The times, they are a-changing

BY Sidharth Bhatia| IN Media Practice | 25/02/2003
The gradual introduction of small doses of poison into the body of this profession began a long time ago


                       (This article was first published in the Pioneer)


Sidharth Bhatia

A new debate appears to have begun in the media, once again focusing on the separation between church and state, or rather the advertising and editorial departments. Should paid advertising, especially if posing surreptitiously as news, be allowed to make it to the hallowed editorial pages? Should news be paid for? Can editorial space be bought?

All weighty questions that are being solemnly discussed by the journalist community, in the wake of the decision by one of the country`s largest media groups-we don`t name names in our profession-to set up a public relations company which will help their client`s copy make it to the paper.

Nothing wrong with that per se, except that there are conflicts of interest which may not be immediately apparent to the reader. An internal PR company is bound to have more access and more clout with the paper`s journalists. Several news stories, press releases from public relations companies among them, are constantly fighting for space to get into a paper on any given day. A "news item" from a sister company is bound to jump the queue and get preferential treatment if only because the hapless sub-editor making the page layout will not want to annoy his management.

More important, however, is the fundamental question: Is a newspaper company in the business of doing public relations? Shouldn`t news be decided on its own, objectively laid down, criteria? And can we pull the wool over the reader`s eyes by passing on paid-for advertising as news?

The newspaper in question has a very simple answer to all that. PR companies fight to get into their paper. They take hefty amounts of money from their clients to get a story published in the newspapers. Why shouldn`t a newspaper management get a piece of that pie?

After all, it is they who own the paper, not the PR company. And, considering that much of the "news" in the papers today-and this applies not merely to the much-maligned page three, but also other sections-is PR puffery anyway, why not come out into the open?

Space is there to be sold-to the advertiser, to the PR company, to the cola maker or to the aspiring debutante-and doesn`t the owner of the space have the right to sell it?

Journalists are in turmoil over these issues, calling it the last straw that will break the back of an already decrepit camel. There is much hand-wringing and sanctimonious name calling. Our paper would not do it, huffs the competition. This never happened in our time, puff the grey-haired veterans.

The other PR companies are aghast at the emergence of new competition. And as if to complete the circle of irony, even the page three people are upset, because now everyone will think they bought their publicity. Heaven forbid if their picture is published alongside that of a furniture maker from Punjabi Bagh! (Since journalists also have a bitter sense of humour, there are jokes galore too-"The leader screws the reader" is one of them doing the rounds.)

No real journalist, however, can be happy with this new trend. It is not so much the breaching of the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial, which happened a long time ago. Or the involvement of newspaper managements in editorial matters, which is as old as the industry itself. It is the brazenness of this new move, the legitimacy accorded to petty tie-wearing management types to lord it over journalists-who despite all that has changed in the profession, still believe in providing the day`s news to their readers-and, worst of all, the arrogant assumption by newspaper owners that their slaves will say yes to anything that is shocking even in these blasé times.

Journalism is a profession like no other, and despite its debasement, journalists still see informing the reader with honesty and integrity as their main task. They chafe at these cynical and arbitrary whims of their owners who treat the dispensing of news as no different from running a fast food joint.

Yet, no real doctor, however much he is interested in making money, will allow his patients to be killed with sub-standard drugs. Similarly, no journalist, notwithstanding the fact that there can be big money made, will palm off cheap publicity day after day and call it news. We have not sunk to those levels so far. Therefore, as a journalist, one must protest.

But, in all honesty, one must also ask. Has this latest assault on the profession come out of the blue? Why are we so surprised and why these expressions of shock horror?

The truth is-and we all know it-that this is nothing but the latest in a series of incremental threats to the profession which have been going on for years. The gradual introduction of small doses of poison into the body of this profession began a long time ago and has been going on ever since-the greater emphasis on advertising, the erosion of editorial freedom, the downgrading of the editor`s position, cutbacks to news coverage, the sponsorship of sports and other sections and the almost seamless integration of the two sides in some areas.

With each insidious move, our threshold of tolerance increased. We did not protest when managements used their papers to attack business rivals or curry favour with the Government. We merely shrugged when trivia took over the front pages because of the larger business interests of the owners. And we actually gloated when one of us was eased out for standing up to these professional insults.

There has been a payoff, of course-journalists are now paid extremely well, routinely get junkets and trips and, if they are influential enough, are given positions on Government committees or even get elected to the Rajya Sabha. Not many journalists are going to give up all those fringe benefits for the sake of making a point.

The mass of journalists is still honest and the Indian media continues to be free and fearless. But the profession as a whole is neutered. This situation is not irredeemable, but it will call for a lot of soul-searching on the part of journalists. In the present scenario, this looks a tall order.

Seen from the management`s perspective, therefore, the decision to set up a PR company is no big deal; it is a purely business decision, one that has "synergy" with other operations. Indeed, it may well be the harbinger of the future, with other newspaper groups, who have all enviously watched the nifty and hugely profitable moves made by the "leader" and then clumsily tried to copy them, rush in to launch their own similar firms.

More such innovations will also follow-edit page opinion pieces sponsored by companies (this editorial brought to you by...), putting boring and depressing news about starvation deaths in the inside pages (advertisers get upset) and asking the current Miss India Universe to take over the running of the paper occasionally. Why should journalists protest now? They never did earlier. And if journalists find these things distasteful, why, they are out of touch with the "changing times" and they are free to quit their jobs.

After all, whoever said you need journalists to run newspapers?

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