Media Freedom and Market Forces

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media1With increasing corporatization of Indian media and most of it being owned by big business, freedom is the first casualty

AIJAZ ZAKA SYED

‘When told to bend, they chose to crawl,’ BJP patriarch Advani famously said referring to Indian media’s far from stellar role during the Emergency. Because of its very nature, the fourth estate has always had an uneasy relationship with power–too cozy for comfort at times and confrontational at others. 

Increasingly, you see journalists, after long proximity to power, end up developing delusions of their own grandeur. Seems absolute power doesn’t merely corrupt the powerful; it also corrupts those around them.

Not long ago this used to be a noble profession attracting the brightest and the boldest. Those were men and women who were inspired by high values and higher ideals and believed in building a better, more just world. They didn’t shy away from reporting reality and speaking truth to power, often at great personal risk.

That kind is an increasingly rare breed today but not entirely extinct. There are still many out there who put their job and responsibility ahead of personal glory and agendas. It is thanks to them that the profession still enjoys some degree of respect.

I am not much familiar with the background of Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open magazine who has been just fired. He began his career with Indian Express in Chandigarh and went on to work with Vinod Mehta, a great editor who has a knack for spotting talent and polishing it to perfection.

It is at Open that Bal came into prominence, establishing himself as a refreshingly fresh and consistently courageous voice in the crowded world of Indian media.

Week after week, he went about confronting injustice and abuse of power in high places. From exposing the Hindutva agenda to reality of ‘Gujarat model’ to confronting the corruption under the Congress, the journalist spared none.

Every time I read him in Open, I marveled at his guts. How did he do it? After all, like so many other publications and news channels today, Open is owned by a major corporate house with deeply entrenched business interests. The magazine’s management couldn’t have been too pleased with what Bal had been doing, week after week with such tenacity.

The final straw on the camel’s back appears to have been this interesting piece in which he did a comparative analysis of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Comparing their rhetoric and style of leadership, he concluded that the worldview of the prime ministerial aspirants of the two main parties is essentially one and the same:  “In the cold pursuit of their ambitions, unhampered by any reservations that may stem from personal convictions or the requirements of national policy, they are far more similar than they appear.

“It is easy enough to mark out the differences between a self-made man and a dynast, a demagogue and a fumbling public speaker, a man who leads from the front and one who is not willing to assume any direct responsibility, but the similarities go even deeper.

“Both Modi and Gandhi seek to be above and beyond their political parties. For both, the dynamics of power flows only one way, neither of them is answerable to anyone, open to criticism from anyone. Which is why neither is willing to admit a mistake, major or minor, nor willing to submit to questioning from any observer who is not a participant in their personality cults. Both are men so enamored of their own image that this is the sole reality that constitutes them.  They feel everyone who stands outside their respective cults is an enemy.”

No wonder Sanjiv Goenka, who owns ‘Open’ and a large business empire besides, was incensed with the article, ‘The Hero and the Prince’ in the October 3 issue of the magazine. His outrage is understandable considering he is close to the Congress (his father was an MP).

Goenka cannot afford to ruffle the feathers of opposition BJP either, especially its aspirant for the top job who is known for his thin skin.

After all, he has a Rs.16,000-crore business empire stretching across eight sectors to protect.

No wonder Bal was dumped this week without the management offering any explanation. The journalist was tempted with a handsome severance package if he faded out quietly. That he has refused to do so with his interviews in ‘New York Times’ and elsewhere explaining his sudden departure would only mean more trouble for the prolific journalist.

Open Editor Manu Joseph reportedly assured Bal that he “isn’t a party” to his termination. But no self-respecting editor would allow management to go over him to remove someone from his team.

This episode reminds me of my own experience a couple of years ago. After nine eventful years at a prominent Gulf newspaper, some of them leading it, I was eased out with ease. The new boss, who never made a secret of his distaste for my ‘saving-the world’ kind of journalism, was more ingenious in his explanation though. A generic email was sent out at night to the staff saying, “we will have to let Aijaz go as we have been forced to cut costs to deal with the Recession.”

So while the news of my departure naturally left me cold, the revelation that my humble existence with my modest pay had somehow got entangled with global implications of the international financial crisis did provide

some comfort.

On a serious note though, mine is not an unusual story. This is the general state of affairs not just in the Middle East or India but around the world.

Truth is relative and facts are far from sacred. In the end what really matters is how well you suck up to the bosses, or in other words, to market forces.

What is disturbing is the fact that even respected newspaper like The Hindu, known for its commitment to highest principles of journalism, are becoming vulnerable to the trend.

Days before Bal was booted out, Siddharth Vardarajan, editor in chief of The Hindu, was removed in a coup of sorts and was shunted to a less strategic position. Vardarajan is known for his liberal views and for championing human rights, democracy and pluralism.

Apparently, his crime was not giving “enough” coverage to Modi. His replacement told reporters, according to New York Times, “that political bias had crept into the paper’s coverage and the news desk had orders not to run stories about the BJP’s PM candidate on the front page.”

The journalist denies the charge saying Modi or for that matter any other politician was given space on the front page when the story demanded it. Which is how it should be.

However, this is unlikely to satisfy the big business which owns most of the media today. It also explains the Modi mania ruling the television news 24/7. Thanks to the unprecedented concessions and freebies that have been showered on corporates all these years in Gujarat, the Ambanis, the Tatas and other captains of the industry cannot wait to have their man take charge in Delhi.

With increasing commercialization, journalism today is like any other profit-making industry. If anything, it is proving to be even more unscrupulous with journalists acting as power brokers, as the Nina Radia tapes in the wake of the telecom scam revealed.

There was a time when Indian media was known for its independence and what Indian Express calls “the journalism of courage.” Editors were fiercely proud of their professional freedom and believed in social responsibility of journalism.

Editorial hackles would be instantly raised if they so much as suspected a veiled suggestion from marketing or business side of the organization to play up or underplay a particular story. These days, it’s routine for editors to oblige all and sundry ‘requests’ from the marketing boys.

There was a time when editors were considered captains of their ships. Theirs would be the final call on any given issue. Today, they are like any other ‘executive’ reporting to the CEO.

Today, a newspaper is, in the famous words of Times of India boss Sameer Jain, like any other product, like a soap for instance.  You have to use all sorts of gimmicks to sell it. Journalism no longer has any place for those believing in using media to make a difference to society.

  • Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published commentator and Editor of Caravan. Email: [email protected]

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