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Journalists should not become squeamish when the spotlight is on them: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

29-November-2010
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Journalists should not become squeamish when the spotlight is on them: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Everyone likes to be flattered. Who does not want to be told that she or he is outstanding, brilliant, excellent, good, if not, great, pleasant, charming, sensitive, intelligent – choose your superlative? Journalists are no exception. Their egos are easily massaged. Media professionals come into contact with people who are rich and powerful in the course of fulfilling their duties and obligations as reporters and analysts of news that is of interest to the public at large, and one is here not merely talking of so-called celebrity journalism. People are indeed interested in learning about the activities of and/ or the views of those in positions of power and authority.

A problem arises when journalists start suffering from what psychologists call delusions of grandeur. Some journalists who meet wealthy and influential individuals start acquiring airs. They start believing that they are like those who flatter them. This is when certain senior media practitioners cross the proverbial Lakshman Rekha. They either become – or delude themselves into believing they have become – players in larger political and economic processes.

Let us take a brief look at how three high-profile journalists have responded to transcripts of their conversations with lobbyist Niira Radia being placed in the public domain. One predictable reaction has been to contend that the conversations have been quoted out of context, or even doctored. There is a striking similarity to the rejoinders put out by these journalists to those made by politicians, when they complain that journalists have misquoted them. Here is what Barkha Dutt states:

“Ironically, the one sentence being used to damn me, ‘Oh God, What should I tell them?’, is, in fact, two separate sentences, neither of which are related to (former Minister) A Raja or the telecom portfolio at all. When transcripts are edited and capture neither tone nor context, the message is severely distorted. The phrase ‘Oh God,’ was nothing more than a response to a long account by Niira Radia on a DMK leader, TR Baalu, speaking to the media without sanction from the party. The excerpt, ‘What should I tell them?’, was in response to her repeatedly saying to me over several different phone calls that if I happened to talk to anyone in the Congress, I should ask them to talk to the DMK chief directly. As a matter of record, I never passed on any message to any Congress leader. But because she was a useful news source, and the message seemed innocuous, I told her I would. Ultimately, I did no more than humour a source who was providing me information during a rapidly changing news story.”

This is what Vir Sanghvi has written on his website: “Ms Radia called several journalists, including me, to ask us to convey a message to any Congress leaders we met in the course of our work. This message was, essentially, that the Congress was communicating with the wrong people in the DMK. While gathering news, journalists talk to a wide variety of sources from all walks of life, especially when a fast-moving story is unfolding. Out of a desire to elicit more information from these sources, we are generally polite. I received many calls from different sources during that period. In no case did I act on those requests as anybody in the government will know.”

Finally, this what Prabhu Chawla has stated: “Niira called me as she said ‘to seek my expertise’ on the ‘battle for gas’ between the two Ambani brothers. I merely told her that the earlier the brothers put an end to their private battle, the better it will be for the public good. I did not take sides. I did say that I knew both brothers, but was equally critical of the tactics being adopted by each to run down the other. Niira also asked me about my son, who is a lawyer and is retained by the Anil Ambani group as their counsel. I however made it clear that my son Ankur was not appearing in the particular gas case.”

It would be illuminating to compare the protestations of these three prominent journalists, who write for newspapers and are popular television anchors, with their actual recorded conversations with Ms Radia. Many may not consider Ms Dutt’s breathless tone as an attempt to “humour a source”. Mr Sanghvi’s claims of his proximity to the Congress high command may be perceived as expressions of bravado, while Mr Chawla’s insinuations relating to the higher echelons of the Indian judiciary may be interpreted as defamatory or downright contemptuous. Be that as it may, all three seem to make no bones about the fact that are indeed well connected to “those who matter”.

The infamous nexus between big business and politicians has been traditionally facilitated by corrupt sections of the bureaucracy. Certain journalists become bit players in this pernicious project, even if they occasionally fool themselves into believing they are among the protagonists. A prominent editor of a newspaper used to claim he was the second most powerful person in the country after the Prime Minister of India. He was also the recipient of largesse in the form of financial instruments from a leading corporate entity. Other journalists have chosen to become members of the Rajya Sabha. Once again, this phenomenon is neither new nor unique to this country – where, of late, the dividing line between news and advertising, between the fourth estate and real estate (to use P Sainath’s memorable analogy) is frequently blurred when not obliterated altogether.

If journalists believe they have the right to play the role of an adversary or an antagonist against everyone and his brother, they should not become squeamish when the spotlight is on them. On an optimistic note, one is tempted to use an analogy used in a different context. Women splatter mud on their faces to make their skins glow so that they appear beautiful. Hopefully, the muck being flung around will cleanse a bit of the corruption that has come to characterise a section of the media in India even as another section of the journalistic fraternity continues to expose corruption in high places. Mr Raja’s loot of the public exchequer wouldn’t have been exposed had it not been for a few journalists who slogged away diligently for more than three years. Two cheers for the Indian media!

(Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist and educator. He has authored a textbook entitled ‘Media Ethics: Truth, Fairness and Objectivity: Making and Breaking News’, published by Oxford University Press, and has co-authored the report of the sub-committee of the Press Council of India, called ‘Paid News: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy’. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)
 

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