Rijo Jacob Abraham
The movie Truman Show has a remarkable last scene. Truman Burbank has lived his entire life in a reality TV show, without ever realising it. With an increasing feeling of isolation, he sets on a journey across the artificial sea of his world to find out the truth. As he sails, the prow of his boat pierces the sky, which was actually a huge canvas painted in blue and white patches.
The Niira Radia tapes besides the raising the issues of media and PR ethics, privacy infringement, bureaucratic inaction seems to have essentially done this -- travelled to the ends of our corporate media fiefdom and pierced a hole in its make-belief sky. It has laid bare open how our democracy functions. For a layman, it is akin to the Truman-realisation -- every story is planted, every interview is scripted, and every headline is fixed.
If we thought a totalitarian regime was the bane of free media, we were wrong. A corporate media which tells us what is to be liberal is worse. As George Orwell in his essay puts it, a media that inspires us in “intellectual cowardice” confines human freedom than any overt form of suppression. What more imprisonment can be there than the feeling that we are free?
What is striking is that the main stream media buried its head in sand pretending nothing has happened. (One news channel conducted debates on lobbying without ever mentioning the issue at stake.) But in the entire issue there is something which is not at striking which we should focus on -- denial of any wrong doing. Denial has been the creed of the corrupt in India for a long time. If they could keep denying the charges repeatedly and loudly enough, they subtly feel they will not be guilty. And this is exactly what the media specialises in – to be loud, shrill and senselessly repetitive.
NDTV in an attempt to save its face, held a panel discussion with senor editors, including the editor of Open magazine which first printed the transcript of the tapes and the channel’s tainted Group Editor Barkha Dutt. In the discussion she said there was an error of judgement, but didn’t completely admit it as her fault in not exposing a Tata PR lobbying for ministerial berth. (Leave aside the larger question whether she actually couriered information to politicians – which is also pitted against her as it can be inferred from the conversation.)
Vir Sanghvi’s answer was pitifully inadequate and on top of that he gave explanation for the article he wrote prior to the leaked conversation. Reading the transcript and the piece he wrote after the conversation together, it is evident that he is pushing for an EGoM on gas-pricing, in the guise of taking a very balanced and liberal view. In another conversation between Radia and her colleague Manoj Warrier, the latter says “Yeah, yeah, likha hai, boss. Verbatim.” (Yes boss, it is written. Verbatim)
N Ram the Editor-in-Chief of Hindu said in one of the TV shows that had this happened in foreign media, the journalist would not have lasted five minutes in the organisation. Vir wrote in his column “...I have no desire to subject Counterpoint to this filth. It deserves better. So, Counterpoint will be taking a break. When life returns to normal, so will Counterpoint.” Well, that settled the issue for him.
The denial-mode is not without reason. It is partly due to a structure where the journalist themselves are mere puppets, despite close proximity to the real puppeteers. They are in low-pecking order themselves despite that they may seem to dictate the mass-consumption of news. It is also partly because of the edgy bonhomie that the media and the PR industries share.
This is because the PR and media ethics are strikingly similar in their characteristics. The media ethics implies that fairness -- in balance of giving each aspect of the story equal importance and giving both the parties in the debate same opportunities to respond. But being fair is not always journalism in the world of oligarchies. The media is there to serve the interest of the oppressed and its opinions should to be skewed to protect their interest. So far this is fine.
But the difference between media and PR lies not in fairness but in objectivity. In other words what sets media ethics apart from PR ethics is the media organisation’s editorial ethics. Whereas PR organisations have shifting loyalty, the media have loyalty only to its audience. In public relations, if there is a conflict of interest between its client and public good, the later can take precedence. Media have no such excuse. At least in practice.
During the 1980s Indian Express and Financial Express had a policy to mention at the end of a news story what has the journalist received,(however insignificant it maybe – a fancy pen or folder) while attending the press conference. But the Indian marketscape has undergone lot of change since then, while the ideals of objectivity and fairness remained silent spectators. The media on its part decided that “editors are dispensable” and that its primary objective was to make its readers/viewers ogle. Editors were relegated to a lower-position than which they enjoyed earlier. After all who reads editorials? Media became not just market focused, but they became the market. P Sainath writes in a column “The dominant media are not pro-corporate or pro-big business. They are corporates.”
The traditional loathe for PR agencies has long vanished. In fact it has become a crucial part how we do not do just business but even trade negotiations between countries. Indian Government prefers to call it “political advocacy.” The government has paid more than USD 5 million dollars to Indian lobbyist in Washington. The Nuclear deal between India and US is a result of this pay-offs. And none other than Robert Blackwill, former US Ambassador to India was its chief strategist.
The reality of a manipulative PR definitely poses a threat to democracy. Nevertheless what is more threatening is a media with scant regard for its ethics. But the Radia tapes have given the society a rude jolt from its snobbish slumber. The boat has pierced the sky. Truman walks up a flight of stairs into a completely dark-door way. Truman probably doesn’t know what exactly is there in the real world. Neither do we know what actually lies ahead of the Radia tapes. But what we know for sure is that it will be better than what has passed. Like Truman let the people too say to their show-runners “In case I don`t see you ... good afternoon, good evening, and good night."