Posts Tagged ‘journalists’

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the unfairness of being labelled a presstitute – a sweeping generalisation made by people who had no idea of how a media house or a newsroom works. Of course, one can’t blame them because they go by what they see and their idea of media is the idiot box or the newspaper they receive on their doorstep, and whatever is published in it, and of course now on the social media, which as I told columnist Shefali Vaidya, bears a striking resemblance to Dennis the Menace. I hope this clears it.

There’s another good example of how little people on social media understand about the media. A few weeks back a journalist tweeted about how she was woken up by the sounds of temple bells whenever she visited Udaipur and stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel. As usual, Twitter erupted for a lot of reasons. Someone asked her how as a journalist she could afford to stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Udaipur. I just want to get into one of the reasons, and not the rest, because they have no bearing on what I am about to say. Let me make it very clear, I do not know this journalist either personally or professionally, so I hold no brief for what she says or does.

Right through my journalism career, it is an issue that has always raised its head when it comes to journalists availing the hospitality of a client. How far can a journalist go? I am sure there are many journalists who seek favours from corporate houses. The Essar email leaks proved that there is no dearth of unscrupulous journalists in the country. But to label everyone as corrupt is pretty unfair.

What people don’t understand is that many journalists, at least the ones who live in flats and don’t own farmhouses, stay at five-star hotels not out of choice or because they can afford it but out of compulsion because the client books them in there if it invites them to cover an event. How else can a client impress journalists about the product he is launching? Trust me, most journalists, at least the honest ones, can’t afford 3-star accommodation leave alone a luxury hotel at their own expense. Can we tell a client we won’t attend if the press conference is at a five-star hotel? Frankly, as journalists, it is none of our business. Our job is to report the press conference in a completely unbiased manner. Yes, we can refuse to touch a morsel or have a drink and a lot of us have refused a drink. That would mean, finding a place to eat or catch a beer after the press conference late at night. It just isn’t worth the trouble.

Again, there are two sides to this story as well. If you have an evening presser, a lot of journalists expect booze to be served. I know of journalists who will only attend if there is liquor, and I also personally know journalists who refuse to touch a drop because they consider it unethical. I spent five years handling public relations for two software companies (when I was on a sabbatical from journalism) and during the launch of one, liquor was being served. A lot of my friends who I had called refused a drink and some others even refused the food. I was on the other side of the table now and it was an interesting view. They gave the launch more than ample coverage but still didn’t touch a drink.

As a managing editor of a couple of automotive magazines some years back, I was invited to the launch of a luxury sedan to Udaipur. A friend who then worked for a national newspaper and I were the only two from Pune covering the event, so we were driven to Mumbai airport, from where we were flown by a chartered aircraft to Udaipur along with other journalists. At Udaipur, the “lucky” ones got to the drive the car to the hotel, while the others were bundled into an AC coach and driven to the Leela Kempinski, which reeked luxury from every corner. The room I stayed in was the epitome of luxury. It even had bathroom slippers that made my feet sink in and carpets that made me wonder why I needed a bed. If I could have taken the bathroom home I would have! I asked the attractive marketing head how much the room cost for a night and she casually mentioned the amount.

I sat for a moment stunned at hearing the price – could I ever afford to stay at such a place on my crappy salary? And could I have refused to stay there? Could I have asked my company to put me up at more modest accommodations? Why would they, when they weren’t organising the event? The next time I travelled to Udaipur on one of the drives with the family, I stayed at the MTDC hotel where the room cost Rs 3,000/- with Rs 1000 for an extra bed. Just saying.

In my first job as a journalist, I was the Assistant Editor when I covered the Cricket World Cup in 1996. My newspaper told me they could not afford the plane fare so I would have to travel non-AC II sleeper and stay in single star hotels. Crazy as I was about cricket I agreed without a thought for the logistical problems I was about to encounter. Other journalists who were covering the tournament flew in and out, stayed in three- to five-star hotels because their media houses could afford it. At Gwalior, the first stop, I had a booking at a government guest house which was stolen from under my nose by a journalist from another media house. I was left standing outside without a room to spend the night. I was given accommodation by a lodge that resembled a hovel, in a space where they stored water, and there were rats and cockroaches scurrying around. I spent the night wide awake. It was a situation no human should ever find himself in even in the worst circumstances. But it was either that or the footpath. I remember rushing to Bangalore by sleeper bus the afternoon before the quarter-final against Pakistan, and asking my cousin if I could crash with him for the night because it was too late to look for hotel accommodation. I also remember picking up my press pass from a well-known journalist who was staying at a five-star hotel. He was later to be embroiled in the unsavoury match-fixing controversy.

And here is the other side. When the dates and schedules of that World Cup were announced, a soft drink major had a press conference in Mumbai where everyone from the sports media contingent was present. We were in a queue waiting to be handed out our complimentary press kits, which included a duffel bag, with a towel, shaving kit, pen, pad etc. A very well-known sports journalist was a few places in front of me, and he signed for his kit, picked it up and left. A few minutes later, I saw him again in the back of the queue. I assumed he was picking up the kit for someone else. As he reached the head of the counter, I heard the girl from the agency say, “But sir, you have already taken your kit.” He insisted he hadn’t and she persisted that he had, till she turned in exasperation to her manager and shrugged it off with a disgusted look on his face, and motioned to her to give him the bag. I was aghast by what I saw and heard.

So, you see, like every good journalist knows, there are two sides to every story. There are crooks and there are dishonest people in every profession. Journalism is no different.

All those ranting about Arnab Goswami today should watch the video where he spoke of his early life as a cub reporter with NDTV. He narrated an incident where he had to apologise to a union minister for asking what the minister believed was an incorrect question. He said he apologised not because he was wrong (he wasn’t), but he needed the money and the job. If he had not apologised he might have had neither. That’s life. So all those who think journalists should not accept hospitality from clients, please get a life. It is not always about being greedy, very often it is about being pragmatic. It is a job like any other for a lot of us.

Oh, I went to Goa recently for a four-day break where I stayed at Vivanta by Taj in Panjim. Are you wondering how as a retired journalist I could afford such expensive accommodation? Let me tell you how. My wife generously paid for it because she thought I deserved a break after slogging for the family all these years! It would have cost me a month’s salary.


In defence of Rajdeep Sardesai, if some American Indian starts to question me on my patriotism or my right as a journalist to ask uncomfortable questions, my answer would have been pretty much the same. Pretty much, because while I would not have got into a fistfight, I might have said a lot more in lot less polite language. I don’t need anyone living outside my country pushing me around, questioning my patriotism or telling me how I should do my job.

But, I agree that it was foolish of Rajdeep to have reacted the way he did to even the most extreme provocation and more so when there were TV cameras around. I also believe one doesn’t get into a fist fight with people when you’re in their country. It’s very easy for those guys to press charges and for you to land in jail. However, if you tell an Indian, and one whose father represented India at the highest level in cricket, that he is not patriotic and to take his wife and kids to move to Pakistan, you can’t really blame the guy for his reaction. And all this just because he questioned their beloved leader’s past!

So, while I may poke fun at Rajdeep or others on twitter or Facebook because I agree, even they can get a little tiresome at times, I understand where they come from. It’s the most natural thing for a journalist to be anti-establishment because if you aren’t then you’re not being true to the profession. In fact, I am happy, unlike some of the others, he has not quietly switched sides. I know there is an editorial policy in all media houses that decides their views on every new government for the next few years. But I am appalled to see senior journalists, no doubt after some persuasion from their managements, coolly sucking up to a new government – whether this one or any other. I have a very low opinion of such people.

A good example is a well known newspaper which made its name during the Emergency for standing up to the Indira government and rode on that sentiment ever since. A couple of years ago it carried an absurd story about a certain event which looked a plant. I remember reading some very stinging rebukes against the newspaper for the ‘plant’. How quickly the mood changed!

Before some of you protest and think I am a Modi-hater, let me say that I believe, unlike a lot of my friends who can’t stand the man, that unless and until proven in a court of law, Modi is innocent. I am also one of those who believe in giving someone the benefit of doubt. I was as happy as the next guy to hear Modi speaking at the MSG. It was a brilliant speech to the Indian population there.

I also understand that every government has a honeymoon period and after 10 years of UPA rule, it will take time for the new government to undo the mess left behind. Even I was delighted that, finally, we had a non-UPA government in power. So now that Modi is here, let’s give him the chance to govern, but that does not mean we stop asking questions. Then we might as well turn PR professionals.

Post Script

Never mind how the American Gujjus and the bhakts fawn over Narendrabhai in the US, or do the garba at Madison Square Garden, or on the White House lawns, let’s be honest, this was not a State visit by an Indian prime minister. For all the talk about the ‘red carpet’, I did not see a ceremonial guard that is normally given to a visiting head of state either at the airport or at the White House. Normally the prime minister would have been given a ceremonial welcome at the White House by the President. Nothing of that sort happened. Modi fans might not want to see it that way but that’s ok, they anyway only want to see what they want to see.

Please note what the news channels are calling it – summit level talks, not summit talks. This wasn’t even like the “accidental” meeting between George Bush and Manmohan Singh at the White House. So take a reality check, people. Something tells me the Madison Square Garden event was organised by friends of Modi in the US to send a message to the US administration that they can’t afford to ignore or snub Modi anymore. His officials must have realised by now that the Americans have very subtly put them in their place. When, where and how Modi decides to return that favour to the Americans would be interesting to see. He also needs to understand he is dealing with the USA not Nepal. You don’t thumb your nose at the most powerful man in the world and expect him to forget that easily.

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.