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Updated: January 21, 2013 17:50 IST

The death of the reporter

Sandeep Bhushan
Comment (27)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

In the television newsroom, the promoter’s fancies and political preferences have taken precedence over editorial judgement

The Zee “extortion” case in which the news network is alleged to have demanded Rs.100 crore in return for rolling back its campaign against steel tycoon Navin Jindal’s “misdemeanours” in coal block allocations (for the family owned Jindal Steel & Power Limited or JSPL), is a deeply layered story that deserves a closer look than has been provided by mainstream media.

Were Sudhir Choudhary and Samir Ahluwalia, the two editors caught on camera allegedly “extorting” money doing so at the owners’ behest? Why did they have a near five-minute-long conversation with Zee owners soon after meeting officials of the JSPL, as claimed by the Delhi Police? Of course the matter is before the courts and it would be unfair to rush to any judgement.

But the alleged scam points to a much larger story — the growing intervention of owners/promoters in determining the news content in TV broadcast news networks. The alleged “extortion” story vividly illustrates how TV broadcast networks function and where journalists stand today in the larger context of business consolidation and unrelieved financial crisis in the media. In many ways this is a landmark “story” in the history of the Indian media, especially TV broadcast journalism.

Those who, like the present writer, have spent long years “reporting” politics in news networks are painfully aware of the growing micromanagement of news gathering operations by promoters. To be sure, this phenomenon is not new. The First and the Second Press Commissions (1954, 1982) had underlined the “power of the holder of a monopoly to influence his public in any way he chooses” and had called for proper controls. Robin Jeffrey, the celebrated chronicler of India’s print capitalism, was told by journalists of the Eenadu group who had been “directed” to back N.T. Rama Rao, that they were doing so “to protect our salaries.”

The Radia tapes

In television, the crisis has exacerbated ever since the global meltdown in 2008. The first evidence of it came in the wake of the Radia tapes. At least one of the stories which did not receive the kind of traction it deserved was the startling story of how Niira Radia, representing diverse business interests, served as “conduit” for the salaries of employees working in a particular news broadcast organisation.

Post-2008, the really big corporate guns have moved into TV media space, muscling out the beleaguered promoters. The increased stakes of Reliance in CNN-IBN, which will also give it (direct?) control over the Eenadu group, the southern behemoth, remains the best example. More recently, there have been unconfirmed reports that the Aditya Birla group, which already has a 27.5 per cent equity stake in the TV Today group, is keen to up its stakes to 51 per cent in one of India’s most influential media conglomerates.

Editor as ‘front’

What does this mean for news gathering operations?

The implications are fundamental and far too many. I will only stick to the basic points.

The most far-reaching is the redefinition of the role of the editor. Increasingly his/her profile not merely entails leading the pack in the TRP race, but crucially acting as the “front” for the promoter in order to provide an appearance of both credibility and acceptability within the industry. The promoter’s line — his whims and fancies, idiosyncrasies and perhaps, most damagingly his political “preferences” — is increasingly the editorial line. It is not my case that this state of affairs uniformly prevails in all TV broadcast networks. But any “insider” will confirm that this is pretty much the picture by and large.

This has resulted in growing centralisation of newsgathering operations. Editorial monitoring is closest with regard to “political” reportage because it is here that the government of the day can be really hit hard. In my experience of reporting “political” stories it was virtually impossible to generate a story in the field and hope that it got aired unless it coincided with the editorial “line.” “Political” stories invariably emerged from the “top.” Often a reporter may not even have a say in the particular “angle” of a story to which only he or she has privileged access. This has virtually taken the (political) reporter out of the scheme of things in broadcast journalism.

Soft on Maruti

Editorial control is tight with regard to reportage involving private corporations. The best-known example in my experience was the strike by Maruti workers in July last year. When the strike did get reported, it was completely one-sided and light years away from the kind of wall-to-wall coverage of dramatic events news networks are known for. Editors were candid enough to admit that as Maruti was one of their principal advertisement benefactors, they could hardly have gone “big” on the story.

The implications of this new-found symmetry have grievously impacted newsgathering operations. For one, those on the reporter’s “beat” know full well that it is the editor who is the final arbiter. Therefore, they simply vault over the head of the reporter. This is increasingly the case on “political” beats especially when there are critical moments like elections round the corner.

Hire a rookie

Second, it also creates a system in which sources have a diminishing need to “cultivate” the reporter, which is a body blow to the journalist’s pivotal role in “constructing” news. As a result, television reporting can hardly offer any meaningful “exclusives” and follow-ups, ending up piggybacking on the print media almost completely. Is it then any surprise that there is a sense of dreary sameness across news networks in the prime-time band?

The steady tabloidisation of news, the growing pre-eminence of “reality” television masquerading as “hard” news which consumes hour upon hour of “live” footage points to an emerging system where the reporter is rapidly becoming obsolete and redundant. The average age of television journalists has dipped mainly because the job profile is increasingly about collecting bites and uplinking — something which can be done by anyone. Why pay more to an experienced hand when a rookie can do the job for a quarter of the amount, with the added eagerness to slog long, unearthly working hours?

With no real expansion in media business, there is job insecurity all around — not only for the poor dispensable reporter but even for the editor who may be on contract. After all the shrinking of job opportunities is an across-the-board phenomenon and leaves nobody secure in the editorial pyramid. (Two years ago The Hindu’s P. Sainath [at a lecture in Mumbai called “Catalyst for Change”] estimated that nearly 3,000 journalists had lost their jobs post-2008.)

The disempowering of the reporter has strengthened the hands of the editor and, by implication, the promoter. The real repository of wisdom has shifted to the news studio with its band of pseudo-experts and instant commentators. Studio discussions increasingly form a major proportion of “news” content. These work out cheaper (you don’t have to send out reporters) and can be editorially “controlled” much like a laboratory experiment. The studio guests are “experts” with well-known views and stated positions, both for and against the issue on the table. Such simulated “cockfights,” staple of prime-time television, also ensure that no discussion breaches the carefully media “manufactured consent” (Noam Chomsky) essential to the perpetuation of the status quo.

The irony is that all this comes at a time when democracy is growing deeper roots across the country with more political awareness.

A “top-down” editorial flow and homogenised news content which rob politics of its critical impulses (not in the narrow sense of BJP versus Congress), have made the state’s job of “managing” media a lot easier and hassle free.

More crucially, the sheer absence of diversity in content and editorial homogenisation are a body blow to India’s plural underpinnings. What is therefore needed is not just a Leveson-like Inquiry, as suggested by several prominent liberals, to clean up the mess but a whole slew of reforms which will include more protection to journalists; a more meaningful effort to professionalise management; and, above all, strong antitrust laws to ensure diversity both in ownership and content.

(Sandeep Bhushan is a former TV journalist who teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia.)

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Excellent article.

Once upon a time, a reporter may have injected his/her own biases into
their reporting. Now, the bias has become systemic to newspapers and
tv channels. But, on a positive note, the audiences are fairly well-
aware of this phenomenon and therefore market for unbiased media
exists. Until someone with the vision and deep pockets steps forward to
fill that void, the social media will serve as the truth filter.

from:  K Palaka
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 06:13 IST

A very well written article!!
Media has been the most important element to the impetus of change. It
has helped India break the shackles of British rule. Corruption of
such a pious organisation has lead to a sense of paranoia and
mistrust. It was obvious for the recent years that there was a neck to
neck competition among these news channels, but the competition has
taken a downhill road. The news shown depends on the TRPs, rather than
the duty to project the truth. The truth presented is twisted to such
an extent that it benefits the channel and creates a sense of
insecurity among the mass. I jus pray to the almighty and the so
called 'policy makers' to do somethin, before its too late.

from:  Sabyasachi sahu
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 22:42 IST

Why this confession of media came now and by whom who already
enjoyed(still more journalist are enjoying dont know right or wrong
way)media power and whoever left media and grabed secure job for
teaching media ethics in mushrooming media colleges.

from:  DEEPAK RATNANI
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 17:57 IST

An excellent article that too from an insider. And the facts are there
for us to see on national television. News channels have stopped
broadcasting news . What we are being presented with are views ( mostly
one sided ) may be of the editor or the promoter. The viewer does not
really get an opportunity to think and form an opinion about the events
around us . What we really have is a hobson's choice. and that is not
really healthy

from:  Nandakumar Nair
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 17:18 IST

A very good article, no doubt, on the state of affairs of the media. But, for those
who are aware of the working of news agencies, this is nothing new. Politicians
always had to be in the "good books" of the newsmen. Journalists are the ones who
write "addressing a large public meeting, Mr X said so and so...", whereas there
may not have been any crowd at all. I am aware of how congressmen used to plead
with press photographers to have snaps taken in such a way as though they were
in an animated discussion with then Prime Minister Nehru,whereas in reality they
might only have been exchanging "greetings". Since newsmen are employed by the
Owners, the latter are able to prevail on presenting news in a given shade of light
or blank a particular news item totally. With the advent of electronic media, the
matter has gone from bad to worse. TN politicians are one up with their own TV
channel.

from:  KS Raghunathan
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 14:18 IST

TV is corrupted alright, What about the print media?
Media/journalism Ethics is something which is massively under
scrutinized by intellects? or even under discussed in public?

from:  SajithVN
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 12:59 IST

insightful

from:  spatnaik
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 11:22 IST

A very good editorial. I teach in a communication institute myself, and only recently I
was pointing out to my students as to the stark difference in reporting between
international channels like Al-Jazeera and Indian news channels- reporters do not go
out.
During the large media space given to the LoC skirmishes last week, you would have
expected one, at least one TV journalist to go to Kashmir and make a feature that
answers necessary questions like the frequency of such events, the outlook of the
locals, or at least show us what the area looks like- but it was not meant to be.

from:  Rituraj Sapkota
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 10:19 IST

Media firms behave like this not only for the revenue from advertisements flowing from the big business houses, but because the media has become the part of the present corporate system. The corporate media will only try to justify and protect the the new order of exploitation. Even if Maruthi workers give full page advertisements regularly to the newspapers and offer offer prime time sponsorships to the TV media, there won't be a big change in the pro-corporate focus. Understanding this class orientation of the media houses is necessary to understand their priorities.

from:  Kumaresan
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 06:29 IST

Finally the fourth pillar of democracy is also fallen......

No one is remain to save democracy in India.....

from:  Kamalakannan D
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 00:28 IST

My compliments to the writer on a very well articulated piece. Journalism I was told dealt
primarily with putting facts ( correct and corroborated ones only) across to the audience. Off
late the presenter's or the reporter's values are also getting attached to the set of facts being
presented. And this has become a trend especially in the electronic media. Why cant only
facts be presented and the part of being judgemental be left to the viewers? Attaching ones
value to a set of facts may distort the reality and misguide the populace especially those who
take news on face value.

from:  Tushar Sinha
Posted on: Jan 22, 2013 at 00:02 IST

Time and again "the Hindu" has played the vital role in shedding light over the dark areas of
the seemingly just present day pervasive electronic media. It is startling and disheartening to
see media favouring monster promoters at the expense of the fair journalism, public rights to
true news which is the one of the most important thing in the democracy. In these days it is
quite hard to see any news other than "breaking news". Romanticising, trivialising the issues
which warrants impartial analysis and addresses has become the order of the day. Often
using the quotes "first on your channel" even during the narration of the gruesome news is
self evident for the bussiness motives of the news channels. Over covering petty issues and
gossips of Bollywood actors sometimes at at times make you wonder whether you are
watching national news channel or any thing else. Government should act promptly to
regulating those electronic media which acts under the semblance of the news channel.

from:  Santhosh k
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 21:40 IST

A brilliant summarisation of the state of affairs, but is it too romantic to believe that the media can remain outside the influence of big money? It is a pity that the author did not pursue the Radia tape story with the same vigour as the Maruti one. How come big industrialists needed a PR firm to get meetingss set up with ministers and bureaucrats? And for that, how come ten of crores of rupees to an agency that had no expertise in telecom, technology, finance, business strategy and how come the tax authorities allow these expenses as deductible business expense?

from:  P. Datta
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 17:59 IST

The media be it print or television are so corrupt . The Nirra Radia case was such a serious one but given a silent burial simply because it involved journalists claiming to be championing the cause of India and the world ( and claim misogyni) and industrialists including the likes of Ratan Tata.
The media has simply come to beleive that they can decide the fate of the country in a way they want and are grossly underestimating the people of this great country . Recent example is the glorification of elevation of the Prince with in the Congress ( party with no democratic principle) and the reelction of Gadkari as the President of the opposition BJP. The BJP 's situation is grossly termed as infighting and no discipline ( reward for being democratic and party leaders are allowed to express their views)where as the elevation of the Prince in the family owned party is glorifed .The media therefore should introspect and correct itself for a meaningful and worthwhile role in this country.

from:  raj
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 17:56 IST

I have been given 1000 characters to fill this up.I feel a lot fewer should suffice to nail the issue, and it's not an unheard of one, we are all used to it by now, and identify it in almost all our structures, and especially in our men of power and influence-lack of moral strength.
Is there one man in the 540 odd who represent this country, who speaks his own mind and does what seems to be right for the people of this country?The answer is a resounding 'none'.
The whole country is overrun with corruption; press and media men, being a part of a venal society, can't be expected to be bearers of ideals of men.
Even if we were to have laws in place against the promoters interfering in matters of reporting, would it deter them, does the law in this land of ours have saber teeth to bite?
It's mostly a moral question that we are faced as a collective, we can see to the legalities once we take steps towards a more moral, and righteous society.

from:  Saurabh Kishore
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 17:25 IST

As a seasoned journalist, Sandeep Bhushan has presented the real
insider view in a manner which only goes to show that TV news and its
editors are now seasoned actors who cry, shout and laugh with such
accuracy that they now have an alternative profession! Kudos!

from:  sudha sadhanand
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 16:23 IST

The analysis of the state of television media in our country is accurate. But going by the subservient tone in recent articles in The Hindu on the Congress party, I fear that the print media in our country share the same fate. I really do think both the print and electronic media are underestimating the intelligence of the public.

from:  luhar sen
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 15:17 IST

Sir i hope the Hindu and Indian Express hold out..it is probably too late for television

from:  Vijai
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 13:06 IST

So true. Watching the evening "news" on TV is extremely irritating,
frustrating and hard on the ears and brain these days! The cacophony is
unbelievable. I have completely stopped watching. There are other ways
to get the news. If the English media, especially on TV, continues its
current practices, you will see more and more people turning to other
sources. Except of course, those wanting to watch the fun of a cock-
fight! Which has nothing to do with the content or quality of the news
being broadcast.

from:  lrao
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 12:38 IST

Media whether it is electronic or printed is the soul of a free
democracy if it is fair.These day i see news channel and they are more
sort of a entertainment medium rather than a strong information
providing media.The honchos with power can make news what they want to
and the same will impart to the public.
media should be fair and clear but for that to happen from where the
real information will come?Media is business these days and no true
information is imparted for a beneficial business.It is more of a job
security rather than a profession.

from:  Mayank Kanga
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 11:02 IST

The laws related to media regulation are still archaic in nature and
have failed to catch up with the proliferation of TV news channels. In
the end, it is the consumer who is the loser because he is
increasingly being subjected to viewing sponsored content rather than
independent and unprejudiced content. The main purpose of the media
today seems to be the marketing channels of corporates rather than
being the pioneers of communication between the country and its
citizens. They endorse brands amidst showing breaking news. The
crucial the content, the more the ads.There was a time when news
agencies had responsibilities, now they only have liabilities. Their
purpose has been hijacked by the promoters and being exploited for
financial gains. Just because someone endorses their products through
you does not mean that they could buy your loyalty. If business and
money is the objective, then simply do any straight business. But why
savour on an essential component of democracy?

from:  Malesh Gangani
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 10:36 IST

'simulated cock fights' ..an apt and humorous definition for the english news programs that were once a pleasure to watch.. I hardly watch them now as their noisy 'discussions' give me a headache.

from:  george jacob
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 10:20 IST

Keep away from TV. I do, and find that I'm not missing anything. It's
amazing that a handful of self-acclaimed Mr and Ms Know-It-All-And-
Further are able to wreak havoc with media values and take millions of
viewers for rides, hour in and hour out.

from:  swarna
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 10:12 IST

What a shameful situation ,India,our holy nation is facing.Will the
GOD save us?

from:  SANKARAN
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 09:44 IST

Could not agree with you more! May be, in a sense, the emergency days are back and George Orwell, the author of Nineteen Eighty-four, is having a hearty laugh! I am increasingly finding the 9 PM shows (in the English news channels which are what I watch), so disgusting that I have to invariably switch off the TV set -- no use surfing to another channel! -- within a few minutes of the start of the programme. I have often thought to myself that one way to curb this menace would be to start a word-of-mouth "dis-advertisement" campaign against the products of all the sponsors of the channel saying that the sponsored product will not be any better than the sponsored programme!

from:  Udhishtir
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 09:14 IST

What about print media owners' zeal in controlling what enws should
occupy the pages of their papers?

from:  s.subramanyan
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 08:50 IST

Excellent analysis of the dynamics of modern media. It is clear that commercial Press is basically incompatible with free Press, and that strong firewalls are essential if commercial media are not to become dysfunctional. The article brings out clearly how commercial interests can kill media freedom while keeping active censorship to a minimum - the censorship really begins with what it takes for each staff member to keep their job, and who is hired.

Thank you for a really good article.

from:  Swaminathan
Posted on: Jan 21, 2013 at 06:55 IST
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