Source: Express news service Posted: Fri Jul 23 2010, 03:49 hrs New Delhi:New Delhi On Thursday, after the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism awards celebrated the finest ideals of journalism, the ability to write without fear or favour, the attention shifted to a somewhat darker side of the profession — the phenomenon of paid news.
Is the credibility of journalism up for sale? Is there a “conspiracy of silence” in the media about the way the business of journalism is conducted? How deeply are politicians involved in the practice? Isn’t it time the media drew the line somewhere? What makes journalists strike deals in exchange for space and sound bites? These are questions that came up at a panel discussion held after the awards were given away at the Taj Palace in New Delhi.
At the show moderated by Nidhi Razdan of NDTV 24x7 and Archna Shukla of The Indian Express, the panelists broadly agreed with India Today Group chairman Aroon Purie who flagged off the discussion saying that paid news was self-destructive and would some day mark the “death of journalism”.
“The business of paid news is a dangerous trend which has got institutionalised by certain media managements. This goes against the mission of practising journalism,” Purie said.
“Credibility can’t be for sale, that’s the one currency for good journalism,” echoed K V L Narayan Rao, CEO, NDTV Group.
At this stage, Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi, who was in the audience, stood up to ask why journalists weren’t doing anything about this business of news. Why, he asked, weren’t there disclosures at the end of written articles or programmes on TV explicitly stating if the news had been sponsored.
Arun Shourie, veteran journalist and BJP leader, agreed that there was a conspiracy of silence in the media, just as in all other professions. He said, “The media, for its own sake, must write about the issue candidly and put an end to the nefarious practice of private treaties.”
Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India, said the media was silent because everybody is a potential beneficiary — “someone who hadn’t considered it yesterday may want to do so today”. He spoke of the need to look into the financial aspects of running a media business.
Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP stood up from the front row to ask if that meant journalism is nothing but simply “trade and commerce”. Is that line blurring somewhere, he wanted to know.
Social activist and RTI champion Aruna Roy made a forceful point when she said that the media had a role to play in a democracy. “I demand that the media behaves like the fourth estate, not as a profit and loss venture. You have to define your role: is it to be a guardian of democracy or to raise resources?”
Adman and lyricist Prasoon Joshi said the problem was becoming apparent because “greed has crept into the media. Every industry can’t make the same kind of money. Media houses can’t think of making the same money as, say, oil and gas firms. Somebody has to put a filter somewhere.”
The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta asked politicians present in the front rows if journalists had ever approached them with offers of coverage in exchange for money. Congress leaders Kumari Selja, Sachin Pilot and Deepender Hooda said they had all been “approached” at the time of elections and they had all spurned these offers.
Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi said in a lighter vein that he didn’t believe politicians when they said that they had turned down such offers. “There is both good news and bad news. The good news is that politicians are all victims and are therefore, united on the issue. Similarly, the media is united on the need to stop the practice. But the bad news for the Election Commission is that the entire transaction is in black. We know the problem exists but can’t catch it,” he said.
When Raj Nayak of AIDEM Ventures spoke of the need to differentiate between paid news on Page 3 and paid news on elections — “that’s more worrisome” — and suggested legitimising whatever is paid with voluntary disclosures, the other panelists disagreed. “How can you legitimise corruption? Media is a business but can be run by certain values,” said Purie. He spoke of the need to correct the “distortion” in the media business that made media houses dependent on advertisers and which in turn was responsible for the phenomenon of paid news.
So what is the way forward? Is there a way the media can free itself of this malaise?
Aruna Roy said there was a need to create a platform where people can talk about the practice. The Press Council of India, she said, needs to be perform its role more effectively.
Shourie pitched in, saying he was with Roy on that point. “There is no need to debate who is going to start working to put an end to this practice. Like Aruna said, anyone can. The media has to start writing about itself and do something about its self-serving rules.”
Purie said the onus was on media managements not to institutionalise paid news. “We will have to do it without the government getting its sticky fingers into it.”
Among the guests present at Thursday’s function were P Chidambaram, L K Advani, Sharad Pawar, Jitin Prasada, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Manish Tewari, Rajiv Shukla, D Raja, Nandan Nilekani, Sanjaya Baru, Mark Tully, Pakistan High Commissioner Shahid Malik, British High Commissioner Richard Stagg, French Ambassador Jerome Bonnafont, Bangladesh High Commissioner Tarique Karim and Navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma.