No one believes the news anymore. Who can blame them? The newspapers are so noisy, filled with scams and slanging matches, that even a top newspaper-bureaucrat like your columnist cringes while scanning the morning’s front pages. I too don’t want to read the papers. Then there’s the matter of credibility: the media is barely clinging to the last vestige of public trust, and that’s only because the institution of the media is larger than the Lilliputians who populate it.
The latest media controversy — that Zee News (a sister company of DNA, though the two are independent and autonomous entities) was offered bribes to stop the negative coverage against coal-scamster and Congress MP Naveen Jindal — comes on the back of a series of events that have eroded public trust in news outlets. This trust was severely shaken recently by the report of the Press Council of India into allegations of “paid news” during the last general election, as well as by the revelation two years ago by the Niira Radia tapes of a cozy politician-corporate-media nexus. Other things damaging the media’s credibility include the daily practice of systematic “paid news”. And there are media houses which link journalists’ salaries to the company’s revenue; such media houses justify it as a shared responsibility in P&L (profit and loss), trying to conflate specific specialised functions of a journalist with that of sales. Taking the “we’re-all-in-it-together” line is mischievous and arguably more dangerous than “paid news”, for in the latter, a journalist need not be part of the transaction, whereas making his/her salary contingent on advertising revenue hardwires restraint into his/her natural journalistic function.
Corporate executives will no doubt argue that journalists have always been corrupt (besides being pompous and opinionated), and that is likely true for individual journalists, and not just in post-independence India (just pick up any Graham Greene novel for evidence, or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop). However, it is not true for all journalists. The linking of salaries to P&L or the phenomenon of “paid news” are corporate attempts to institutionalise what were earlier individual practices. One journalist on the take cannot dent the credibility of the news media; an institutional effort can only lead the news industry down the path of self-destruction.
This is not to say that a newspaper should not try to make money. It’s a business, and should be run like a business. It may be difficult to run a newspaper as profitably as a promoter may like in these times of technological change, when the newspaper’s printing costs are so high, and it is no longer the primary source of information for most people — even if it still stands as the reader’s primary source of validation. It is a truism that business innovation has driven many of the advances in humankind’s history. However, things like “paid news” are less business innovation and more akin to food adulteration that one finds in PDS shops (consumers lump it because it’s the only PDS shop they have been going to all their lives).
These bad practices erode the only enduring currency that the media has: its credibility. No surprise that credibility has ebbed lately; and it is no coincidence that the decline of media credibility has gone hand-in-hand with the decline in the credibility of the political class and that of the captains of industry. All seem corrupt nowadays. While it is difficult to see in the near future a political revolution or a consumer-boycott of robber-barons, it is easier to conceive of a not-too-far-off scenario where readers give a collective kick in the behind to those news outlets that have lost their way in the corporate fog. Continuing technological change is the basis for this optimism.
In the meantime, it is still hazy what news organisations ought to do to retain the trust of readers. Some in the industry say that the reader is tired of negative news and so we should tamp that down. That doesn’t quite feel right because any media house which publishes a code of ethics, as DNA has, will tell you that the highest function of the news concerns the public good. The public good is less about which luxury good you should lust for, and more about the public resources upon which you depend for your essential living: food, housing, power, etc. These are negotiated in the public space by politics. The news media clarifies politics for the average reader. Politics is thus central to democracy, and this is why journalism is considered a pillar of democracy.
It may be a fact that democracy in India is undergoing some very tough tests of late, but it has served us well, and will endure. So will journalism, even if those who are currently having their cake and eating it too eventually meet the same fate as another famous cake-enthusiast, Marie Antoinette.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai