Ethics and Journalism

IN Books | 24/12/2010
The Hoot excerpts a second passage from Madhu Trehan’s Tehelka as Metaphor.
Selected and introduced by SUBARNO CHATTARJI
Interpreting Media
November 2010
The media explosion in India over the past two decades has been the subject of popular and academic scrutiny. For much of this period The Hoot has been at the forefront of media analysis in India (and South Asia in general). The book section on The Hoot brings to the fore recent debates and studies related to this exciting and constantly changing field. New extracts are posted on the site every month and we invite readers to send in comments, book recommendations, and reviews.
While offering in-depth analyses and insights of the Tehelka undercover operation, Trehan is also interested in wider frames of reference as well as the implications of Operation West End. These implications are not only political but also journalistic and the second extract focuses on the crucial relationship between ethics and journalism. What constitutes a scoop? What does investigative journalism reveal about journalism and spheres of power? Trehan highlights contradictions in Indian institutions and particularly the ways in which courageous journalists are targeted by the state. While Tehelka became a cause célèbre Trehan emphasizes the need for a more inclusive perspective and debate about the role of the media in a contemporary democracy such as India.
Madhu Trehan. Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth: Tehelka as Metaphor. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2009.
Madhu Trehan. Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth: Tehelka as Metaphor. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2009.
587 pages/Hardback: Rs. 595 (978-81-7436-580-4)
Extracted with permission of Roli Books.
Ethics and Journalism
In 2005, the government brought up the possibility of banning all sting operations. Clearly, journalism would be hurt in this. There are stories that would not be possible without stings and there is a need for a continuing exposure of corruption.
It can be said, then, that journalism in India is markedly divided in two cities. Charles Dickens’s prefatory sentence in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) could well apply to Indian journalism today: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.’ India is a country of juxtapositions. While dishonest judges are investigated, the honest judiciary has taken on the role of activism through implementation orders. While senior police officers in Mumbai are arrested for corruption, officers like Kiran Bedi continue to serve as role models for the honest police officer. Why was Kiran Bedi not been appointed commissioner of police in Delhi, which was her due in the normal course of promotions? Simple: because she is not pliable and not open to political interference. While there are lawyers who idealistically gave their time free to Tehelka, others are willing to go anywhere for a price, even to bribe judges. Why do all obviously guilty criminals go to one particular lawyer who can turn witnesses hostile by paying them off and turn a BMW car into a truck? This juxtaposition exists in every field in India, so it is not surprising that the same co-exists in journalism. While there are journalists like Seema Mustafa, who wrote a scathing editorial in Asian Age (‘Fourth Mistake’, 4 December 2004), about the damage to journalism perpetrated by self-seeking editors and proprietors, there are others who will write anything for as little as social access.
There are journalists in India who continue to be passionate in their pursuit of serious journalism and pay heavily with their lives being damaged. On 30 July 2001, Mool Chand Yadav, a journalist working for the daily Punjab Kesri was shot at in Jhansi. He had been investigating organized crime. The story of the murders by terrorists of the owners of Punjab Kesri could fill a book. Virtually the whole family has been wiped out and Ashwani Chopra, the only survivor of that generation, travels with Z security, the highest level accorded to anyone. Despite all the killings and personal tragedies, Punjab Kesri continued to publish articles against the Khalistan movement and the terrorists.
On 20 August 2001, Rajesh Bhattaraj, editor of Aajo Bholi, was arrested in Gangtok because he criticized the chief minister of Sikkim. On 27 June 2001, Suresh (Sun TV) was arrested when he attempted to verify the quality of grain in a warehouse. On 19 March 2001, the Madhya Pradesh High Court sentenced Rajendra Purohit and Vinay Panshikar, editors of The Hitvada and two journalists, to six months imprisonment for contempt of court. The newspaper had criticized the High Court for acquitting suspects in a murder case. Little known freelance journalist Sanjay Arya of Chirapatla village, Betul district in Madhya Pradesh, has been in jail since 21 October 2004 on trumped up charges under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Arya had the temerity to expose government corruption in the public health and educational systems, illegal hunting, tree felling and mining in reserved forests.
On August 2004, Sajid Rashid, editor of the Marathi-language daily, Mahanagar, was stabbed outside his office. Rashid had written articles against the Muslim custom of men divorcing their wives simply by thrice uttering the word ‘talaq’. On 13 October 2004, Yambem Meghajit Singh, who worked for a television company, North East Vision, was tortured and killed for criticizing separatist groups, local officials and exposing corruption. The struggle for serious journalism continues and it is not short of soldiers who willingly and selflessly put their heads on the line for it.
Even so, the battle is not always between those in power and idealistic journalists. It is also a struggle within the confines of journalism itself. Journalism is, of course, the history of our times. If future generations will judge us on the basis of preserved records of journalism, they will see Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon, replete with aristocrats decadently feasting in burlesque playhouses. All we will be seen to be doing is being corrupt, dancing, singing, partying, lying, fornicating, committing adultery and murder. This is not exclusive to India. ‘Today’s journalism is obsessed with the kind of things that tend to preoccupy thirteen- year old boys: sport, sex, crime and narcissism,’ wrote Steven Spark in Atlantic Monthly. Pick up any newspaper in the world, and you will find it shockingly similar. When Arun Jaitley was law minister, he was travelling with a television star/journalist. He discovered to his amusement that the crowds that he thought were waving to him, were actually focused on the man standing next to him. A clue to the spirit of our times. The power-media star. How ever did the fourth estate get itself in this position where it has become a hated (by all the other estates) necessity of democracy?
What are the principal functions of the press? Gandhiji wrote: ‘One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse in people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.’ The Indian press played a huge role in national awakening during the freedom struggle and was part of the nation- building process. Today, we have become obsessed watchdogs in ‘exposing defects’, which of course must be done, but we are doing it without a thought for nation building. Here we come to the crucial question: Who watches the watchdog? Does the media criticize itself as relentlessly as it does everyone else? Is the media above being influenced by political parties, business houses, and its own owners, the publishers? Possibly the best method of preventing plants is for journalists to include the source of the story whenever possible, along with the report. It makes it a larger story by simply reporting it, which then exposes the motive of the plant.
Today’s journalism is not a graceful, light years away from 30 years ago. Over the past decade, it could be likened to the ‘Big Bang of Journalism’. It is not just the exposés, but that the exposers have become stars. It could be termed the Vanity Press. There are three varieties within that. There is the jholawala press, that reaches out to villages, earthquakes, floods, and gives a voice to people who would never be heard. Not much happens and he moves on to the next story. Then there is the muckraking press that captures politicians with the foot and mouth disease together with the greasy hands disease. What happens thereafter? He is usually hounded out of his job (the reporter, not the politician), becomes a star amongst his peers and the general public, but the politician continues on his greasy path. Thirdly, and most important of all, there is the Access Press. This journalist moves with the Mighty, begins to believe, he is Mighty. The Mighty, with whom he moves, dislike but humour him for their own safety. He is not above boasting he can install and topple governments, participate in corporate wars, and generally tinker with anyone he chooses. His Mightiness begins to believe that he is a real friend of the Mighty. The truth is that the Mighty wouldn’t know him from Bhola Nath had he not the power of the organization that employs him. Access journalism cannot be value-free. Can a journalist who gets an exclusive interview as a reward, be totally unbiased in his questioning? How many interviews have we seen that are obsequious and never ask the question?
Because of the Big Bang, there are armies of journalists who exhibit an utter ignorance of the ethics of the profession. Newspapers and magazines may have orientation programmes where the ethics of the company are spelt out. But, most often, the code of ethics practised by most news organizations is established by the conduct, decisions, and demands of the owner and publisher first, and then the editor. A proprietor of a business house news organization reportedly justified accepting money for editorial space on the grounds that, ‘If my editors and reporters are making money by selling space in the paper, why shouldn’t I? So it is better to institutionalize it.’ That is, like a senior police officer saying that if my constables are making money, why shouldn’t I establish a procedure for it so I can be on the take too? A junior reporter learns quickly which business houses and politicians he must never write a negative story about, those who he must write glowing reports about, which advertisers to be sensitive to, and so the list goes on. In some news organizations, freebie trips and gifts are acceptable, vendetta-motivated planted stories are willingly accepted whether or not they are true, a story is rarely held back to ascertain both sides, any means are utilized to get a story, there is no problem in paying sources for a story, as for privacy, who knows the meaning of the word?
In the race to beat the next guy, unsubstantiated gossip is splashed about, and when the injured party objects, the first sentence in the ostensible apology is, ‘I stand by my story’, no matter how factually incorrect it may have been. When Priyanka Gandhi wrote a letter to Coomi Kapoor (The Indian Express), correcting her on facts, she also mentioned that she did not normally object to every inaccuracy published because that is all she would be doing. What does that say about Indian journalism? We are destroying our own credibility and consequently, the strength of the press.
Despite the brilliant investigative stories of Indian journalism, there are thousands of examples of wild journalism. The most damaging that comes to mind was the reporting on television networks on the Kandahar hijacking incident (24 December 1999). The kind of exposure that was given to the relatives of those on the plane, thereby exerting extraordinary pressure on the government to give in to the hijackers’ demands, was mindless. The same terrorist who was released was reportedly later involved in the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl (February 2002) and the bombing of the Indian parliament (13 December 2001).
Journalism has today become a murky business, bursting with intrigue, blackmail, and fixers. As Dileep Padgaonkar, columnist said, ‘So much that passes for investigative journalism, is a leak or a plant given by a bureaucrat, politician or businessman in order to spite someone’. Rarely, in the press, do we turn the spotlight on ourselves. The Washington Post columnist, Sydney Schanberg wrote, ‘No newspaper is eager to acknowledge its own deficiencies or even those of its peers who might return the favour. Everyone has dirty linen.’ We have a history replete with great journalistic exposés by ethical journalists but today the daal (lentils)is getting more and more kaala (black). As Elridge Cleaver said, ‘If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem’. Have we journalists become part of the problem?
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