Freaking News: Media ethics just hogwash?

04 Nov,2011

This is surely the best story about journalistic arrogance and insouciance. A newspaper reports that Mr X has the “manners of a pig”. Mr X sues and wins the case and the newspaper is directed to retract the remark. The next day’s edition declares: “Mr X hasn’t the manners of a pig”.

Basically, you can’t win.

For years, the media has got away with this and everything else. But now, in these days of social media and public clothes lines, nothing is secret and certainly nothing is sacred. The hippies wanted to let it all hang out but even they may not have envisaged the extent to which they were taken seriously.

There are three issues at hand here. The first is about paid news – which specifically in the Indian context refers to politicians and political parties buying editorial space to win elections. This is not a seedy arrangement with a crooked reporter. This is money paid to the owners and managers of media houses.

The election commission had taken up the issue but seems more concerned with punishing the politicians rather than the media houses. Both, surely, are culpable.

The second is the new chairman of the Press Council of India and his contempt for journalists. The contempt may well be justifiable and freedom of expression as a fundamental right applies to all of us. How his views have anything to do with the activities of the Press Council are another matter. Markandey Katju may have forgotten that he is not longer a judge on the Supreme Court but head of a toothless, spineless and rather redundant body. Or probably he knows that, which is why he trying to get a little more for himself.

The third is the strangest of all. Just before public relations diva Niira Radia quit the profession, NDTV elevated Barkha Dutt to the post of editor-in-chief and has set up an ethics committee under another editor, Sonia Varma. One of all journalists’ favourite proverbs is about bolting the stable door after the horse has fled. Well, maybe it doesn’t fit here. The horse has been promoted and is in fact running the stable. What exactly will this ethics committee achieve now, over a year after the Radia tapes damned Dutt and Vir Sanghvi? Sanghvi lost his popular Hindustan Times column ‘Counterpoint’ and for many, his reputation, for agreeing to Radia’s suggestions and demands. Dutt stonewalled and badgered her way through all criticism and appears to be have been rewarded for similar interactions with Radia. Her column in the Hindustan Times remains, however.

From all appearances, Radia has suffered the most. She was the messenger acting for her clients, the Tatas and the Ambanis. It was the telecom industry, as revealed in Radia’s conversations, who wanted the DMK’s A Raja to become telecom minister. Radia has paid the price for doing her job while those on either end of her intermediary role are sitting pretty.

Under such circumstances, it does feel that the breast-beating about media ethics is just hogwash. No one wants to take on the big names and too many within the media are obviously willing to be compromised. The current story in Goa about a sting operation revealing paid news has hardly created the storm it should.

Right now, many of us are just happy fooling the public and few of us have the manners of a pig.

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