What do you do about the new breed of journos? This crazy rat race to be the first with the news is killing the profession and the ethical standards that it stood for. The progenitors of this rat race were of course the electronic media, who turned ‘breaking news’ into a bad joke. Then the herd mentality drove all the viewers around the bend with the Hindi news channels practically losing it. But this phenomenon has not left the celeb/glitterati press far behind. The paparazzi, as it came to be known, has hounded celebs all round the world, and the movie of the same name showed them, warts and all.
Over the New Year, The Times of India’s prestigious supplement, Bombay Times, went hell for leather with the Britney Spears story. As it turned out, it was a complete hoax. My young friend Kushan Mitra has pointed out this misdemeanour. Spears to marry dancer Sandip Soparrkar, screamed Bombay Times. The contradiction came from E! Online. Sawf News report quoting E!Online said, “Britney Spears is not romancing Bollywood choreographer Sandip Soparrkar, and did not visit India during the Christmas holidays. “Britney is not in India,” a Britney source told E! Online. Another source termed the report that Britney visited Jodhpur in Rajasthan during the Christmas holidays a “total fabrication”. British tabloids and mainstream Indian press, the latter known to be quixotic and often bizarre, have been running amok reporting the bogus Britney-Soparrkar romance. The Times of India, a leading national newspaper once looked upon as an institution, published a photo of Soparrkar with Britney, which was clearly photoshopped, and ran a telephonic interview with the pop star while she was at Jodhpur!
The Times of India later retracted the interview, but continues to insist that Britney visited India, still unable to see through the obvious prank. E! Online reported that after spending her Christmas in LA, Britney was seen on Sunday afternoon jetting off to Kentwood, LA, where she has been spotted with her toddlers Sean and Jayden. She is expected to stay there and usher in the New Year with her family.
So, how does a newspaper deal with this kind of situation? Last year, a group of Goa journos palmed off a mega hoax on Indian media. And they fell hook, line and sinker for a Nazi, who was responsible for exterminating 12,000 Jews, found in the Goa-Karnataka jungles story. Johann Bach was the Nazi’s name, an obvious play on composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The Goa journos who perpetrarated the fraud about the 88-year old Nazi wandering in the jungles even quoted a detective agency called Perus Narkp, an anagram for Super Prank. It was a complete travesty with various newspapers picking up the story and even embellishing it with airy-fairy facts. Speed of getting news to the end user is triggering off this dangerous trend. It is resulting in facts being distorted, fictitious stories being written and journos playing cons on fellow travelers. All this is truly shocking. And if the tabloid trend of paparazzi journalism begins to find its way into India, then God have mercy on the rest of media. For things can not just get out of hand, but get real ugly too as the movie of the same name showed us. The movie starring Cole Hauser and Robin Tunney threw into stark relief the ugly side of paparazzi as it feeds off celebrities to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the public.
Last year, there was another such mishap – the purported Arbaaz Khan-Malaika Arora break-up, for which a Mumbai tabloid was guilty. The couple played along, even answering questions on the issue when a Live India reporter quizzed them on the state of their marriage. Both chose comments like, ‘It is a personal issue and I won’t like to comment on it’. Media lapped it up as is their wont, till it was discovered that the entire episode was a matter of deception on the part of the couple, who were doing it as part of a promotional campaign for a new product from a cosmetic MNC. But with the fur flying in the aftermath of the controversy, both Arbaaz and Malaika were quick to apologise for what turned into a complete fiasco. Hand it to the media for going overboard and once again falling for the gimmickry. Of course, here it needs to be mentioned that media was led along the garden path by the couple as well, who were equally culpable. And they woke up only when the only episode turned sour.
So, how does a newspaper or television management deal with such errant offenders? What about instituting a code of ethics and conduct for journos? Financial newspapers in the West practice stringent code of ethics. It is high time that some sort of standards is set up and controls exercised on journos. And this includes financial news television channels, who have been guilty of running casinos. What about the complicity between realtors and realty journos? Are these channels following a code of conduct, are their investments being monitored by management committees? Are they benefiting from insider trading strategies? Nothing is known. I know of a SEBI chairman, who evinced interest in this practice and even spoke to the promoter of the television channel. It is easy to say that newscasters and editors have investments in mutual funds and not directly in shares. But don’t mutual funds invest in equity, all equity diversified and balanced funds do. In all my years in financial journalism, I consciously never invested directly in shares of companies. The day I left mainstream media, I began to dabble in shares directly. And guess what happened? Like other retail investors, I was caught at the tail end of the boom by a screaming headwind, which debilitated my so-called portfolio and reduced it to tatters. But that is another story for another day.
For now, let us bring back some respectability to our profession by owning up to misdemeanors. The question is, are we doing enough? Concoction and distortion of news is a dangerous trend and it needs to be cauterised here and now.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)