Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 12, 2012 01:20 IST

Media, it’s time to heal thyself

  • Charles Sampford
  • Ramesh Thakur
Comment (18)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Journalists need to adopt a set of integrity measures in order to police the boundaries between the market and political power

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person and the world’s wealthiest woman, is seeking three board seats following her purchase of 18.7 per cent of Fairfax which owns most papers in Australia not controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. There has already been considerable upheaval in two of the Fairfax papers serving Melbourne and Sydney with a 25 per cent shedding of journalists to cut costs.


It will be recalled that in 2010, prominent print and electronic journalists in India were ensnared in the so-called Radiagate affair named after the political lobbyist Niira Radia, in an influence-peddling scandal for flaunting their privileged access to politicians to commercial barons. Meanwhile the long-running Leveson inquiry in Britain continues to tarnish the institutional reputation of politicians and press alike, especially at, but not limited to, News Ltd. Across the developed world the business model under which extensive newspaper advertising (especially from classifieds) could fund high quality professional journalism is under threat.

The volatility in the media world might seem inconsequential in comparison to the protracted crisis in the eurozone and the fragile shoots of recovery from the global financial crisis. But from another perspective, it is an integral part of and in turn contributes to the corrosive crisis of legitimacy afflicting so many democracies around the world. Too many people have lost faith in the integrity of the core institutions that sustain democratic good governance. It behoves us therefore to look a little more closely at the relationship between the media and the government for nurturing and sustaining democracy.

After the purchase of the London Telegraph, someone asked Lord Beaverbrook why he bought it, given the apparently limited financial returns that could be expected. His answer was simple: “power”. He meant political power of course.

Defining and policing the boundaries between the market and democracy is a perennial problem in most modern states. Most of us value both democracy and the market — wanting politics to be run according to democratic principles (one-vote-one-value) and the market largely by market principles (‘one-dollar-one-value’). The eternal temptation is for those with dollars gained in the market to influence decisions supposed to be governed by democratic principles — from political donations to super PACs, lobbying and zoning decisions to outright bribery.

The reverse concern is that those voted into office may seek to convert political power into dollars for themselves or their parties.

In democracies, the media have a critical role in highlighting abuses in markets, of political power and in the interaction of the two. They play an essential role in public opinion formation and the democratic process. However, most media institutions face particular dilemmas because they are, simultaneously, key elements of an effective democracy and commercial entities operating in markets seeking not only substantial and growing audience share, but also revenue from them or advertisers. They benefit from favourable government decisions about media (and other) policies affecting their non-media assets. These market interests can potentially distort the role that media institutions play in the formation of public opinion and, consequentially, in our democracy.

Conversely, the privileged access that media corporations gain from politicians seeking a good press can skew decisions politicians have to make in ways that distort markets while also undermining democracy.

If Beaverbrook’s answer were deemed acceptable, it would allow those gaining wealth from the market to dominate our polity. The media would not then stand astride both markets and democracy, but would become the means by which actors in one sphere dominate the activities in the other. Democratic competition needs to be carried out on a level playing field. If most of the playing fields are owned by those barracking for one side and using their ownership to tilt the field, democracy is in peril.

In order to fulfil their critical role of speaking truth to power, media enterprises claim privileges that others do not have to protect sources, and exemption or limitation of the reputational and privacy rights of those on whom they report. If they use their powers and privileges to fulfil this role, those claims are justified. Otherwise, they are merely traders for profit in assertions about the private lives of others.

How can we ensure that the powers and privileges of the media are used for vital democratic purposes for which they are claimed rather than abused for increase in the influence and non-media wealth of major shareholders?

If a rich individual were to seek control of a private hospital with a view to influencing the diagnoses, prognoses and treatments recommended by the professional doctors employed there, we would be utterly outraged. Yet some think it perfectly OK to do the same thing with media companies employing professional journalists analysing events, predicting outcomes and identifying alternative policies for voters. We do not.

Key role

Our approach does not rely on more government regulation. Nor does it rely on the diversity of views held by plutocratic owners. Instead, it centres on strengthening the profession of journalism through “institutional integrity”, a concept that the Supreme Court of India had used to strike down the appointment of a Central Vigilance Commissioner who was himself under investigation.

“Institutional integrity” requires a set of mutually reinforcing codes for journalists, editors and media board members, plus institutional arrangements for independent interpretation, guidance and enforcement. These codes and institutions can be seen as a form of “integrity system” that promotes the key role of the media in democracy rather than the abuse of media power that undermines it.

Some of the details of such integrity systems can be found here. They include ethical advisers outside the chain of command for journalists and editors; a Media Integrity Commissioner to assist journalists, editors and board members to develop their codes and give authoritative advice on their application; and a complaints body to adjudicate complaints and order the publication of any adverse findings as prominently as the original reports. (The media can be relied on to trumpet findings of vindication without having to be ordered to publish them.)

Media activities undertaken under these codes would enjoy enhanced versions of the protections and privileges media currently enjoy. Those that do not would be subject to normal corporate regulation and defamation laws — with the possibility of U.S.-style damages for those whose libels and privacy invasions were due to negligence, recklessness or political motivation.

This will provide a very large economic incentive for news organisations to either pursue professional journalism with appropriate integrity measures, or engage in entertainment that leaves real people alone and avoids all controversial statements because the cost of getting them wrong is too great in the absence of those integrity measures.

It would be unscrupulous for media outlets to attack reforms that would compel them to be more ethical. Unethical media organisations might well do so — offering their support to a political party in return for it opposing these reforms. This is why cross-party agreement would be critical. If all major parties agreed to refuse to modify their policies and ignored promises of favourable election-time coverage, such inducements lose their sting.

Political parties must recognise that giving in to pressure is a dangerous strategy. Each time they give something away to a media organisation for favourable coverage, they do three things:

1. Increase the effective power of the media organisation;

2. Whet its appetite;

3. Skew the media in favour of those who would do such deals against those who would not.

That is, such an approach, despite its short-term tactical attraction, damages the long-term interests of even the party engaged in it and weakens the future effectiveness of the government offices they seek to win. This is why we would like to see all major parties engage in a “virtuous conspiracy” to improve the effectiveness of the media in democracy. In doing so, they will also do a great favour to the media, business and themselves.

(Professor Charles Sampford is Director of the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law based in Brisbane; Ramesh Thakur is Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University and adjunct professor in IEGL.)

More In: Lead | Opinion

Media is responsible for making citizens aware about various
rights,ingrain knowledge of upcoming technology,help them analyse
various incidents taking place but few media institutes are deviating
from their path and engaged in fulfilling their selfish interests.

When they will understand that what they are saying can mold people
thinking to think in particular way and burden them with fear to carry
out certain activities like watching so many of rape cases showcasing
again and again can make a father to think ten times to send somewhere
out her daughter to study further and thus her career is sacrificed.

from:  Priyanka Agarwal
Posted on: Jul 13, 2012 at 02:06 IST

Media mainly focusing on voilent things like if girl is raped and cold blood murders.One day i have seen one new channel some girl has drunken and roaming on the road.It has given 4 or 5 times day.Is it useful? and uncessary and stupid things about heros and heroins.I suggest to hindhu that please allocate one column to print the laws and rights a human citizen have so that common man can know what are the rights he can have.and i also suggest you give interviews about top enterpruners how they have reached to that level.I appreciate hindu for publishing amair khan column

from:  Divya
Posted on: Jul 12, 2012 at 18:16 IST

I think the author is carried away by the romantic notion of
"institutional integrity". Institutional or personal integrity for
that sake is more often than not an idealisation which exists in
paper. If the idealisation is going to work out, it will usher in
Utopia. But it has been made clear by the history of our race, that
such idealisations rarely work out in reality. So, rather than
forwarding ideals and yearning for Utopia, it would be much better if
we channel our thoughts to make reality seem more real.

from:  David John
Posted on: Jul 12, 2012 at 15:38 IST

Is there any evidence that mainstream media and large channels
and publications have been corrupted in this way and this is
actually making a major difference to policies and the attitudes
of the public? After all, in issue after issue, be it Kudankulam,
FDI in retail and GMO crops, the allegedly all-powerful pro-
business lobbies haven't been able to impress their views on the
larger section of the public. So in what sense are these lobbies
brain-washing the public using the media as an instrument? To the
credit of the mainstream media, despite the implicit and subtle
bias of their anchors, we always get to hear two sides of the
story and I've found that reassuring.
This is not to imply that there isn't corruption, paid news and
the spreading of lies by the media. Plenty of smaller and
regional media outlets suffer from these and have to be policed.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: Jul 12, 2012 at 14:26 IST

I still rate The Hindu higher than all others in avoiding sensationalism and expediency, while
trying to stick to facts, although its highest standards maintained before the last management
change have fallen. A sign of the times, exacerbated by the pressure of time, competing
visual media, public's penchant for exciting news and political partisanship has crept into its
venerable editorial columns some of the times and specifically when Vajpayee was the PM,
with the result that the Lakshman Rekha of balance and neutrality was crossed to favor the
extreme left ideology. Other than this aberration, it has upheld its standards in reporting,
features, contributions and coverage of developments in arts, social sphere, farming etc.

Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 21:43 IST

One suggestion to all media experts for addressing this issue could be to have their own Ombudsman( I could not think of a better word) selected or elected by themselves.

from:  M V J Rao
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 20:14 IST

Quite evidently power in Media and journalism is reflected in Barkha dutt-Kanimozhi affair or the recent Jaganmohan Reddy targetting Judiciary, Investigating agencies and public institutions through his Sakshi paper and TV, or liquor syndicates in AP bribing journalists for not reporting their activities. Bosses of media houses should be devolved out of the true journalistic freedom if freedom of press is not compromisable. Of course this is only wishful thinking as I understand even in USA Media except a few are controlled by one or the other especially the Republican flavour.

from:  M V J Rao
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 20:10 IST

Some of the ills of Indian media are global in character, especially
some Western media are also afflictcted with them, e.g. some Rupert
Murdoch owned ones. Best course is to democratize the media by giving
shares to the employees and the reading public/ members of the audience,
and globalize them. The Indian media should become an important part of
global economic, political, educational and cultural democracies.

from:  suresh chandra
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 18:46 IST

Who should own a media? Any individual, business house or the Govt., the nemises of fair reporting is lost. At the same time to have a fair media is a misnomer at the best media can give opinions fair, unfair or balanced.
It may be possible that media may be owned by any but the composition of the board controlling the media must be tenure wise and as far as possible not to be influenced by the media baron. A bit of social control and restriction on yellow journalism may also help in honest reporting. The reporters also must have good ethics and trained to report factual then just parroting from the site of events as "on the spot story'. Self control by the media is a must and negligent reporters must be made responsible for unfair reporting.
More often the Indian Media behaves like a juvenile jumping at a candy and eager to feed candy to the public with the sole aim of TRP.
Lastly the media content must be suitably classified and the entertainment and serious reporting segregated.

from:  Jayant
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 14:29 IST

Well said. But who will bell the cat? And moreover the political powerhouses themselves have media houses. How can you address that?

from:  Yasser Kottalath
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 13:34 IST

Media give up their own value?
In my humble view, the dailies except The Hindu and a few papers lost their values. they work like a pimp for political interests. They starting regional base printing is a blow to its readers. The main page full when a rape case of murder case is done in a small region. The above media diminish the readers think and world.
Now a days many medias is a marketing production. So the readers take necessary steps before the taking the news paper for reading. May you be cheated.

from:  Unnikrishnan Manjeri
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 12:43 IST

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" is very hard, but possible,
if not all the time - most of the time.
One need not spend one's money to watch biased TV news and read paid
media. Fortunately in India there is choice, although limited. I read
The Hindu a day late rather than read paid media; read the news over
the internet, and am “on guard” when watching TV news or debates
(biased street-shouting-matches).
To bring about change, however, the ROOT CAUSES MUST BE ADDRESSED.
Everyone knows it is the rotten Indian politics that lie at the core!
Citizens of India must think; if they can (i) realise how much
immediate/medium-term and long-term harm they are inflicting upon
themselves and their children/grandchildren, (ii) tone down their own
selfishness, then they can "demand electoral reforms and vote
responsibly". Change will happen if enough citizens do this.
The citizens cannot shout "Citizens, not Parliament, is supreme" and
then fail to act "responsibly".

from:  D Mahapatra
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 12:42 IST

India has had experience of this for a long time now. IN the hey days
of Krishna Menon, he used to dub the media as a Jute press. It has
worsened too much in the recent decades.

from:  s.subramanyan
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 08:48 IST

Like retail giants hogging the market and pushing out small-businesses, giant business groups are hogging the media industry. Its all the more sad because it looks unstoppable. There is way too much money power involved.

the result : a media that is not the watchdog but pet dog of the political and corporate establishment.

from:  malathi
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 07:23 IST

It is a pity media is now controlled by the money power group; lot of news appears in favor of some so called VIP, is PAID for by him/her; wrong statements made; when pointed out the paper does not care nor respond; I know my neighbor a few years ago tried his best to reach the Editor and Reporter for personal discussion to prove his points.

from:  Radhik Hairamr
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 06:28 IST

Very sad Media has become dishonest in many ways; no longer is a report fully factual - twisted and turned to suit what they wish to say ! In many cases, fully "paid for" too for the comments! When errors pointed out in case of VIP data and so called social service they claim, editor and reporter deny opportunity to meet and clear the air despite repeat requests - my neighbor had this bad experience with leading daily - asked for appointment anytime suitable but not given; MONEY plays a big part these days; Highly valued newspapers also part of the ring but keep surface clean !!
Values declined in all sectors, what can we hope for ! God help !!

from:  Radhik Hairam
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 06:10 IST

In an Indian TV channel the anchor of a panel discussion tried his best to play down Salman
Kurshid's dig at the Congress leadership of the mother and son, but failed to do so even
though the panel had some regular BJP baiters. Media does not bring in ithe Central
leadership of the Congress in the Adarsh scam in Congress-ruled state of Maharashtra, but
tries to somehow implicate BJP central leadership in corruption case in states ruled by BJP.
Political partisanship is very much in evidence in a large section of the Indian media
Fortunately the Hindu is not in that group.

from:  K.Vijayakumar
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 04:40 IST

As a physician, I find this statement particularly striking: "If a rich individual were to seek control of a private hospital with a view to influencing the diagnoses, prognoses and treatments recommended by the professional doctors employed there, we would be utterly outraged." But this exactly what has been happening in the medical profession in India, except that often it is doctors themselves who do this for their own enrichment. Much of what is said for journalism in this article applies equally well to the medical profession and deserve to be taken to heart at this time when a revamping of the regulation of the profession is in progress.

from:  P. Zachariah
Posted on: Jul 11, 2012 at 03:56 IST
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