Strictly off the record

Strictly off the record

The press in India today is an institution that is subjected to relentless pressure from all those on whom it reports. From persons under trial for criminal offences to politicians, to government bureaucracy and yes, big companies in the private sector, everyone loves to take swipes at it.

As reported in Mint today, the Tata group, a respected conglomerate, has “informally" asked its senior executives not to “participate" in news stories by “offending" news channels and publications. Open, Outlook, Pioneer and Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd are on the hit list. The decision comes after “adverse" publicity to the group in the 2G spectrum case. The controversy revolves around Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata and the group’s communication adviser and lobbyist Niira Radia.

The spokesperson for Tata’s said that “we have expressed our unhappiness on the biased reporting by some sections of the media on the group and have asked our companies to re-evaluate their engagement with these organizations". It is not clear if “engagement" also includes advertising or merely involves not speaking to journalists.

There could not be a less veiled threat to the press. In most modern societies, the functioning of the press requires advertising revenue to sustain itself. As a result, many newspapers and news channels are often subject to pressure from advertisers, usually big companies and government, to “stick to the line", so to speak. This is a well-known shortcoming.

It is also true that most well- functioning newspapers and news channels find ways to cope with the problem without affecting their coverage of important news events. The coverage of the 2G spectrum case, which is not about one company alone, but about malfeasance at the highest level of government, in India is one such event. To its credit, the Indian press has not shied from hard-hitting stories and the search for wrongdoing on the part of the government and companies.

It is also equally obvious that firms such as the Tatas don’t like such coverage. But that can hardly be avoided in a democracy. A company or a clutch of companies, however powerful and respected they may be, are, in the end, subject to press scrutiny for any misdeeds. The effort to “disengage" is just another attempt to coerce the press into submission. But such is the nature of democracy that such efforts seldom pay off. The only thing that may happen is more adverse publicity.

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