As The Times of India celebrates its 175th year and its ads insist that time has passed too quickly, too soon, it’s pertinent to point out that the largest English newspaper in the world has often led by setting examples. One such example, though, not so publicly known, is its whistleblowing department.
Perhaps the result of some senior journalists of the Group hauled over the hot bed of the Radia tapes controversy, or just a mere introspection fuelled by the will to clean up the systemic deterioration of journalism, setting up of the department is laudable, not only because it shows the national newspaper’s intention to stay on top of the morality graph along with the news, but also because it shows the leader leading by example.
They say you cannot correct the corruption in the system that we have. Fair enough. You can at least stop them at their tracks and dissuade wrong practices. Towards this, The Times of India seems to have just done the apt thing – taken a corrective step against corruption in the corridors of journalism – in setting up the whistleblowing department.
What is whistleblowing? Whistleblowing within an organisation is the reporting of misconduct of an employee (or superior). It can range from reporting minor issues, to complex, corporate-changing deeds of bad behaviour and leadership. Around the globe, some of the well-known misdeeds that came out in the public were the scandals of Enron, WorldCom, and the Bernie Madoff scandal of 2008.
According to a Fortune magazine article: “If (Cynthia) Cooper had been a good soldier, the whole incredible mess might have been concealed forever,” in regards to her whistleblowing of WorldCom's fraudulent accounting. Meaning, if Cynthia had not brought it out in the public, the “bad behaviour would have continued and as a result, cause even more damage than the scandal did when it surfaced to the public. Certainly a terrifying thought!”
One thing must be said here. Indian journalists have never spared the “rotten apples” among them, a case in point being the Niira Radia tapes where 30 of them were exposed.
At the centre of the storm were some of India’s best known TV and print journalists – their names are known and well documented in the investigation involving the cut-rate sale of mobile phone licences in 2007-2008 which is estimated to have cost the treasury as much as $40 billion in lost revenues. It must be pointed out that the Indian media did not shy away from naming these journalists heard on transcripts of the 104 tapes acting as power brokers in negotiations involving big business and the government over allocation of cabinet seats.
At the same time, it must be understood that whistleblowing is a dangerous business in India. Take for example this brave woman journalist who complained against sexual harassment by a chief of bureau of a known media house in India when she was employed there. She went to the higher-ups within the media house, to the police, to an NGO but all she met in the initial stages were stone walls and the advice that she was just a commoner trying to take on a representative of a behemoth, protected by the system. Once the journalistic circles got to know of her complaint, it became near-impossible for her to get a job, in spite of the fact that she was a good journalist. But she did not give up and continued her fight for more than 10 years before she could get the guilty to book.
The Times of India whistleblower department should also be seen in the light of what the international media writes about its counterpart here. Take for example Global Post’s article on ‘India: War on whistleblowers’. Global Post writes: “India this year plunged to its lowest ranking on Reporters Without Borders' world press freedom index since 2002, falling to 140 out of 179 countries, as governments around the country cracked down on free speech and allowed criminals, political “workers” and armed groups to attack journalists with impunity.
Meanwhile, since the right to information law gave rise to the anti-corruption movement, the number of bureaucrats, activists, and even policemen who were harassed, beaten, jailed and murdered for daring to expose government and corporate malfeasance has continued to grow, according to the Asia Center for Human Rights (ACHR).”
According to Global Post, there is a definite crackdown on free speech in India and “its assault on muckraking activists are both part of an escalating war on whistleblowers that is intended to squash any objection to the near-absolute power of the state”.
The internal whistleblowing department has also set in context by promoting a whistleblowing culture within the organisation and letting the employees feel comfortable to speak up against wrongdoings within it. The department has also set in motion:
• Efforts towards creating a policy
• Emphasising on communications across employees that free ban on retaliation
• The intent of the top management to demonstrate whistleblowing within the organisation’s culture
• A continuous monitoring mechanism that ensures that employees know their rights, what the organisation will tolerate and not tolerate in order to promote best practices at the work place
• Realisation among the staff that the organisation is committed towards the viewpoint
• That when the whistle has been blown, there is an internal process of investigation
Further, the specialised department emphasises that clear communication is key within building an organisation as vast and prominent as The Times of India, and also ensures that the organisation goals are foremost, allowing employees to focus on the most important factor, the success of the organisation and its members.
Given corruption in the system and the deterioration of journalism as we once knew it, the whistleblower department is expected to be a pointer to the fact that a new form will emerge, an honest one, which will not find it so easy to spin wars for politicians, perform tricks for the government, regurgitate press releases as news, or deceive with plagiarizers who profit from other’s hard work.
The revelation like that of Wikileaks has already shown the way. As Brenda Norrell says, “The exposures by Wikileaks serve as a foundation for what has been kept secret and as a role model for courage by the whistleblowers who made the sacrifices.”
Whistleblowing is a necessary facet within an organisation. Without it, fraud, misconduct, and failure become prominent. By promoting clear communication, keeping the organisation's goals in focus, one can certainly minimise their chances of reaching an organisational disaster.
A senior journalist says: “The whistleblowing department is a pointer to its necessity even among journalists in the country. At least a media organisation that is as prominent and known as ToI has made an effort towards ensuring that there is transparency and cleanliness even within the ranks. As they say, first clean up your own house to clean up the system.”
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group