A confusing telecast

BY SHYAM G. MENON| IN Media Practice | 03/12/2010
Tuesday told me that media ethics are amorphous. Where it should have been one editor’s call and matter closed at NDTV, it is now what anyone and their eyeballs make of it.
SHYAM G MENON wishes NDTV had not made the cross examination of its best known journalist another eyeball-grabbing exercise.
NDTV made the cross examination of its best known journalist another eyeball-grabbing exercise.
I wish it hadn’t.
Even if you say that a TV channel exists for its viewers the nature of Barkha Dutt’s error in judgement is professional. Its impact on journalist and profession is primary; impact on market is secondary. Save apologizing or clarifying on specific news report, viewers / readers are not the right constituency to approach over a professional mistake especially one in a grey area at the border of news gathering and lobbying. Viewers are part of the larger world that you are trained to see and report from a distance. Lobbyists are also viewers. Is the market then the right constituency for vindication on professional ethics?
All through Tuesday night’s telecast I wondered if a voting metre would pop up on screen that alongside the observations of the assembled editors, would offer viewers’ verdict on whether the journalist is guilty or not. That is after all TV’s style – `we the people,’ `the citizens of this country’ – so on and so forth. Mercifully, the voting metre didn’t appear. To understand the nature of deflection to serious debate caused by intrusion of market, let us take an example. Every journalist wants a house. Now imagine that having sunk your precious savings to buy a house, you discover the construction to be faulty. Your gut reaction would be – what sort of construction industry do we have? Before they build houses, you would expect the construction business to put its profession in order so that customers can repose faith. How should a construction industry, thus challenged, go about restoring its credibility? By going on TV? Start an empathetic program called – we the homeless? Or should it breathe life into professional ethics; take a sabbatical from brand building, haul up the errant, inject the learning into curriculum and return with corrections done?
Point is although we live off the market, there is a time to listen to it. There are other important times when we should listen to our profession and may be ourselves. Good craft is thus also shaped by ingredients that have nothing to do with the market. Market-focussed media delivers market share just as journalist-focussed journalism makes stars of reporters. TV incidentally does both. It is also why saying that somebody enthrals the market needn’t mean much for craft or its ethics. Testing ethics as the market looks in, is what reality TV does. For real perspective on ethics, you must additionally seek the world before the market and outside it. Only that will bring to focus the intrusive power of the market. This applies to all sides in the Radia tapes – those who ran the story, those who didn’t and those who featured in the tapes. Because the media had been too self wrapped and lost to market, when course correction arrived (ironically as market opportunity), it was delayed and harsh.
Ethics are sacred to any profession. Is the market of viewers and readers, the constituency we should have turned to with Tuesday’s cross examination? I felt those editors in the studio should have stayed off, if cross examination meant another telecast to the market.
Tuesday’s exercise was an intelligent use of medium with the possibility that we may yet again spare the real problem – which is a capacity to obfuscate through diversion. The diversion here is the imaginary line drawn between Barkha Dutt and NDTV by putting the former in the dock, so that questioning Dutt’s professional ethics on the same channel would appear to reinforce NDTV’s editorial credibility. I am not sure if this settles matters or obfuscates them. What bothers is the telecast. A profession must have an unshakable core. If that core is to be so, its contents – typically the sanctum sanctorum of all professions is reserved for its ethics – must not be casually dealt with. If you are serious in a manner that exceeds the market, the first thing you would admit is that the media as medium is discredited at present in India. Best option would be neutral venue, an offline meeting of fraternity members (ideally media council) and transcript of proceedings posted on a suitable website that is not the defendant’s company. What NDTV did, seemed focussed on restoring its editorial credibility to the market. The best symptom of this motive was telecast.  
A TV channel that telecasts a cross examination of its senior editor (featuring the person while still on its rolls) or a newspaper / magazine that publishes the transcript of an employee being interrogated for professional error – is a new media experience. Presuming there were no legal reasons for showcasing the cross examination, Tuesday night set a precedent and I am deeply unsure what that precedent means for professional ethics to be tried ready for telecast or press waiting to publish. Citizens go to a Court of Law because the Court is a haloed institution committed to uphold the law. The law, in turn, is fundamental to society because it is firm co-ordinate. Such paradigm is absent when having a journalist, who erred in professional judgement, cross examined on prime time television. Are all of us who saw the program, the media’s new Courtroom; are we to frame its ethics? The journalists in the studio for veteran value were also shy in speaking up; gently suggesting apology as though there was a constituency outside, more important to media on the given matter, than them.
Tuesday told me that media ethics are amorphous. Where it should have been one editor’s call and matter closed at NDTV, it is now what anyone and their eyeballs make of it.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)
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