April 11, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Our media's avowed loves

Vajpayee and Advani's meek surrender to the Tehelka tapes has lifted our media to a new high of cockiness, arrogance almost. The comments that the press and television are making day-in-day-out and encouraging the public to make -- are all helping to create the impression that every Indian institution save the media is vile and vicious, corrupt and contaminated. The people of this nation can, it would appear, be saved only by the holy and holistic media, the sole entity that is oh-so honest and honourable.

The time then is opportune to do a reality check.

Take the incident in an obscure place called Kothewadi in a backward district of Maharashtra. The local press there was agog a couple of months ago about a multi-faceted mayhem in the bailiwick, with several suspects rounded up by the police. The shock waves came when Maharashtra Times) from the prestigious Times stable, reported that those arrested for the mayhem were associated with the local BJP MLA.

The shocks exploded a few days later. As revealed by a Mumbai-based Marathi newspaper in a front-page editorial, the sequence of events was --
1. MT's Kothewadi reporter refused to publish the BJP MLA's side of the story unless he was paid Rs 400,000 -- twice the amount of what he claimed had been paid to write the earlier report defaming the legislator.

2. The reporter was caught accepting the promised sum from the MLA who had cleverly arranged for the police to nab the money-grabber red-handed.

3. MT, stunned by the development, quickly issued a letter to the police saying that the man caught taking the money was not its scribe.

4. The police were the next to be stunned because one of the contents they had seized from the money-grabber was a letter from MT's editor that he was the newspaper's local reporter.

5. MT's editor then wrote another letter to the police that the scribe concerned was only its contractually appointed one, not a regular employee reporter

The case of the arrested suspects awaits judicial action. What is meaningful, meanwhile, is that the mainstream English-language newspapers didn't even report all this. Reason? Cabal camaraderie or media trade unionism? Whatever it was, the perversity is so obvious. Bangaru Laxman taking Rs 100,000 for his party and ensuring a receipt for it is a pan-Indian ogre and a disgrace; a newspaper scribe claiming to have pocketed Rs 200,000 for writing defamatory stuff against a legislator and another Rs 400,000 for promising to undo that damage is not even news. That then is our media's concept of corruption and probity, is it?

Now go back to 1995. First Kanshi Ram, boss of Bahujan Samaj Party, and then Mayawati, his deputy, alleged that Mulayam Singh, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had virtually bought out journalists in Lucknow and Delhi to ensure favourable media coverage. Then, in its edition of July 15, 1995, The Statesman of Calcutta published an official list recording largesse of Rs 10.04 million from the public exchequer given to journalists and press clubs by Mulayam Singh within the first 18 months of his tenure as CM. What happened after the disclosure? No resignations, no probes, no nothing.

It was The Statesman again in which its business editor, Ravi Kumar, wrote the following in an edit article some years ago --

'I was in Bombay last February to interview candidates for a financial journalist's position with The Statesman. At least one of the candidates was uninterested in what The Statesman could offer; on the contrary, he was prepared to pay a monthly sum for the privilege of being our financial correspondent. Now that was a surprise and led to obvious questions. The answer was distressing. "A business journalist stands to take home a sum of close to Rs 70,000 per month." When I drew attention to the fact of corruption in business journalism, I received calls from some journalists whether I know that sports and film journalists are no better and are heavily subsidised by interested parties. I was asked whether I had ever cared to inquire into the lifestyle of film journalists in particular.'

What came out of that confession? No introspection, no nothing.

The objective viewer has always felt the media to be generally soft to Congress regimes. The probable reason lies in the para below from a report in The Times of India of May 6, 1992, by Anil Sharma, the newspaper's local correspondent then in Bhopal. In the report titled 'The BJP's Assault on Press in MP,' Sharma revealed that --

'The Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Mr Sunderlal Patwa, has always asserted that it is not an absolute necessity for the press and government to have cordial relations. Apart from this being indicative of the new culture of the BJP claims to have ushered in, it is also a dig at the previous Congress governments. … It cannot be denied that the print media really flourished under the Congress government patronage, with special press complexes coming up in major towns and land being allotted to newspaper owners at throwaway prices… During the Congress rule anyone merely registering a weekly newspaper could get government accommodation and a standard quota of newspaper advertisements.

'The term Alter Press, where the same text was published only with different masthead to gain multiple government advertisements for the same person, gained currency during the period. Journalists and newspaper proprietors had a major say in the transfers and postings of the bureaucrats and this proved lucrative for them. Apart from other benefits, journalists travelling abroad for any reason would get government assistance to the tune of Rs 25,000.'

Five years later, India Today magazine dated October 11, 1997 had the following in its 'newsnotes' section --

'Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh needs no lesson in the art of winning friends and influencing the influential. With elections to the state assembly just a year away, he acknowledges the need to cultivate the media. Unfortunately for him, the Madhya Pradesh high court has ordered restriction on the allotment of government houses to journalists. But then Digvijay has found a way around that one too -- build an entire complex in the heart of the state capital to house newspaper offices.

'Since the days of Arjun Singh's first tenure as chief minister, journalists in Bhopal have been a pampered lot. Digvijay is merely ensuring continuity. And though prime land has already been identified in the heart of the city, a ticklish problem persists: which among the newspapers will get the allotments. And Digvijay knows too well that hell hath no fury like a newspaper baron scorned.'

Read the second and the last sentence above once more and rush to your dictionary to rediscover the meaning of "bribing", "corruption", "quid pro quo" and "probity".

"Accountability" is another word that our media hold up as so very sacred. It forever advocates that the government and its institutions, political parties and their deeds, the hospitals and their doctors, the educational establishments and their administrators etc etc -- all these, the media demands, must be "accountable" But is the media even expected to be accountable to anyone at any time at all?

Look at two episodes.

In early February 1999, the Press Council of India announced that it had censured The Times of India in the strongest terms for trying to misuse the services of the editor for the personal benefit of the paper's proprietor. According to the evidence laid before the PCI, what the editor was asked to do by the paper's owners was to protect their late chairman by i. lobbying with political leaders, and ii. writing articles in the paper supporting his proprietor. The result was a detailed 69-page PCI judgment throwing light on press credibility -- a matter of considerable public interest.

Yet, according to an article by Ajit Bhattacherjea in The Hindu of February 17, 1999 (a copy is with this writer), not a single major English-language newspaper headquartered in New Delhi printed a line on PCI's verdict though it was sent to them and the news agencies did distribute a summary. And though papers censured by PCI are expected to publish findings against them to guard against repetition of such offences, The Times of India didn't. The PCI couldn't do anything about it because the PCI is toothless, absolutely toothless.

The second incident concerned a photograph of two women lying naked on a tree published by Sunday Mid Day on July 25, 2000 along with an article. A reader, M S Kilpady of Mumbai, first asked the newspaper to tender an apology for publishing the photograph that defied all sense of decency and was a blot on moral values. Failing to evoke any response, Kilpady approached the PCI.

A duly-constituted inquiry committee held that 'The article did not impart any information to the readers, nor did it serve any public interest, and that the photograph was meant to make money.' The committee further held that 'the photograph was not only obscene but had been published in flagrant violation of the law viz., the provisions of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986.'

The PCI endorsed these findings and accepted the inquiry committee's recommendation to admonish Mid Day, Mumbai, for the publication of the impugned photograph as also to warn it to be careful in future. That PCI decision is dated January 24, 2001 and is in this commentator's possession.

Till date, Mid Day has not reacted with an apology or anything else.

Need more be said about our media's avowed love and concern for corruption and accountability? Would it be a crime to plead instead for considerable introspection, some honesty and a wee bit of humility?

Arvind Lavakare

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