering of long-lost friends. Men in their 50s, 60s and 70s hugged and exchanged good wishes; a few even pinched at each other’s potbellies.

After the event had got under way, a slim older man with a recognisable face hurried into the auditorium. Almost all the chairs were filled, except one or two stray seats next to outsiders like me. As this gentleman parked himself in the seat adjacent to mine, his identity clicked in my mind: he’s a lobbyist, I thought, but he calls himself a public-relations man. I had often spotted him hurrying past in the hallways of North and South blocks, and at the offices of other ministries in Shastri, Krishi and Rail Bhavans. But he’s also a regular face on television screens, where I had paid closer attention to his ruby-studded eyeglass cords and seductive hand movements, and the way his brow furrowed while stating an unconventional argument or making a difficult defence of some policy or person.

On the stage, a cabinet minister was making a rather dull speech, and like me, the lobbyist became distracted. He punched out messages on his Blackberry Curve and began scrolling through SMSes on a worn-out Nokia. The minister was boring, but my neighbour was far more entertaining. Much to my shame, I let my eyes drift toward to his phones, and for a second I invaded his privacy. He had just sent a BBM on his BlackBerry, which read:

“yes, yes. Met the min in the morning. He says he’s with you on this. But a moment later, he says the difficulties that he faces. Totally a chameleon. Yes, chameleon. Can’t trust him. I missed you being there!”

“Wow,” I thought. Which minister was he talking about? To whom was he sending this message? And what was the issue under discussion? I struggled against my journalistic curiosity-—wisdom prevailed, and I fixed my eyes straight ahead once again.

While I returned my focus to the minister’s plodding presentation, my lobbyist friend continued to hammer away at his phones. It was quite a distraction, and after some time had passed, I succumbed to temptation once more. He had shuffled from sending messages to checking his calendar, which read: “1030 am—briefing the NDTV reporter.”

My mind reeled. On what subject would he be briefing the reporter? Was it connected to his meeting with the chameleon minister? Was he hoping to influence the channel’s coverage of an issue for one of his clients—or trying to plant a story on their behalf? And if he succeeded in doing so, would the resulting story disclose the involvement of the lobbyist? How would I know, if I were watching TV later in the week, which story bore his fingerprints? How often was he able to plant stories, or influence coverage?

Of course, the lobbyist was merely doing his job. He wasn’t breaking any laws; he was only using all the available avenues—his contacts with the “chameleon” minister, the networking opportunities at events like the one we were both attending, his access to media and relationships with reporters—to advance the interests of his clients. This is what lobbyists get paid to do. As a journalist, I am concerned about the increasing role of people like the lobbyist in the production of news content today—and about how content designed to advance certain interests gets dressed up as “news” and presented to the public.

Later that night, I went online to look at the website for the lobbyist’s company, where I learned a few new phrases to describe the practices of the PR trade. The firm offers a diverse menu of services to prospective clients, including what it calls “Editorial Services” and “Media Intelligence”. The descriptions for these offerings are anodyne, and surely much of this work is innocent stuff like writing press releases and promotional materials. But it could also cover a few darker arts, such as planting stories in the media, putting forward certain experts to write opinion columns or participate in television discussions, and using intelligence about which journalists are most susceptible to outside influence to obtain favourable coverage for a client (or negative coverage for their rivals). “Editorial Services” reminded me of a familiar phrase from the classified pages—“Escort Services”. “Media Intelligence”, on the other hand, sounded like something a spy agency or a private detective might use, to exploit weaknesses in rival countries or companies. I wondered how it might sound if a company marketed comparable services designed to influence institutions other than the media: could you imagine a firm advertising its skills at “Supreme Court Management”, “Judicial Intelligence”, or “Cabinet Minister Services”?

ALL OF THIS SPEAKS to an increasing sophistication among our purveyors of influence, who are surely well-compensated for their innovative methods. But these advances in public relations have been enabled by a more significant development: the continuing institutional degradation of journalism. This decay has taken place at both a personal level, among individual journalists, and at a proprietorial level, among those who own and manage newspapers, magazines and television channels. Together, they raise a depressing cloud over the institution of journalism, even as the media industry grows.

Among individual journalists, the definition of “success” has become increasingly problematic; too often it has less to do with the journalism one produces and more to do with the influence one wields. The ostensibly successful journalist is the one who uses the profession to become something more than a journalist.

The list of top editors who have leveraged their high offices, and the legitimacy and influence they carry, to advance their careers outside of journalism is a very long one in India. There’s a familiar pattern to these trajectories: many of them start by getting close to particular politicians or parties, and soon they enjoy such privileged access that the journalists become confused about the nature of these relationships. An admiration or a loyalty develops. In daylight, journalists demonstrate their allegiances by acting like spokespersons for their political masters inside newsrooms; in the dark, they serve those same masters as stenographers, taking dictation for press releases. These journalists soon double-up as messengers between political leaders, and sometimes even as lobbyists; some get rewarded with seats in parliament or even in the cabinet. Of course, anyone has the right to change careers, and in a democracy, anyone is entitled to enter politics. But the trouble starts when a journalist begins his political career before ending his career in journalism, thereby abusing the legitimacy, access and power of a journalistic institution and treating it as a stepping-stone to bigger (and more lucrative) endeavours.

There is another set of editors who have no desire to enter politics per se, but who happily deploy their editorial influence to help their proprietors obtain benefits from the government—from land to machinery to Padma awards. The more favours you do, the further you get hoisted up within the organisational structure.

Then there’s a third set of editors who fall for relatively frivolous things in life. For example, a senior leader of one political party—who is considered a potential future prime minister—is in the habit of lending out his official residence in Lutyens Delhi to senior journalists for the wedding parties of their sons and daughters. And when an editor compromises his integrity on a matter as sentimental as a child’s wedding, it undermines the independence of more than one editor: a few hundred journalists in the editor’s employ will now think twice when it comes time to write about that important politician, and will pay special attention when he calls up to suggest a story.

In transitional democracies—in the case of India, from a semi-feudal society to a modern nation-state—there’s always an oligarchy at the centre of power. Many politicians and businessmen are bound to be important operators in that oligarchy. The duty of journalists is to dissect the workings of power— to explore and describe and reveal how power is acquired and used. But today the successful journalists are those who use their own power and influence to join the oligarchs or become important operators in their midst.

It goes without saying that when top editors compromise the profession’s values and ethics—for the sake of power, influence, or financial gain—they send a clear message to the reporters beneath them, who learn to strive for the same kind of success. They discard any qualms they may previously have had about accepting favours from the very people they’re supposed to be covering. This new sense of success, which has little to do with the merit of one’s journalism, ties into another deplorable trend, the emphasis on individuals rather than institutions. In an age of television and social media, journalists have come to regard themselves as brands; their jobs, and the institutions that employ them, have become accessories in the service of aggressive self-promotion. One sees this most widely in television, where so much depends on the reputations of each channel’s stars. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to television anchors: increasingly, top print editors appear to be devoting less time and energy to building their institutions, and more effort to building their own reputations.

Consider the many duties of an editor-in-chief or editorial director: increasing the quality of existing coverage; pushing reporters to pursue deeper investigations into new stories or tips; motivating the staff to produce their best work; understanding the business side of the operation; and working to develop innovative ways of delivering content, from the web to mobile phones to tablets. These tasks—among many others—constitute the primary job of an editor. There may be time left over to write novels or pontificate on television, but if these exercises distract from the duties an editor is supposed to attend to, he’s compromising. When editors surrender their institutional responsibilities, owners bring in business managers to take care of their investments, and the managers begin to displace the editors as the custodians of journalistic institutions.

All of these unhappy trends are visible in what we might call an increasing epidemic of laziness, abetted by a surplus of pre-packaged content of the sort provided by public relations firms and live press conferences. Contrast this with the work of non-lazy journalism: coming up with original ideas and vetting new avenues for investigation, reporting that involves visits to the relevant locations and cross-checking with multiple sources, fact-checking and careful editing. Laziness has no age—it afflicts entry-level journalists and seasoned senior editors alike—but lazy work no longer seems to be an impediment to surviving and even thriving within the profession. The public relations hawks know this all too well, as do the politicians and fixers who offer up stories to reporters on a platter. What got me so worked up at the lobbyist’s website—with its offers of “Media Intelligence”—was exactly this: the ease with which the individuals who plant stories discover the moral and ethical orientations of journalists, and take advantage of those who represent low-hanging fruit for purveyors of motivated content.

It has become increasingly common for even some of the best investigative stories to originate as plants from lobbyists, business houses, or politicians. It is true, of course, that crucial information for an exclusive story is usually passed to a journalist by sources with their own motivations: whether they are whistleblowers committed to a larger public good, or vested interests with their own axes to grind. But the second type has of late become dominant. There is nothing wrong with an investigative reporter collecting documents and information from any source, whatever his motives. The problem begins when reporters and their editors fail to take two critical steps.

First, they prefer to hide the fact that the information was provided by sources with much to gain from the stories that will appear. (In the past two months alone, I learnt of two examples of politicians of potential future prime ministerial level planting stories about scams implicating their rivals, both of which became lead reports on the front pages of two prominent national dailies.) Whistleblowers often need to have their identities protected, but such standards should not apply to rival politicians waging their wars through the media. This is not to suggest that these stories should remain unpublished: information about corrupt politicians deserves wide public attention. But there’s no reason why such stories should not contain even the slightest hint of who presented the information—or at least who stands to benefit from its exposure.

The second failing, related to the first, is that these reports are often presented as the independent findings of the journalist. In fact, he may have done little more than process the file supplied by the source, as such pieces are often written and printed without any further investigation or cross-checking. If the planter is a figure of sufficient stature (or sufficiently friendly with the relevant editor or reporter), the story will go straight up on the front page of a national newspaper or on prime-time television without any delay. The politician (or lobbyist) who successfully plants a story rarely has their cover blown, while the necessary effect is created—the advancing of a career or the sullying of a rival—and the journalists play the role of condoms, letting the planters get where they want while protecting them from exposure.

THERE HAS BEEN A SIMILAR, and equally dismaying, dilution of ethical standards among those who own and operate media houses. Media is a business, of course, and decent profits can be made from it. But quality journalism requires considerable investments and tends not to produce windfall earnings. Problems arise when businessmen regard the media as akin to any other industry. The moment a publisher puts himself in competition with his family and friends in telecom, steel or mining, he will be forced to take big gambles, or expand into other sectors, to multiply profits—and the sanctity of journalism may soon be undermined.

Like the successful journalists who really wish to be politicians, brokers, or celebrities, too many media owners are eager to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And they are all too happy to use the influence of their news operations to leverage other investments. In the recent “Coalgate” scam, for example, at least three print publications and one electronic channel have been identified as beneficiaries of questionable allocations of mining blocks.

Only two of these companies have been named in news reports: the largest-selling Marathi newspaper group, Lokmat, with a readership of 24 million, and the Hindi newspaper group Dainik Bhaskar, with a readership of 20 million, are both being investigated for cheating and corruption. Lokmat’s owner, who has been a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha since 1998, and his brother and co-owner (also a politician—he is the Education Minister in Maharashtra) provided patronage to a construction company in securing government licenses to coal blocks, and subsequently, the Lokmat owners invested money in these companies. Within months after investing, they began selling each of their ten-rupee shares at a windfall profit of Rs 8,885. Dainik Bhaskar, on the other hand, floated its own power company, DB Power, and bagged blocks worth 67 tonnes, and retained the blocks untapped. While the criteria for awarding the minefields were supposed to include prior experience in the sector, the newspapers had nothing remotely linked to mining or power—except, ironically, the power of the media.

There’s a long history of businessmen from other sectors becoming involved in the media: from construction magnates to pickle manufacturers to liquor barons, many of them undoubtedly motivated by the visibility and influence that accrues to men who buy ink by the barrel. A more recent trend has involved media owners desperately trying to augment their own riches by expanding into other sectors. Most recently, the owners of the Deccan Chronicle invested in unrelated businesses like the Indian Premier League and civil aviation, and now find themselves deep in debt, while also facing charges of fraud and forgery. The expansive appetites of media owners for success in other sectors causes two problems: for one, these risky investments undermine the health of the media institutions; at the same time, they throw up more and more possible conflicts of interest. The Times of India has been the most prolific innovator when it comes to rearranging the lines between journalism and commerce—but as the profile of Samir Jain in this issue demonstrates, rival media houses have been all too quick to follow in Jain’s footsteps. The Times’ “Private Treaties”, which allow companies to swap equity stakes for advertising space, are undoubtedly a clever business practice, but they have multiplied the potential conflicts of interest a hundredfold. So much so that the Securities and Exchange Board of India felt it necessary to intervene and warn media houses that they should disclose these holdings when reporting on companies in which they own stakes. It is to the great shame of Indian journalism that the government’s stock market regulator has been forced to play the role of ombudsman, since the media houses themselves have abdicated any responsibility to police their own ethics. These innovations may bring in enormous profits in the short run, but in the long run they will undermine the stature of all journalism—in the eyes of both readers and advertisers. These aggressive new tactics for boosting revenues look attractive now, but in the long term they become pernicious—to misappropriate a Malayalam proverb, it is akin to scrubbing a baby so clean that the baby disappears.

Consider just one example from history. At the dawn of the 20th century, when half of New York’s population could barely read, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World—for which the pejorative phrase “yellow journalism” was coined—had a circulation of more than half a million copies, riding the success of sensationalist reporting, scandal and entertainment. In the same era, the sober and careful New York Times had the circulation of a pamphlet—a mere 9,000 copies. Two decades later, the Times was selling 350,000 copies, while Pulitzer’s World folded in 1931; the steady, brick-by-brick and fact-by-fact growth of the Times gave us the newspaper we know today. The lesson is that the big and the mighty may not always remain that way—and that a deep reverence for ethics and principles can be good business for proprietors as well as journalists.