You can either walk straight, bend or crawl….

Posted: June 3, 2014 in Media
Tags: , , , ,

Why is there such a hue and cry about the perceived threat to press freedom with a business magnate buying up a news network? Is there a rule against an industrialist with a lot of money buying up a media house? If he wants to make the network a mouthpiece of the present government who are we, lesser mortals, to complain? It’s his money and his mouth. The message to all employees across the board in even independent media houses or those owned by business houses is short and terse: If you don’t like it here, you can take your idealism someplace else. Some go but most stay.

No media house is in the business of social service. There are around 20 lakh NGOs in the country and even they are not all in it for the pleasure of serving humanity. Like it or not, business interests come first – ALWAYS. The profits from the business pay the bills, and media is no more about a small printing press run by an idealist, his daughter and a peon. There are hundreds of people to be paid, and overheads to be looked into. So anyone who believes that a free and fair media is being bought over by big business, and in the process being compromised, he is right. But there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. This is the reality today.

When a corporate house takes over a media house it brings with it, positives and negatives. It also brings its share of downsizing, and that is the fear that lurks in the heart of every employee. For example, a company may not want a staff of 300 in their media house. So maybe 100 people may be thrown out and 200 will be doing that much more work at the previous cost. Journalists are then faced with the classic George Bush catch phrase – you’re either with us or against us. Most of them just buckle down quietly and carry on, because no one, not even editors, wants to lose a job.

So when I hear these protests about integrity and ethics being compromised, it makes me want to laugh. How many editors have the courage to refuse something that comes down to them from the Corporate Office? For that matter, how many editors actually stand up for their juniors? Those days are long gone when editors were respected by the owners for their sheer presence, so let’s not kid ourselves and get sanctimonious about press, freedom, integrity and ethics being sent to the cleaners. The freedom to write is still there, as long as you know where the thin blue line is. Integrity and ethics are there too. You just need to figure out, as India Gandhi’s minister once said, whether you want to bend or crawl.

The story was different in 1970s and the 1980s. Things went pretty much downhill from the 1990s. Around the time we entered the 21st Century, and advertising began to play such a huge role first in print and later in broadcast media, the whole debate on ethics, integrity and press freedom was put in cold storage. The threat of advertisements worth crores of rupees being cancelled can put a stop to any dreams of editorial freedom and journalistic ethics some journalists might be nurturing!

So when celebrated news anchors exercise their vocal chords every night, it is not because they have the freedom to say what they want, but because the louder everyone screams at each other on the TV screen, the more people watch it and the more advertisers want to use that medium. Like my son says, it’s no different from watching Big Boss! As for the newspapers, let’s be very honest. There are very few ‘exclusives’ that appear nowadays anyway, because you don’t know who you might end up offending. Most of the stuff being churned out is from press releases or briefings, for which very often even seniors take bylines. Then the issue of ethics and integrity does not bother them?

I worked in five media houses and I can honestly say that except for a brief while in one of them, not one of the editors ever stood up to the management or for their juniors, unless they were his favourites. A good reason for that not happening is a lot of editors (or resident editors as they are also known in smaller newspapers) are no better than glorified bureau chiefs or news editors. I am not deriding either editors, bureau chiefs or news editors, but since the business side of the newspaper is usually in the hands of a DGM or GM, who is the de facto unit head, the editor’s job is to control just the flow of news (which the bureau chief or the news editor do anyway) and engage in public relations exercises. Of course, there is always the exception to the rule, but of the people I worked with, none of them, with one exception, ever had the opportunity or did anything out of the ordinary.

A former colleague once told me about the time he unwittingly did a report on a company of the proprietor of the newspaper he worked for in the mid 1980s, which very nearly cost him his job. The proprietor was also a well-known builder who owned a stone crushing machine. Officials of a school close by had complained to the newspaper of the pollution the machine generated when it was run, and forced them to keep their windows shut. So some time later, this colleague, who had just joined the newspaper did the story which was published with pictures on the front page.

The next day, as soon as he reached the office he was told to meet the proprietor. The gentleman complimented him for doing the story, but told him he should have confirmed whether the builder was still using the stone crushing machine. He then told the stunned reporter that the machine belonged to him and he had stopped work as soon as the people around complained to him. The young man kept his job. I would like to see how many journalists in today’s day and age keep theirs, if they do something like that.

  1. Kiran Bajad says:

    Beautifully written sir…

  2. My dear Sinha — I do not think the “freedom of the press” is so bad (as U paint it out to be or as others fear) and that it has gone entirely the way of the advertisers in India.

    A few managements still have respect for sincere & honest journalists and editors. The sad fact, though, is that the big chains are firmly in the control of the advertisers and the corporate world.

    The Hoot is a good place to find where some excellent work is being done. And maybe, if there is an “idealistic” journalist reading this post, who is looking to change to a more tolerable place, The Hoot can serve as a guide.

    But yes, I agree, the space for freedom is shrinking in the press.

    Where I totally disagree is that there is nothing we can do about it.

    Peace and love – Joe.

    • Pinto, having worked at a ‘national paper’ believe me when I tell you that it was a sham. One had to get approval for every other story that was even slightly controversial, and it usually ended up in the trash.

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