The consternation in the media over the Zee-Jindal episode on paid withheld news is touching. While a few journalists are anxious that Zee has found little support in the fraternity, the majority in the industry sound like they have been wronged by one of their own. Going by the Twitterati, hallowed media practitioners have finally realised that journalism, or the version of it they practise, needs a huge overhaul.
Granted, there is an element of shock. Though a well-oiled ransom industry has become the bread and butter for local media in small towns, this is the first time such prominent names have figured on both sides of an alleged news extortion case. But the promptness with which most journalists started carping about the apparently shady past of those allegedly caught in the act belied any real sense of surprise.
Cautiously judgmental media practitioners have not failed once in the past week to imply that such things happen in someone else’s organisation. That sounded funny because journalism, particularly the business and Page3 avatars of it, has involved cash for individual journalists for a long time. It is only recently that media houses are seeking to streamline and legitimise the money by channelling it to company coffers.
It is true that big news do not carry price tags in much of India’s mainstream journalism, at least not at the level of editors or owners. But cash is seldom the direct currency of corruption. Anyone who has worked in this profession in a reasonably significant capacity knows how often stories are “tweaked” or “spiked” altogether to suit someone or the other the editors or owners consider important.
Why only news, a particularly courageous editor made his reporters turn upside down even the ministerial ratings of the UPA-I that he himself had cleared earlier. Every news organisation, irrespective of its claim to transparency, has its own list of (s)he-who-must-not-be-named or equivalents. Some have more entries than others.
Of course, cash is too petty a stake in power games. Why do we even need to get into all that after the Radia tapes. However, the lists of ‘untouchables’ usually have more than top politicos or industrialists on them. One editor even blacked out criticism of his family physician. Of course, the editor’s physician was no ordinary doctor but headed a national institute mired in chronic controversies.
If the ultimate sin of journalism is silence, almost everyone in the media is guilty. Zee allegedly offered it at a price. Somebody else maintains it in bigger anticipations. For another, it may just be payback. But why we should hold silence as a bigger sin than even deliberate misreporting is because lies run the risk of getting exposed and almost always do at the end. Omission, on the other hand, is just so criminally convenient.
Nobody paid the national media not to cover the planned attack on three Dalit villages in Tamil Nadu by a 2000-strong mob that burnt down more than 500 homes last month. Thousands are homeless as a result of this caste violence allegedly carried out in connivance with the local police and politicians just because a dalit boy dared marry a Vanniyar girl. Vanniyars – the politically important backward caste at the helm of the local feudal hierarchy -- forbid inter-caste marriage and resent Dalit empowerment.
The Kokrajhar violence in Assam has so far killed more than 100 people since July, displaced nearly 5 lakh Muslims and Bodos, and is showing no sign of abating after five months. It made big headlines and left news anchors hoarse when a backlash triggered by hate smses set off an exodus of residents of the northeast rush home from different parts of India. The multi-city drama over, the national media forgot almost overnight those hundreds of thousands still in relief camps and many still dying on their way home. Who has put what price on that silence?
We judge the news value of our stories much like multiplex owners decide their Friday releases. Reports begging for attention are junked due to lack of readers’ or viewers’ connect which ostensibly means the middleclass radar. But if the middleclass has indeed become largely insensitive to what it considers other’s problem, it is largely because the media has been deciding for it all the while.
So the call for a huge overhaul sounds funny given just how frequently we walk all over journalism in our newsrooms and edit meets in the name of readership and TRP, to be competitive in a market of our own making? This reality of us is staring the media for long now. Its corruption – financial, intellectual and moral – has been too much in our face to be noticed suddenly just because one dubious deal went sour somewhere.
Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) started construction at its Angul plant in Odisha without obtaining clearance for the forest land and was served a notice by a divisional forest officer in July 2009. In February 2011, Environment minister and party colleague Jairam Ramesh absolved Naveen Jindal, and a month later, asked Odisha to initiate action pleading ignorance on his ministry’s clean chit. In May last year, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik signed a note referring the issue back to the Centre.
No case has been filed against JSPL by either the state or the Centre since. The company continues to toss aside laws with complete impunity. With cops in tow, it has unleashed terror on the local tribal resistance. In a brazen violation of its legal entitlement, it has dug up nearly 400 bore wells and sunk the aquifer to water its power plant. So far, it has faced no official scrutiny.
Over how many column-centimetres or minutes of airtime has the media reported, questioned or debated these concessions to Jindal, with or without payments? And then, we have the gall to be shocked.
Disclaimer: Firstpost.com is a part of the Network18 group which owns news channels that compete with Zee.
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