Wednesday , 12 August 2020
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Is the media above criticism?

Frederick Noronha

Many moons ago, as a middle-aged journalist then, I was shunted to Bombay (as it was still called) for a short while. Apparently, someone from the newspaper where I was working then had applied for long leave. So, one had to fill in.

My colleague there, Asha Gulrajani – whom I recently ran into again via Facebook – was very agitated on one particular afternoon. She told me how the media situation had changed drastically, post-Liberalisation and the PV Narasimha Rao reforms since 1991, Bombay was still perhaps the ‘media capital’ of India, and the New Delhi-Gurgaon belt rose in importance only later.

“You must see how press conferences are organised now,” she told me.  Those were the peak days of the stock-market and media boom. The dotcom boom and bust came somewhat later. Apparently, in the rush to influence journalists, corporate houses and others were willing to go to any extent. From other Bombay colleagues, one had also learnt how it had suddenly become boom time for anyone willing to “make a little money” on the side.

At some press conferences (PCs), instead of paying for a legit advert, the PC organiser would give a questionable (and costly) gift to the journalist concerned. In Bombay, for some commercial press conferences, the ‘gift’ was as much as a small fridge. Instead of paying for the ad, the giver of the “gift” ensured that the gushing publicity came through all the same, with the added advantage of it reading like news. Which meant that the reader trusted its credibility more than they would trust an advert!

Goa was, of course, fortunately, far behind: At one stage, during a pre-election press conference here, the sidekick of a politician was handing out 500-rupee gift vouchers to everyone who attended the patrao’s press conference. This was a gift voucher which could be exchanged at a clothing store.

For some reason, the flunkey did not offer me one. Shamelessly, I asked: “It’s not for me?” At which point, he profusely apologised and handed out the envelope-covered gift cheque. This was in the 1990s, when five hundred rupees was still a lot of money. That document lies in my memorabilia collection, and I dashed off a letter of complaint to the Press Council. Nothing, of course, came of it. There are codes of conduct in some parts of the globe as to what might be an acceptable gift. A token pen or a diary is fine, but there has to be a limit on the value.

This is just the public and open face of the misuse of the media. What goes on behind closed doors and at private discussions, one would never know.

Seeing how individual journalists were misusing their office, some media houses in Bombay or elsewhere, decided to centralise and officialise such private treaties. After all, why should some lowly employee gain from the goodwill of an organisation, and its reach built over decades, instead of the organisation itself? Tough question, that.

This has led to all kinds of controversial compromises and strategies among the media over the past two to three decades. Much discussion over this has happened in other fora, and it’s a discussion in itself.

So, not knowing how to respond, I simply went along with Asha for that commercial press conference in one of those high-rise hotels looking down on Nariman Point.

On reaching, we were first asked for our visiting cards. “This is just for a lucky draw…the first prize is a trip to Mauritius,” we were told. My colleague rolled her eyes. I felt guilty; my intention for being there had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic we had been invited to focus on. This turned out to be a learning experience.

Sometimes, one is too stunned for words, by just seeing the extent of the rot. Maybe things were worse then. It was still the early stages of liberalisation, and we didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. It seemed as if growth could go on forever, without any of the problems we face now.

Not knowing what to do or say, I suggested to Asha that she write an article on what she knew about the subject. It came out superbly. The Deccan Herald of Bangalore titled the piece ‘Gifted Journalists’. It was all about the new grease in the India of three decades ago, which was fuelling some of those upbeat stories about how superbly we were all doing.

The other day, the Goa Union of Journalists demanded an apology from minister Govind Gaude, and accused him of “derogatory remarks” against journalists in Goa. It cited a YouTube interview from June 30, which had the cooperation minister holding journalists responsible for “planting wrong news” that led to the collapse of the VPK Cooperative Bank. He is also said to have called journalists ‘patrekar’, translated to mean rag-pickers. The journalists critiqued the politician for accusing journalists of “indulging in paid news”.

At the time of writing, the minister expressed his regret because the criticism may have been taken in a “generalised” way.

It is fashionable these days to outright dismiss the media. “The” Donald Trump is blunt and offensive when he castigates individual media persons whom he doesn’t like. Sometimes he goes to the extent of calling them “fake news” even in public, televised press conferences. Supporters of the ruling party in India do likewise, while other politicians here are a bit more guarded in taking off on the media.

But even if quite some of this is unfair and biased criticism, it’s no excuse for the media to shut its doors to a critique. We might all think we are honest, but is that the wider perception? The media gets critiqued precisely because so many people have so much expectations from it. Don’t we in the media also lambaste others, at times without being specific ourselves?

In one online discussion, among serving and former journalists, opinion was almost equally divided over whether the Fourth Estate should be open to criticism or not. Even unfair criticism can act as a useful self-correcting mechanism.

Aristotle is credited with having said: “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Media persons say a lot… and hence they should be ready to take the kickback when it comes.

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