The Zee News video clip released by Naveen Jindal is shocking only in that it says aloud That Which Must Not Be Named, ie media corruption. And it is now the achilles heel of choice for businessmen and politicians alike. Jindal's revelation comes on the heels of Salman Khurshid's press conference where he too came out with all guns blazing at the media, or more specifically Aroon Purie. Where Khurshid merely promised a "counter sting," Jindal delivered. The message, however, was the same: Dear Pot, f*** you, sincerely, Kettle.
Very few of us believe Zee News' protestations of innocence. Nor can we help pondering that unspoken question: What did Zee have on Naveen Jindal that was worth Rs 100 crores? Both sides are equally compromised in this sordid encounter between India Inc and the Fourth Estate. To support one or the other is a bit like picking sides in a mud-wrestling contest.
One moral, therefore, of the sensational Jindal-Zee News sting is clear: Corruption is the price of doing business in India. And it doesn't matter whether you are a media house, an industrial giant, or chai ka dukan. The wink-wink, nod-nod, under-the-table business model is just dhanda as usual, as the Zee editors themselves make clear.
The Zee News scandal has prompted the usual debates about press accountability and the need for regulation. But no one is asking the really important question, as in: Why are we in a hand-basket, and how did we get here? (From the saying, 'going to hell in a hand-basket')
Truth be told, the Indian media does not have a stellar record of independence. As with the rest of the nation, our greatest moment of glory was back in the heydays of the Freedom Movement, when press barons were fired up with nationalist zeal - which quickly dissipated in the cold, hard reality of socialist India. For the decades before the Emergency, most editors opted for discretion as the better expression of their valour.
By declaring Emergency, Indira Gandhi did the Indian press the invaluable service by underlining the diminishing returns of subservience, leading to a renaissance of sorts in the '80s. A decade that witnessed the rise of hard-hitting investigative journalism, and the birth of pioneering new magazines like India Today, Outlook, Frontline et al. The press was genuinely adversarial, perhaps for the first time since Independence.
Then two things happened: liberalisation and Tehelka. The NDA government decided to make an example of Tehelka to send a uneqivocal message about the power of the state, and the consequences of defiance. And just as the government was wielding its stick, the size of the carrot got bigger, much, much bigger. Journalism was now a mega-money business, as reporters and anchors became celebrities, and corporate advertising turned into the ultimate cash-cow. Even as once-modest editor-publishers became corporate barons, big companies rushed to expand their media holdings -followed inevitably by politicians who quickly learned that owning the news was both lucrative and immensely useful.
Now, media is big business in other parts of the world, as well, but in India it became so within a corrupt political system which in turn kept intact the old model of crony capitalism - or to be more accurate, rishwat-capitalism, except now the kickbacks could run to hundreds of crores. No wonder Zee News' honcho Sameer Ahluwalia insists that Rs 100 crore "bahut chota amount hai!"
To expect media outlets run by corporate entities to rise lotus-like above the muck is unrealistic. When the entire system is a pig sty, anyone who enters it is bound to get their hands dirty. All of us are compromised to one extent or the other, including the morally outraged viewer working in a cubicle of a company that bribes the politician or the bureaucrat or the media house for big, fat profits which in turn pay for salaries, raises et al. We may not all be pigs, but we all live in the same sty.
Like all the other working stiffs, journalists go to work every day and do the best they can. And we do so, contrary to myth, without the aid of hefty checks from politicians or businessmen - or much knowledge of what deals are brokered upstream in the corporate hierarchy. The greater tragedy of such controversies, be it the Radia tapes or the Jindal expose, is that they destroy the credibility of all the work we do, including the good stuff, of which there is plenty - again, contrary to popular myth.
But to wallow in self-pity is to miss the critical warning embedded in such 'counter-stings.' Unlike business tycoons and politicians, media outlets cannot afford to shrug off such revelations as just another bad news cycle. The very business of news relies on the appearance of integrity. Lose the trust of your customer, and you lose his eyeballs. And it's all downhill from there.
The self-image of journalists today is a legacy of the '80s. We talk like we are bold crusaders taking on the man, but when we have, in fact, become the man. As Tarun Tejpal points out, the shrill adversarial posturing against politicians is expedient and diverts attention from an uglier truth:
Each one of us knows that corporate corruption in India is monumental. The media never talks about corporate corruption. We've had a thousand exposes against politicians in last 20 years, you can't name me 10 exposes that the media has done against corporations. Because corporations pay for our lives, they pay for our advertising, they pay our salaries. So we genuflect to corporations.
What Jindal really exposed is the gap between rhetoric and action, and spelt out its consequences. We either have to find a way to dis-embed ourselves from the system, or become a credible means to change it. We can no longer sleep with the devil, and pretend to be vestal virgins.
Disclaimer: Firstpost is owned by the Network 18 group which competes with Zee TV.