Ranjona Banerji: Media ethics questioned in India and the UK
By Ranjona Banerji
Just as the Indian media is grappling with the arrest of two editors of the Zee News network, the Leveson Inquiry looking into media ethics in the UK is published. Sudhir Chaudhury and Samir Ahluwalia, business head and editor of Zee News and editor of Zee Business, were arrested by the Delhi Police after investigations into whether they had attempted to extort money from industrialist and Congress MP Naveen Jindal offering to bury stories about his group’s involvement in what is known as the “Coalgate” scam.
Jindal had filed a complaint against Zee after they carried a sting operation about Coalgate, claiming that Jindal got undue favours in allocations and also offered to bribe the journalists involved in the story. Jindal countered this with his own tapes where Chaudhury and Ahluwalia are heard offered an ad deal which would effectively kill the story.
The rest of the media carried the story, with television going to the extent of carrying live a long and rambling press conference with Zee News CEO Alok Agarwal. But comment on the issue has been subdued. This is not because Zee is a rival media house so much as questions have been raised – and have not been answered – about questionable journalistic and business practices by Zee. There cannot, therefore, be complete support for the Zee editors on the basis of freedom of speech alone.
It has to be remembered that the allegations against the Zee’s editors must be seen separately from any possible wrongdoing on Jindal’s part. Zee being in the dock does not exonerate Jindal. But it should force the media to look again at the trend of using journalists to strike business deals and using journalistic investigations to blackmail people, as media insiders know does happen across the board. Both of these have regrettably become common practice. The Delhi police have decided to investigate Zee all the way up to owner Subhash Chandra. Zee may claim that it is being targeted by the Delhi police because of the UPA being accused in the Coalgate scam but the journalism practised by its editors remains questionable.
In a fine example of irony, the tapes – disclosed earlier – had the Zee editors accusing the Times of India for its policies like Medianet, which led to the Bennett Coleman group sending Zee a legal notice threatening a Rs 100 crore defamation suit.
Media ethics in India at the moment is at a very low point and managements have journalists well under control. It is a situation from which rescue is imperative but under current circumstances it is unlikely that the Zee case will offer that. A more sensational and dramatic fall is perhaps necessary before the climb upwards begins.
The Lord Justice Leveson Inquiry, ordered after the revelations that News of the World and the Murdoch group was using phone-hacking and other questionable practices as a way of getting stories. The Inquiry revealed its report yesterday in which it made strong recommendations for a new independent body to regulate the press. The prime minister has already said such a body is unlikely and newspapers are bound to fight any attempt to muzzle them.
But it is also true that the existing self-regulatory Press Complaints Council was unable to deal with complaints against News of the World for its phone-hacking and other methods of invading privacy, influencing policy and what can also be interpreted as blackmail.
David Cameron’s very close relationship with former News of the World editor and head of News Corp Rebekkah Brookes had led to questions about the BSkyB deal with Murdoch being influenced. There were also fears of government policy being manipulated by Murdoch as he and his editors promised electoral support to political parties – changing allegiance from Labour to Conservative as well.
The Leveson Inquiry found no “widespread” police corruption but did set down some guideless for press-police relations.
The big problem was a lack of redressal systems for people who felt harassed or targeted by the press. Many celebrities were also victims of phone-hacking and film stars like Hugh Grant deposed before the Inquiry. There is some attempt by the final report to address those issues.
The issues addressed here are not in fact restricted to the UK. The manipulation of journalists and journalistic practices and the influence wielded by managements both mean that the freedom of the press is under threat all over and to a great extent in India as well.
Media houses have to be profitable. But they do not produce tubes of toothpaste, even if managements prefer to call newspapers “products”. Can managements work out business models which do not pollute the freedom of the press? Can there be some system where readers and viewers are honestly informed which part of the “news” is actually an advertisement? Can people targeted in “sting” operations and blackmail complain to any regulatory agency that can provide effective redressal?
These are questions which have to be answered, preferably sooner and not later.