Ranjona Banerji: 2014 is an acid test for journalistic integrity

29 Oct,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Indian newspapers seem to be trying to follow a western pattern in the run up to the next general elections by picking their favoured candidates/parties most likely to win in 2014. However they don’t quite have the hang of it yet. So while there is a general tilt towards the BJP, they suddenly appear to veer off into the opposite direction. American newspapers seem to have taken their own sides too and much more emphatically. The New York Times is firmly against Narendra Modi while The Wall Street Journal favours him. This has, not unnaturally, caused some heartburn in the parallel universe of the social media which is filled with Modi fans. But there should be nothing to worry for them: several international newspapers like The Guardian and The Telegraph (politically as diverse as you can get) have questioned the sanity or validity of Rahul Gandhi’s various remarks.

 

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This is not connected with any evidence, empirical or otherwise, or is not even conjecture. But it vitally important at this time to keep an eagle eye on the media at this point in time. This is when the bogey of paid news rises, as elections approach. This is when managements decide it is time to make money out of political parties and individual candidates by printing pro-stories for a consideration. One easy giveaway is when the same newspaper carries diametrically opposite stories on the same party or same candidate on different days. Often managements, who are extremely clever and strategic, neglect to inform their troublesome colleagues in the editorial department of what they are up to.

 

There is much confusion about paid news in the general public. Some see at as a tag to be attached to journalists who do not support their chosen political party or candidate. Others see it as journalists looking for freebies and are willing to write anything for in return – whether from a political party or a five star hotel. The first contention is nonsensical. Just because journalists disagree with your political ideas does not make them agents of the other party. Tragically however, the other breed does exist: the journalist who will write anything for money and the journalist who is in the pay or thrall of a political party. There is a third category, seen more often in the non-English media where a journalist is forced by managements to act as a marketer as well.

 

These are the scourges of the profession. It is because of them that managements like Bennett Coleman introduced Medianet where a celebrity or wannabe celebrity can pay the newspaper to get favourable news printed. Other managements have followed suit. These are no longer editorial decisions or the actions of a crooked journalist. Medianet and its variations are now rampant and no reader can (or should) believe most of what appears in the glamour papers.

 

Paid News is the Medianet of politics. And there are other similar strategies for corporate and business coverage as well. Journalists one has to say have brought this upon themselves. But readers and viewers can exercise judgment for themselves. There are a couple of well-known columnists who appear on TV as spokespersons for the BJP for instance. Therefore when you read their columns you have a clear picture of where they come from. Supporters for the Congress are a bit thin on the ground and every “secular” person is not necessarily a Congress agent.

 

But there is no question that this is dangerous territory, filled with landmines for readers, viewers and those journalists who have not sold out. The Election Commission has taken Paid News seriously and has recently included newspaper managements in its scrutiny. This general election is going to be extremely vicious and divisive and the scope for transgressing all the rules is massive. On our toes, then.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. She can be reached via Twitter at @ranjona. The views here are her own

 

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