The Niira Radia tape disclosures have been sensational. Taped conversations have revealed how editors and PR chiefs lobbied for political parties, ministers, policies and other sundry issues. Citizens are aghast that the custodians of the media, who should remain neutral at all times, are taking sides.
This has become all the more critical as this is part of the 2G telecom scam estimated at a modest Rs 1.76 lakh crore!
But, why are you surprised?
Editors have hobnobbed with the top politicians of the land for decades. They have advised them, sometimes been good friends and sometimes crossed over to become politicians themselves.
There was never all-round objectivity in India and media houses have usually taken sides. What the Radia tapes have done is simply brought out all this in the open. There has been no change in the outlook of journalists since independence.
Russy "Blitz" Karanjia was once called the "unofficial emissary" of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India. Veteran journalist MJ Akbar turned from editor to Congress party spokesman and back to editor, all in good time.
In the late eighties, INFA (India News and Feature Alliance) editor Inder Jit became a secret mediator between the government and Subhash Ghising, leader of the Gorkhaland movement.
Journalists behind closed doors openly boast of their connections and the deals they have helped facilitate.
There is a thin line between power brokering, helping politicians and lobbying. What about a media house which launches a witch hunt against a particular party. Might it not be actually be lobbying for the rival party?
This also brings us to a question. Can you get any work done in this TV and Internet age without massive amounts of marketing, publicity and of course lobbying?
Industrialists Dhirubhai Ambani and LM Thapar owned newspapers in a bid to buy power and help their industries. Is that a form of lobbying? Interestingly, after independence, the Dalmias owned Times of India and the Tatas owned Statesman.
Would things have changed had they held on to those?
Lobbying in the US
No matter how much you criticise the world's sole superpower, it still remains an ideal for most of the world, India included. Fast food, Hollywood, stock marketsÃ¢â¬ÂŠ everyone wants to go the American way. IT and outsourcing have brought together the two largest democracies in the world as never before.
There's another field where it leads the way and many an Indian journalist and PR person would love to be an official lobbyist a la Americana. Of course, right now you can only call it the unofficial lobbying industry of India.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution talks of the "Right to Petition", which protects the lobbying industry. One estimate puts the federal lobbyists in Washington DC in excess of 15,000. Finance, health, communications and energy are some of the biggest spenders.
Official lobbying started in the late nineteenth century and the White House was frequently petitioned. In the early twentieth century, lobbyists were attacked for corrupting politics and people fought them all the way to the US Supreme Court.
This led to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which called for a much greater amount of transparency. Today lobbying has become a much evolved industry and runs into billions of dollars. Its services are availed by practically every power group in the US.
It is a given and not done in a hush-hush manner like India.
The problem with India...
The problem with India is that we live in two parallel and contradictory worlds. India bans most of betting and gambling. That has led to a black market full of match-fixers and the like. Such bans are always counter-productive.
If betting was legal and a match was fixed, then the sudden spurt in betting on an underdog would immediately raise the shackles of authorities. Legal betting can detect something rotten, illegal betting cannot.
The same is with lobbying. A dictionary definition of lobbying is "a group of persons who work or conduct a campaign to influence members of a legislature to vote according to the group's special interest".
Now which country doesn't do that?
In India, unofficially, this is already being done on a grand scale.
Politicians, PR firms, NGOs, corporates and journalists are all on the bandwagon.
Unethical, but unstoppable...
Of course, there is only one group totally out of place in this bandwagon: The journalist (who is supposed to be objective in the first place).
It is clearly unethical for any journalist to report the news and lobby for any corporate or industrialist or party or politician or even any cricketer for that matter.
There's no debating that.
Any journalism student knows it.
But the real question is: What action can be taken?
None at all!
No journalist is going to correct himself. He considers it as part of his job. No media house will correct such a journalist. They want reporters and editors with great contacts. Someone who wines and dines with VVIPs is seen as an asset and not as a liability.
So how does the issue sort itself out?
Many financial media houses of the world either require that their employees don't buy stock or at least declare their shares. The reader decides for himself the analysis of a financial writer who also plays the stock market.
That's pretty difficult in political journalism. You don't have to be a member of political party to lobby for it.
Contacts, tips and favours all go hand in hand. You cannot stop a journalist from lobbying.
But you sure can make the whole process transparent. Practically, thatÃ¢â¬â¢s the only thing you can do.
What if we went the American way?
What if journalists could officially be political consultants and this be disclosed in clear terms to the readers and viewers, who are the best judges? Isn't that better than doing something in the dark or it being an open secret?
What if lobbying officially became an industry in India?
What if we had professional lobbyists and large lobbying firms?
That way, senior journalists could quit and switch over to a new profession carrying over their networks without there being a conflict of interest!
Just a thought!
Also see: The Nira Radia tapes: Making the wrong call?