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In my forty years as editor, I have seen many developments in the print media which are worrying. But nothing quite so worrying as the erosion of public trust. Our credibility is at an all-time low because readers take everything they read with a bucketful of salt. To repeat the truism: if newspapers can no longer be trusted to tell the truth on their news pages, then all is lost. We might as well pack up and go home.

As late as the ’90s, I have been witness to many heated discussions between ordinary folk. Voices were raised, motives questioned. ‘How do you know that is true?’ one of the argumentative Indians asks. ‘I read it in The Times of India.’ The argument immediately ends. It is the ultimate response. Today the riposte is likely to be, ‘So what?’

Ten years ago, I commissioned an opinion poll for Outlook in which respondents were asked to rank professions in terms of their value to society. Doctors, teachers, scientists, NGOs emerged high on the list. Somewhere in the middle were journalists. The bottom of the list saw strong competition between politicians, smugglers and pimps. Just a decade ago, then, journalists had a positive image. We were seen as cleansing agents who helped to keep anti-national and venal elements in check.

Since 2000 there has been a steep fall. The magazine India Today recently did a poll on corruption. Which were the most corrupt professions in the country? As expected, politicians topped the list, followed by the police and the lower judiciary.

A surprise revelation surfaced when journalists made an unexpected appearance in the most corrupt list. More shaming: we narrowly beat high court and Supreme Court judges in the corruption stakes. Other polls have shown results along similar lines. Clearly, the journalist’s standing in public perception has taken a huge beating.

In reality, it was the worst-kept secret. Corruption at the very top of the profession (by which I mean editors and assistant editors and special correspondents, those with powers to decide who to cover and how to cover) had always flourished. The nexus between editor and minister, which benefited the former materially and the latter politically, was known to more than a few. Even so, we continued to lecture the world on integrity, transparency and accountability, asking at the drop of a hat for resignations when a hint of suspicion surfaced and recommended capital punishment for those who sold the country for forty pieces of silver.

Regrettably, when it came to our own conduct, a different set of rules operated. If some misguided soul suggested the media too should be open to scrutiny, the cry of ‘press freedom under threat’ went up. If that misguided soul happened to be a journalist, he was rebuked and reminded that ‘dog does not eat dog’. With such poppycock the Indian media insulated itself from scrutiny.

Till the Radia tapes became public…

Niira Radia. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times
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Niira Radia. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times

Self-flagellation is not my favourite sport. However, in all honesty, Niira Radia did us journalists a big favour. Thanks to her, the high moral ground we automatically claimed for ourselves has slipped from beneath our feet. Things, it can be predicted with some confidence, will never be the same again.

The discomfiture of the press at the loss of public trust did not go unnoticed. One set of people saw it as a great opportunity to clip our wings. Whatever they say about their commitment to the free press, politicians either loathe the press or barely tolerate it. They have been itching to get even. Their pet hobby horse is ‘statutory regulation’, which means they get to have a say on how we function. If statutory regulation sounds a bit Stalinist, they modify it to ‘statutory self-regulation’. Either way, they get their foot in the door.

Rahul Gandhi’s hand-picked member of Parliament Meenakshi Natarajan tried to introduce the Print and Electronic Media Standards Bill in 2012. This would have given the government sweeping powers over the media, including the right to suspend coverage of an event in the interests of national security. The bill would also have created a regulatory body largely appointed by the government. Ms Natarajan’s bill was withdrawn owing to a ‘national outcry’.

A parliamentary committee, some months ago, asked the government to urgently create ‘a statutory regulatory body’ to control the press. The previous minister of information and broadcasting Manish Tewari, almost once a month, suggested ‘licensing’ journalists—licences which would be issued by the government and could be taken away by the government. He needs to be reminded that licensing of journalists is anathema to liberal democracies and favoured by Iran, North Korea and China. Hamid Ansari, the vice-president, who does not have a reactionary bone in his body, also favours external regulation.

Politicians are not the only people out to get us. The higher judiciary too has jumped in. Their motives are self-serving as the press has frequently exposed judicial misconduct, both official and personal. ‘Absence of state intervention on its own is no guarantee of a rich media environment,’ a bench of the Delhi High Court headed by Justice Pradeep Nandrajog pronounced in May 2013; the same court recommended to the government last year to form an ‘independent statutory body’ to regulate the media.

It is the word ‘statutory’ which gives the game away.

*****

Editor Unplugged—Media, Magnates, Netas & Me: Penguin Viking, 281 pages, Rs 599
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Editor Unplugged—Media, Magnates, Netas & Me: Penguin Viking, 281 pages, Rs 599

The reader is prepared to forgive and forget errors occurring in the normal course of functioning. He or she understands and appreciates that journalists are not infallible. Occasional fallibility, regrettably, is not the problem; habitual fallibility is. Minor and infrequent errors anyway can be set right by a quick clarification, and if necessary, an apology.

What the profession faces in 2014 is something infinitely more distressing. The reader currently entertains a sort of existential suspicion. He reads a report, finds it helpful, even illuminating; it adds to his fund of knowledge. Nonetheless, he is assailed by a nagging doubt: is it true? In most cases the doubt is not cleared, unless the story is officially confirmed. Mostly, it is not, so the doubt remains in limbo in the reader’s mind.

How did the credibility crisis arise in the first place? It arose because the professional environment got completely vitiated. Additionally, journalists, instead of reporting the news, sometimes become the news. I could fill a whole chapter of this book with a laundry list, excluding Radia, where journalists have been caught in criminal behaviour. The easy way out is to blame the decline in standards on the ‘wrong people’ buying up bits of the media—builders, realestate agents, local hoodlums. If the wrong people own the media, they will hire the wrong journos to run it. Accepted. But I am talking about the responsible, mainstream media.

The God-like infallibility of presswalas promoted largely by presswalas is a myth well past its sell-by date. (The late TV journalist David Frost’s wife, when asked if her husband was religious, said, ‘Oh, yes, he thinks he is God.’) All of us, editors, reporters and sub-editors, work under tremendous pressure and at great speed. Accuracy, if not the first casualty, is a likely casualty. No need to pretend otherwise. However, I am flagging deliberate and motivated errors.

The print media’s cup of woe runneth over. In 2011, P. Sainath of The Hindu exposed the phenomenon of paid news. The phrase has the virtue of being succinct and self-explanatory. Paid news is quite simply paid news. A person, usually a politician, can buy space in a newspaper to promote himself. Or defame his opponent. The practice has become widespread. Everyone from members of Parliament to the Election Commission to the Press Council to the Supreme Court is ‘seized’ with the matter. It continues to be seized.

Considering all of the above, it is hardly surprising that the public has, for the most part, lost trust in the press. The Transparency Global Corruption Barometer reveals that 41 per cent of Indians believe the media is ‘complicit in corruption’. Strangely, no editor or media expert denies the gravity of the crisis. Indeed, consensus exists in the profession on the need to urgently tackle the issue.

Over the past five years, I have attended countless seminars and workshops debating and discussing the issue of public trust. All of us sagely nod our heads agreeing to take immediate curative measures.

Yet, the ticking bomb ticks away. We are still at the discussion stage.

The politician’s view of the press is a small matter. You can judge the health of a democracy by the tension between journalists and politicians. When the relationship gets too cosy that is the time to worry. Alarmingly for us, it is the vital aam-admi constituency which is losing faith in the integrity of newspapers. The number of complaints I receive from ordinary people with serious grievances against the press has increased sharply. Aggrieved teachers, doctors, NGOs, defence personnel are helpless. They have no one to turn to. A letter to the editor is the best they can hope for.

Excerpted from Editor Unplugged: Media, Magnates, Netas & Me, with permission from Penguin Books India.

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