Last fortnight, a new documentary screened in Delhi had a packed hall in thrall. Called "Brokering News", it glided effortlessly through a succession of sound bytes and TV news clips to suggest a range of unethical practices prevalent in the media. The existence of election-time paid news, of complicity between stock market experts and the TV channels that feature their tips, of cosy deals that enable each newly released film to get varying degrees of prime time pre-release exposure, of increasingly political ownership of channels, of seductions to journalists, abundant "reviews" of new gadgets and automobiles and so on.
This documentary has been made by Umesh Aggarwal for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust and will be shown on Doordarshan, which will doubtless be delighted to air it. It was a brisk film built largely on circumstantial evidence and assertions of a general kind. Business journalist Sucheta Dalal saying for instance that: "Every single aspect of news is for sale," or filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt saying that the publicity a film gets is what it negotiates, not what it deserves. Or sports journalist Pradeep Magazine revisiting the cozy relationship that existed between media houses and the Indian Premier League until things that went sour for the IPL. The documentary had a compelling case study and specific accusations were levelled by a journalist who said he quit in disgust. The audience loved it.
In a country consumed with the issue of corruption, the discussion on degrees of ethical deficit in the media never moves beyond first base. Noteworthy, but unsurprising. Media corruption is not an issue that the State wants to tackle seriously for the same reason that corporate corruption is not an issue for the media until it becomes impossible to ignore. You need each other. Where would a politician be without publicity of any kind, where would a media house be without corporate advertising?
There is also another reason why the State will not stick its neck out on this issue. When a media house is raided, the community shrieks about the violation of press freedom. This has happened in some notable cases since the late 1990s. During the Anna agitation, the Law Minister Salman Khurshid asked on Headlines Today why Team Anna's draft of the Lokpal Bill had not called for investigation of corruption in the media and the NGO sector? The anchor asked him in turn why the government had not chosen to investigate those who figured in the Niira Radia tapes. And the good Minister said that if they did so the government would be criticized. "Now you are asking why the government has not investigated. If we go ahead with the investigation, we would be accused of being insensitive. If we do, there would be a mass movement for the media."
The major difference between corruption in public life and corruption in the media is that one has become a raging issue and the other not enough of an issue. To the extent that you need the media to make corruption an issue, media corruption will never become a big ticket item on the national agenda. And the interesting thing is, to the extent that civil society cannot fulfil any of its own agendas without using the media to ride on, it will leave media corruption well alone. In the list of problems Indian NGOs work like gnomes to address, those involving media abdication or transgressions are very hard to find.
We did not invent media corruption, nor do we have a monopoly on it. Trawl on the Internet and you would find journalists from Kenya, the Philippines and Nepal speaking on the subject. The Philippines too has paid news.
And then corruption is not sufficiently nuanced word to describe the problem. Paid news and journalists, big and small, on the take are the relative uncomplicated face of it. What of journalists not doing their job and going only after soft targets rather than big corporate or government fish because their owners need advertising from them? At the bottom of the pile, corruption exists because journalists are not paid enough, at the top it is at the management level and because the advertising the channel or paper is able to summon is not enough to cover costs, particularly since the cover price is low and no costs are covered at all. You sell a newspaper that costs Rs. 15 to produce at Rs. 3.
Desperate measures to finance escalating costs of production are also happening because hordes of players enter the media sector for a variety of reasons. There are no less than 40 news channels across the country financed by political parties or families, according to the aforementioned documentary. A highly fragmented market that shows no signs of consolidating.
The more expensive news gets to produce and the less advertising there is to go around, the more shows you will get on gadgets and cars and movies. And fewer news crews going off the countryside to report what is happening to ordinary people. Not reporting is not a cognizable offence, but it undermines the reason for the existence of journalism in a free society.
So, who will bell the cat? Not civil society, not government, not the corporate sector, not the media themselves, not the political class. We should look around at other societies to see what mechanisms they have come up with and pursue a variety of solutions. Until then, we will titter every time the Niira Radia sound bytes are played, but nothing will change on the ground.