The Indian media needs to stop plummeting

Last Updated: Wed, Apr 02, 2014 01:25 hrs

A work trip to the UK last week turned out to be a cringe-inducing reminder of the medieval era in which professional journalism in India operates.

On the sidelines of a visit to the BBC's new integrated newsroom, the talk turned to a show it had done on paid news in the run-up to the Indian elections this month. In the course of chatting about paid news and private treaties, the fairly senior person taking me around pointed to the busy news hub below and said the whole thing was, "about values." Ouch.

Later that week at a day-long conference on journalism by Polis, the media think tank of the London School of Economics (LSE), the theme was transparency and accountability. The first two sessions, the best of the lot, tackled the questions journalists face on the ground head on.

In the discussion "Crossing the Line: How far would you go for a story" Stewart Purvis, who teaches journalism at the City University, used some outstanding research to get the panel talking. There was Tom Giles, the editor of BBC Panorama, explaining why BBC reporters posed as LSE professors and students on a trip to North Korea. Purvis mentioned the facts and incidents, and Giles or the others defended, explained or apologised for them.

There was, however, no screaming, shouting or interruption. It was a debate on the ethics and moral dilemmas of doing investigative reporting. There was talk of what constitutes public interest and whether it can be legally defined, among other things.

In subsequent sessions, many of which focussed on the Edward Snowden leaks that The Guardian broke and then reported on extensively, the texture of the discussions was interesting. In "Journalism after Snowden" the pro- and anti-Snowden types were articulate.

Ed Lucas of The Economist reckoned that Snowden should be prosecuted for leaking information on how intelligence agencies function and also the names of agents, putting the system at risk.

However, many of the others reckoned that some of this was simply animosity that the British media seemed to have for The Guardian, which broke the story.

A few weeks after the Snowden leaks, intelligence officials forced staff at The Guardian to destroy the hard drives that contained the encrypted files that Snowden had leaked. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian talked about how the whole investigation and its repercussions have changed the way journalists at his paper work.

There was, however, no talk of pressure from advertisers or withdrawal of advertising or the support of owners, the standard argument many editors in India will give for not carrying a story or authorising an investigation.

Rusbridger, in fact, touched only briefly upon the fact that The Guardian is owned by a trust that was formed specifically to protect the left-liberal journalistic values it stands for.

He did not state the obvious: that the trust and its support makes investigating, putting out and then standing up for a story so much easier than for other kinds of owners. India is currently awash with dodgy media owners, editors who are unable to stand up to them and ill-trained journalists.

So, are trusts the best form of ownership for news media, I asked from the audience. Rusbridger responded that all forms coexist in the UK. There is the BBC with its licence fee-funded model and News International and the others, which may be public or private companies.

What stood out in that day-long conference was not the quality and texture of debate - but the fact that there was one. Here, in India, there is no discussion on journalism and how to tackle the challenges it faces.

There is just loud opinion, invective and shouting - most of it from people who have nothing to do with media and journalism. It is only when we, as professionals, start accepting that there is a deep rot in the system and it needs to be tackled, start talking about it and finding solutions for it that we will begin the process of cleaning up.

Paid news, private treaties or media buyers on the take, are all symptoms of a business gone awry.

And to wrap up, here is my last media story from the UK. Earlier this year, a large multinational company invited public relation (PR) firms based in India to pitch for its business.

It earnestly sought to understand how it could build relationships with journalists who track the sector. The idea was to have the ability to communicate to the right people who understand how the industry operates in times of crisis or when some news is breaking.

The pitching PR firms just told them to release an ad campaign in the dailies instead - that would fulfil the purpose better than trying to talk to a journalist.

The communications head of the firm, who I bumped into in London, said her "respect for Indian media plummeted".

Isn't it time then to stop the plummeting

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