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When journalists cease to be journalists

December 06, 2010 12:07 IST
Journalists who engage in influence peddling should be listed as lobbyists, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray.

After a lifetime in journalism, I am more than ever convinced that what we crow over as a scoop is more often a leak or plant.

The other lesson that is also pertinent to the current debate about media ethics was succinctly put long ago by Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Singapore's pioneering foreign minister. Recognising the "love-hate" relationship between journalists and politicians, he argued they were "both in the same business of influencing public opinion".

How politicians set about it is no part of the present discussion. How journalists do so is, and goes right to the heart of what the profession is all about. It is perfectly legitimate for me to hope that this column has some effect on the thinking of at least a few of those who bother to read it.

For instance, I have often devoted this space to highlighting the misery that Air India sometimes inflicts on its passengers. My purpose in doing so would be defeated and journalism reduced to an exercise in futility if I didn't expect Air India's management and staff and the people in government who are in charge of the airline to take note of the complaints I am privileged to air on behalf of passengers and the public at large.

Radio and TV journalists are similarly entitled to hope that listeners and viewers act on what they say or show.

The messages that press, radio and TV project may not, perhaps, always be the right ones, but we would not be honest to ourselves and our calling if we did not believe them to be so. And if we did not project them out of our own conviction. The media would have no credibility otherwise.

What is absolutely impermissible is for me privately to use the contacts I have made as a newspaperman to try to have Air India punished or some other airline rewarded. It would mean I have failed in my primary vocation of shaping opinion through my writing. It would also lay me open to the criminal charge of abusing my privileged position to benefit a client.

Whether or not a journalist receives payment in cash or kind for such influence peddling, he or she will never live down the taint of being open for hire. As a result, even the journalist's legitimate output will be suspect.

Influence peddling is the work of lobbyists and public relations agents whom clients pay to publicise their image and promote their products.

Since lobbyists and PR agents know that the public views them with scepticism precisely because they are paid to say what they say, they sometimes conceal their identity. Or they engage people whose credibility is reasonably intact and who have more access than professional publicists.

The better known a journalist is and the wider his or her reach, the more useful he or she is to lobbyists and PR agents. But journalists who accept such assignments cease to be journalists. They become lobbyists and PR agents. They should be registered and listed as such. Otherwise, they are trading on a false identity and hoodwinking the innocent.

People don't talk much about the overall implications of such abuses lest they be accused of attacking the holy cow of press freedom.

That's why I must return again to Singapore, which has fewer qualms about being politically incorrect. Rajaratnam's boss, Lee Kuan Yew, once told the International Press Institute that it was naïve to believe that a free press curbs corruption because "the media itself is corrupted" in many Asian countries. "Freedom of the press really means the freedom of the owner, the man who owns the newspaper, who hires and fires the journalists," Lee added.

Editors and journalists can be just as susceptible to influence or as self-seeking (power? money?) as owners. It's silly to imagine that the same clay from which all of us -- lawyers, bureaucrats, politicians, teachers, policemen or others – are moulded loses some characteristics and acquires others in particular professions. It's the individual that makes the difference, not the calling. There are honest journalists and corrupt judges, good politicians and crooked civil servants. No institution is better than the rest. Nor is fame any guarantee of integrity. Often, it's the opposite.

Tailpiece: It was the late Piloo Mody's joke that if someone was so worthless that he was unfit for any job, he became a journalist. But if he couldn't even manage that, he joined politics and was elected MP or MLA. Not much difference between the two after all!

Sunanda K Datta-Ray