Just below the surface: Filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal

22 Nov,2011

By Johnson Napier

 

Dignitaries and members of the fourth estate may have found it a pill too bitter to swallow at Mumbai’s Madame Cama Hall, Kala Ghoda on Saturday when they were given the lowdown on the murky deals that transpire in the worlds of print and broadcast journalism. The affair was a documentary screening by Umesh Aggarwal, director of News & Entertainment Television on ‘Brokering News-the inside story of paid news.’

 

Umesh Aggarwal talked to MXM India on the motivation and challenges encountered behind the making of the film, and what stance th industry needs to take to curb the menace. Excerpts:

 

Q: What was the motivating factor for attempting to unveil hideous information prevailing in the news broadcast and print sector?

For the last few years the manner in which news reports were presented in Newspapers and on News channels had become a topic of joke. It was not merely restricted to my group of friends but many people had started taking news reports with a pinch of salt.

 

A copy that was sensational, almost making most news items “entertaining” had become a norm of the day. There were various examples where a serious follower of news could catch contradicting reports in the same newspaper/channel. The question was whether news organisations owed any answer to their readers/viewers.

 

During 2009 elections, News media blatantly partnered with politicians and political parties. The entire journalist community was aware of what was going on but no one raised a voice. Perhaps, the Press Council & others had no teeth or intentions to rock the boat.

 

As far as I can remember The Hindu was the only paper that allowed space for a debate on Paid News. Articles written by Late Shri Prabhash Joshi, &  P Sainath raised valid questions. Yet “market leaders” refused to touch the story. In early 2010, Outlook published a cover story “Paid News of India”. While reading that story I could visualise a film.

 

I started following the story carefully. Just by scratching the surface a dark side of media was right in front of me.

Every aspect of news be it political, business, sports or entertainment had a price tag.

Even panel discussions on an important national issue were ‘fixed”. Guests were invited to give the discussion a particular slant. Selection of guests wasn’t dictated by the editorial policy of the group but there were other considerations.

I thought that it was only English press that indulged in paid news. I was wrong. The problem was and is worse at the vernacular media. I was aghast to know that one of the most respected newspapers in north India actually auctioned its bureau. The highest bidder was made to pay to the group, he was also expected to run the bureau and pay salaries. In lieu of all this… all his stories straight went to the press.

I had the notion that business journos were corrupt. It turned out that all industrialists cultivate political journos as well because they are the ones close to the powerful politicians – and they are the ones who broker deals.

During the last 5 years most of the vernacular news channels were launched while elections were round the corner. It wasn’t merely to catch eyeballs but it was discussed openly during editorial meets that how political parties could be tapped (or trapped) for resources. These horror stories are not a products of my imagination, they came from the horse’s mouth. Many journalists shared their experiences, yet they couldn’t come on record.

Political parties, corporate houses & event managers have devised newer ways to “buy” positive reports. At press conferences journalists are expected to drop their visiting cards. According to their position/ status a gift will be delivered to them. Not only that this gift can be exchanged for hard cash at designated outlets. Can you imagine journalists indulging in such practices?

The final straw was when the two-member subcommittee of PCI submitted its report on Paid News, and it was scuttled. I somehow managed a get hold of the original report. I knew I had to make a film. Why should media be allowed to remain absolutely unaccountable for its actions?

 

Q: What were the imminent challenges you faced in producing the documentary?

The first challenge was to decide “who is this film for?” Journalists already knew what was happening… others though cared for news but “would they be interested / do they bother how ownership patterns, management dictating editorial staff/ business deals etc. impact news?”

The next challenge was how to make it a visual narrative. Interviewing 5–6 people & converting it into a roundtable discussion was a format that didn’t appeal to me. And visuals narrative required great amount of research, & sourcing of news clippings.

And there were people who agreed to come on camera but when we reached there to shoot they developed cold feet & we returned.

And of course there always was this inner conflict of being a whistleblower to your own community…my connections with television news runs deep. Lots of my dear friends work with newspapers & channels but, finally, the urge to make this film went beyond all such personal conflicts.

 

Q: Were you, at any point in time, influenced by people who were being spoken of in the documentary?

No. No one ever tried to influence us. In fact most of the journalists were forthcoming in sharing their experiences but only OFF CAMERA.

 

Q: Did you make any attempt to contact or gather information from those individuals or organisations who were being named/accused in the documentary?

We contacted them. Either they were “travelling” or refused politely while wishing us Good Luck.

 

Q: Cannot this documentary act as solid proof and be submitted to the concerned authorities to solicit action on the wrongdoers?

That’s not for me to decide. The film is in public domain. Besides, this is not a film about individual wrongdoers – this is more about an evolving system of corruption that needs to be countered urgently if news media has to retain its credibility. Personally, I would be happier if the documentary has a preventive impact rather than a corrective one.

 

Q: While a good start has been made, according to you what does the industry need to do to stem such a malpractice?

I feel, there are enough reasons for us to be proud of Indian media. Yet its credibility is being questioned and there are valid reasons for that. Today it is run like any other business, yet it is not accountable to any one like other businesses are. A mere question about its conduct is treated as a threat to free press or freedom of expression. Those who advocate self regulation must ask themselves whether self regulation is working! If it is not what steps are to be taken? Media has to allow itself to be questioned.

 

Q: What is your message to the youth who want to pursue a career in the field of broadcast and journalism?

Choose your icons carefully. Primarily it should be journalism that should attract them… money and glamour should be the accessory and not the uniform, it should be a part of the package & not the package itself.

 

Q: A word on the next project that you seek to undertake?

India becoming a hub of clinical trials… legally & illegally…

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3 responses to “Just below the surface: Filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal”

  1. Sudeept says:

    *Hat Tip*

  2. Asraghunath says:

    Bravo Umesh! I wish such seminars be held here in Delhi – the epi center to all brokering. Is this documentary available on U tube or on any other website?

    • Net_umesh says:

      WE had 3 screenings at delhi. You can order this film online. Just log onto psbt.org On the search column type Brokering News, you will b able to order.

      Umesh

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