Watching the watchdog

Some readers questioned the arguments in my last column, “Lying to get the truth” (May 28). Given the paucity of space, I paraphrase and distil their counterarguments into two questions: If The Hindu is wary of deception in news-gathering methods, how did it carry stories relating to the Radia tapes, Cambridge Analytica’s role in elections, and the Al Jazeera investigation into match-fixing in cricket? Are there journalistic ways of dealing with ethical deficits in the media without resorting to deception?

Three controversies

A look at the timeline of each of these controversies stands testimony to the governing policy of this newspaper. Two magazines — Outlook and Open — published the recordings of Niira Radia’s conversation with journalists and politicians in mid-November, 2010. Most of the journalists who featured in the tapes accepted that the voices in the recordings were theirs. Once the veracity of the tapes was confirmed, The Hindu ran a series of reports and analyses based on the conversation. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, the investigations were primarily by Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer who worked closely with the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie. The Channel 4 sting operation against Cambridge Analytica was just the tip of the iceberg; substantial evidence of wrongdoing was collected through proper journalistic means. With regards to Al Jazeera’s investigation, the International Cricket Council took cognisance of the tapes, and hence it became news.

How do we report on ethical deficits in the media without resorting to duplicitous methods? Is it possible to access documents, data, and financial details in a conventional investigation? There are a number of examples of journalists using journalistic tools to expose the wrongdoings of media houses and these stories are not of analog vintage. The series that this paper did on paid news is just one example. Nick Davies of The Guardian embarked on a rigorous investigative series on how News of the World and The Sun , the London newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, engaged in illegal phone hacking to obtain information. It had a huge impact and led to the constitution of the Leveson Inquiry. Mr. Davies also provided a detailed background into the how and why of his investigation in his book Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch . His earlier work, Flat Earth News , documented some of the major failures in the workings of the fourth estate in the U.K.

Reporting on the media

One of the ways in which major legacy media houses hold errant media houses accountable is by reporting on them on a regular basis. Roy Greenslade’s articles in The Guardian on politics, news and the media are an example of the media being a watchdog of not just politics but of itself. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post , who was earlier the Public Editor of The New York Times , dissects all the ills that plague the media on a regular basis. The New Yorker ’s Ken Auletta has been unsparing in pointing out the defects, deceits and pitfalls of the media. Through reports, profiles, analyses of business models, and a close scrutiny of mergers and acquisitions, he turns the spotlight on the underbelly of media businesses.

There are a number of disconcerting issues about the Indian media: paid news; private treaties; the declining role of editors; manipulation of audience and readership figures; and rampant cross-media ownership, a phenomenon that is under check in mature markets like the U.S. and the U.K. The delinquent behaviour of some media organisations is real and it renders the public sphere toxic.

If news media has to salvage its credibility and stem the rot, it has to create an exclusive media beat and deploy rigorous journalistic methods. The rot deepened partly because major Indian newspapers do not have a media beat. This beat should cover issues of journalism and the business of journalism. Most media organisations, like the rest of the private sector, are opaque about their corporate governance. It is important to assign this beat to journalists who understand, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, that “‘investigative’ journalism is not something special... all journalism must, by definition, be investigative”. We can ensure transparency and ethical practices only through sustained media scrutiny and not through sting operations.


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