OPINION

A rare exception to chequebook journalism

As the Readers’ Editor, I use surrogate obituaries to look at critical issues confronting journalism. When Gabriel García Márquez died, I used the occasion to not only celebrate journalism as a vocation but to also emphasise the importance of using the right words. (“When words fail,” April 21, 2014). I looked at how common good is the fulcrum of journalism to mark the untimely death of Bala Kailasam, a broadcast journalist. (“Common good as fulcrum of journalism,” August 18, 2014). I explored the limitation of relying on web-based information to mark the passing away of the doyen of Tamil magazine journalism, S. Balasubramanian. I would like to explore the idea of chequebook journalism in my ombuds-obit to Vinod Mehta. I was bureau chief under his editorship for the first seven years of Outlook .

Outlook example

Vinod led our team by example. Some of us were taken aback when we heard that he had agreed to pay for an interview with the legendary actorZohra Sehgal. Vinod asked us to wait for the publication of the interview before he could explain his rationale. The interview, “A nymph named Zohra,” opened with an acknowledgement of the payment. Her fee was not too large but not too small either. Her argument: “I’m 85 and have to start saving for my funeral.” Sunil Sethi, who did the interview, also mentioned in the article another episode where the celebrity, Lady Diana Cooper, demanded a hundred pounds an hour for an interview. The English magazine that had asked him to do the interview refused to pay, but asked him to get a quote from her instead. “Quote?” Lady Diana asked him. “Stop badgering me, young man, because I just gave you my quote.”

Vinod came back to us with his reasons for payingZohra Sehgal. First, the artist demanded payment for sharing her life and times and the money she asked was something close to what the magazine paid its top contributors. Since the interview essentially consisted of her views, a first person recollection, an author’s remuneration was not unfair. But the crucial lesson he told us to keep in mind was that payment for an interview is an exception, which confirmed the rule of not paying otherwise. “You cannot pay politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, generals, businessmen, policymakers, lawyers, judges and any public office holders. That would amount to corruption and undermine public interest. It is a very delicate task to work out an exception that passes the public interest test. It needs solid editorial judgment. Exceptions have to be rare and no exception can be made for the front of the book at any cost,” he said. Front of the book is a magazine euphemism that covers everything from politics to economics, international relations to business, but excludes features. Coming back to Zohra’s interview, he quipped, “Don’t you think that just two sentences of hers — ‘How do you take apart each thread of a life when you want to convey its texture. There is always the danger of tearing the fabric by mistake’— deserve payment for the extraordinary insights they offer about the pitfalls of recollection?” This is what made Vinod an interesting editor. His commitment to ethical journalism was second to none. But he was neither dogmatic nor doctrinaire.

The case of India’s Daughter

The reason for looking at chequebook journalism was not necessitated by Vinod’s passing away alone but the controversy of chequebook journalism in the making of the documentary, India’s Daughter . The Hindu wanted to get the facts from filmmaker Leslee Udwin herself. In an interview to this newspaper, she categorically said: “I can tell you hand-on-heart that we have not paid one rupee to anyone we interviewed. It is absolutely untrue that Mukesh was talking in monosyllables and that therefore I filmed him secretly. He was talking fluently from the beginning about himself and conditions in the jail. We never did any secret filming. As a 7/world-renowned producer who has won a British Oscar, I would never do a thing like that. There was no secret filming of Mukesh at all. In fact, we needed to put a mike on him.”

Why do we need to know that no payment was made, especially to the interviewees, in this case? Peter Manning, a former executive producer of “Four Corners,” former head of TV News and Current Affairs at both the ABC and Seven Networks, recently wrote in The Guardian about how chequebook journalism blurs the line between news and infotainment by looking into a range of ethical questions rising from the decision of Australian TV networks, Seven and Nine, to offer six figure fees to the Sydney siege hostages to appear in exclusive interviews. He wrote: “The main objection is, effectively, ‘who pays the piper calls the tune.’ It puts the interviewee in a conflict of interest where they have to meet the expectations of the payer, whether that be through truth, exaggeration or lies.”

The Society of Professional Journalists has a detailed position paper on chequebook journalism. Chequebook journalism, SPJ contends, undermines journalistic independence and integrity and threatens the accuracy of the information that is purchased. At a minimum, it recommends, news outlets that pay for an interview owe their audience full disclosure, as that would allow readers or viewers to assess the credibility of that purchased information.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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