Shame: Indian media facing threat from within

THE other day there was a seminar in Delhi about the allegations that during the Lok Sabha elections both the print and electronic media not only took money from political parties and candidates, but also extorted as much as they could. Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal, who inaugurated the session, contended that “they” knew how the stories were planted and paid for. Several journalists also admitted that a lot of money changed hands during the election campaign. Nothing came out of the seminar, but a senior political leader told me that if a commission were to be set up to inquire into such dubious practices, he for one would be prepared to give evidence.

It came as a shock to me when I did not find even a word about the seminar or Sibal’s allegation in newspapers or television. Obviously, we are all naked together in this bath. Some of us have, however, approached the Press Council to set up a committee to go into the slush money used during campaign.

The Election Commission has also been tapped unofficially to find its response. One member said that if payments could be proved, the Election Commission would consider them as the expenses of candidates. Such charges were also made during the last Lok Sabha election. But then the quantum of payment was small and the number of newspapers and TV channels involved was limited. This time, it seems there has been a free for all. Names of leading newspapers and TV channels are hawked about in the bazaars.

Even otherwise, the press in India has humiliated itself since the Emergency. With the exception of very few newspapers and journalists, others caved in by pressure or price. L.K.Advani made an apt remark after the Emergency: “You were asked to bend, but you began to crawl.” Since then the mystique of journalism has been lessening by the day and now the media has been reduced to tittle-tattle. Celebrities from the cine world or cricket are the only personalities that count where the media is concerned.

ewspapers copy the TV channels in sensation and the latter in turn copy the newspapers in pontificating.
I must admit that I found journalists in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had more gumption than people in our media. Pakistan had martial law and the journalists defied it and got lashes. In India the Emergency at best could detain people in jail. Still, we failed shamefully. During the recent caretaker government in Bangladesh papers sustained democratic values and stood alone when everything around them was falling prey to sycophancy and conformity. A few journalists in Sri Lanka dared the government to silence their criticism. One of them was even killed.

True, politicians tend to use us. They have their own interests to serve. But then we play into their hands. When we slanted the news and accepted money for putting across a particular point of view during the recent Lok Sabha elections, we were not truthful and fell from the professional standards expected in a democratic structure. Why is the press called the Fourth Estate? It is because it is one of the pillars on which the democratic edifice rests.

After reading newspapers or watching TV channels I feel as if a new version of the Emergency is starting to unfold where truth has become a relative term and there is nothing left like values. India is not a banana republic run by and for opportunists who will stop at nothing to line their own pockets and wield power.
We have a great heritage. Mahatma Gandhi sent his message through a weekly, Harijan. Nehru said at the All India Newspaper Editors’ Conference in 1950: “I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press. I would have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.”

A performance at the launch party for a Bollywood film in Mumbai recently. AFP

He feared high handedness on the part of the establishment, but little did he realize that one day the danger to the press will be from within, not without. Journalists themselves will offer their heads on a plate in return for position, pelf and privilege. Those who choose to bend their knees in this ignoble way should consider whether they also want to be held responsible for passing them on to the next generation. Do they seriously want to bring up their sons and daughters in the shadow of their own limitations and failings? Do they want to be like those black marketers who find that the only jobs their own children are suited for are the same black market practices of their forefathers?

Where has the idealism gone? Once the profession attracted the best and the brightest who saw that they would be in the midst of challenges facing society. They wanted to combat parochialism, archaic ideas, bullying by power brokers and anything that could be construed as threatening the common man.
Take newspapers and TV channels today. They avoid debates on issues.

They present a point of view of their own or of the vested interests. They deny a voice to those who do not tally with their bias or prejudice. In fact they are the most undemocratic species talking in the name of democracy. What kind of country do they want? On what are their sights set? Is it only entertainment? If so, they should not associate their publications with the press. Not long ago two reporters from the Washington Post challenged the President of the United States (Richard Nixon), ultimately forcing him to resign because he had lied to the nation. I am not suggesting that the press in the West is ideal. We saw how the whole Western media sold itself to their respective governments during the Iraq war. The embedded journalists who could only report what they were allowed were worse than our journalists in the Emergency.

When a journalist ceases to be a journalist and compromises, he brings down not only the ideals of the profession, but tells upon the democratic temperament and the ethos of the nation. I feel sorry the points made at the seminar in Delhi were not debated by society. But I feel more disappointed over the attitude of journalists and politicians who know that there is a problem of lessening integrity, yet they prefer to sweep it under the carpet.

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