A few weeks back, just ahead of the exchange4media Group Public Relations and Corporate Communications Conference, this column had commented on how PR in India was essentially an exercise in plugs relations. Many in that business were upset. At least one reader thought that it was an attempt to create a stir and pull in people for the event. Well, if the number of people who took offence was any indication, my concern was that the PR frat would even skip the Conference in outrage.
They didn’t. In fact, many were happy that a key concern was brought to the fore, though the communications head of a large telco very vehemently said that PR wasn’t the lowest in the value cycle of the marketing process.
Perhaps, he’s right. And I hope he is.
But the reason for this column is not to repeat what’s already said. It’s to air what I think are genuine concerns of people in the PR business. Since I don’t have his permission to quote him, I will not attribute this comment to the senior professional who said this on my Facebook page: “The more worrying aspect for you should be the near-complete corruption in media, in terms of money and/ or ideology… Media houses are busy plugging stories for one business house or another, one political party or another. Often times money exchanges hands too… without fear or favour? Public interest seems to be secondary today to the media’s own agenda. There’s a big need for some serious soul-searching in media too…”
I have been asked by this gent to leave the soul-searching in PR to people in that profession given that “some good souls are left there too”.
Corruption in the media? Ah, as I discovered on some probing, it seems to exist in large measures. There are very few media companies with a code of ethics and of these, not everyone strictly administers it.
It’s of course not easy to be ethical, and/ or ensure that your entire organisation believes in it and follows it to the T. The problem is that there are many journalists who believe that there’s nothing wrong in accepting freebies. That these are perks that come as part of the benefits of being a journalist.
Part of the reason why this happens is that journalists are not paid as well as they ought to be. But the real worry is when a few (or is it many?) in my business think it’s their right to get that free meal in a restaurant, a bottle of expensive alcohol, a holiday or just some pricey gifts.
My belief that corruption levels in the news media would’ve dipped given better pay scales was incorrect. Several PR professionals who I met with in the recent past strongly believe that there is wide scale dishonesty amongst journalists… or at least amongst those who they interact with. It reportedly continues to exist in organisations which legalised paid content. So, the attempt of the company to pocket the money their journalists were allegedly earning by publishing content is not entirely successful.
There is another malaise that’s afflicting our media. Blacking out content that’s damaging to large advertisers and benefactors. So, even if the quality of a product or service may be suspect or requires to be exposed, publications don’t do it because it could mean losing out on revenues that aren’t very easy to come by.
Although it’s incorrect to generalise that all journalists are dishonest, the fact that integrity levels have not been kept in check across the profession in this country has possibly resulted in this perception. This, despite the fact that in the absence of a responsible political class, the Indian media plays a key role in society. Also, a few (okay, quite a few) rotten apples in the system doesn’t mean that the entire fraternity is corrupt.
Is there a way out of this mess? Sadly, none. I don’t think much can be done about it. Although I would not like the government to play a role here, but it can look at issuing print titles and concessions to only those who promise to have a code of ethics. Perhaps a more powerful Press Council of India can play ombudsman and entertain complaints of corrupt practices.
Since journalism allows access to several people and offices that are otherwise out of reach, there are enough hustlers fashioning as editors. When the PR pro wrote to me that there is “near-complete corruption in media”, he was obviously exaggerating. Widescale would perhaps be a more appropriate descriptor. Sigh.
(The views expressed here are personal. Post your comments below or reach the writer via mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @pmahesh.)