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India's greatest moral challenge ever

By Sanjay Jha
December 07, 2010 11:43 IST
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'While our politicians get voted out, the industrialist grows from strength to strength irrespective of government shifts till one day he controls the entire political structure... That is the real story of India today,' says Sanjay Jha.

It was past 10.50 pm last Sunday and my Go-Air flight was getting delayed in scientifically precise equal installments of 30 minutes. I was just returning from Barkha Dutt's Sunday special, We The People, on NDTV on my home-state Bihar's remarkable resolve to vote for epochal change in what appeared to be a landmark verdict.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's Kirti Azad was in splendid form, both quick-witted and scathingly sarcastic in what turned out to be an entertaining one hour briskly spent. Bleary-eyed and sufficiently sleepy, I searched frantically for my iPod in a messy laptop bag.

I was suddenly interrupted by a tall young man with a large smile carrying our modern youth's defining baggage, a backpack. He was a journalist from one of India's leading vernacular channels, part of a larger media behemoth. We got into a sparkling conversation. Obviously 2G defined our broad bandwidth.

"THEY overnight cancelled our advertising contract worth Rs 16 crores because we ran a few programmes on HIM." He seemed both astonished as well as repulsed. There was also a tinge of sadness in those young eyes. "I have decided to resign."

That is literally corporate blackmail, and a manifestation of the new power elite, the Fifth Estate. I have a simple solution: Let the Press Council ban all such corporate entities which threaten objectionable retaliation for exposing their shenanigans and make a public disclosure of the same. If there is a will, there can be a way.

In 1992, as the Harshad Mehta securities scam broke out, our bank's suave, dapper country manager ordered for a quick huddle of all his assistant vice-presidents and above on the 16th Floor of Express Towers, Mumbai. It is indeed ludicrous that while America has one vice-president, their banks have an army of them floating around like lilies in a pond. "We are completely clean, if you read something in the press, do not believe it. It's pure speculation."

On the ground floor was the searching offices of the daily newspaper Indian Express. A few days later we were making headline news not totally flattering to our 'clean' corporate image. Clearly, if honesty is the best policy, dishonesty is the second-best policy. My disillusionment with the business world had begun in deadly earnest.

When I wrote about then IPL commissioner Lalit Modi's blatant unscrupulous ways in my weekly columns, most sniggered that it was the work of a warped Cassandra, singing paeans of doomsday as if suffering from an uncontrollable pathological propensity. I found it bizarre, intriguing. Everyone was conveniently bedazzled.

I warned that Modi's astronomical advance tax payments which was being publicly broadcast as the new financial whiz-kid's 'windfall genius' was hugely debatable. No one listened. Why? The media's unfathomable silence in the face of stark realities can be frequently puzzling.

Some of India's respected mammoth software majors have acquired precious public land at throwaway prices from pliant governments; has anybody investigated the hidden losses in that spectrum sale? Or are we still flabbergasted at their banal assessment of future technology trends? These are questions that the media needs to address.

In India, we have created a personality cult, putting them up on an inaccessible pedestal once they have acquired certain personal milestones or business successes, making them into lionised role models.

But unfortunately, our fanatical fan culture creates a deceptive image of making these icons fountainheads of infallibility; a false sense of inveterate invincibility is created. It is a guaranteed recipe for unmitigated disaster.

People like Ratan Tata, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan, Narayana Murthy etc have been deservedly given the exalted citizens status. No one has any arguments with that. But does that mean that they should be perpetually branded as do-gooders, despite some deleterious indiscretions that might occur tomorrow? Should we ignore that?

Are we then not guilty of creating conducive circumstances that encourages borderline characters to commit grave public offenses and yet hope to live in eternal bliss? Aren't some of the famous names in the 2G tapes fitting this description?

Let me cross a sacrosanct boundary; there seems to be an unsaid yet forcefully evident strained relationship between print media and its more cacophonic new-born cousin, television. It is palpably a tension-infested dichotomy in which they co-exist.

The print platoon postures itself as the cerebral breed, the natural inheritors of the Fourth Estate, providing intellectual stimulation, rigorous research and threadbare analysis. They treat with occasionally perceptible condescension their TV counterparts for making serious news appear like a fast-food snack and relying on sound byte journalism.

Most importantly, they grudge them their celebrity status often interspersed above their quaint cabins on large neon-lighted billboards. Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami etc are nationally recognised figures, our daily drawing room visitors, smarty attired, energy personified, highly articulate and eminently presentable.

Television is simply that kind of medium, it has that pulsating thrill of being totally candid, like a stage play.

I personally believe that several print editors hesitantly accept that they have been wholly upstaged by these younger 'TV superstars'; there is a gargantuan grudge out there, a sense of their reluctant admission into the coveted firmament.

The television guys are usually soft targets, easily susceptible to quick assessment, some faux pas, and weekly round-up reviews. And usually print media never gives full credit for a borrowed electronic media story in their front pages. A peculiar trait, that.

So much for that hyped transparency! A joint session will help ease some simmering discontent in this fractious relationship.

The corporate sector has smartly manipulated mainstream media, exploiting their obvious vulnerability to both top-line revenues and market share. Like that evergreen bureaucrat, the industrialist is a perennial figure bloating, gloating and floating like a piece of obese fat.

It is spoken in hushed whispers of how Big Business distributes its ill-gotten largesse in a structured package deal to several favoured political parties, hence ensuring their stony silence on major issues, whether they are in power or sitting on Opposition benches.

But while our politicians get voted out, the industrialist grows from strength to strength irrespective of government shifts till one day he controls the entire political structure. Right now, we are facing precisely that predicament. The famous 'system' has allegedly been on sale. That is the 'real story' of India today. It is not just the great media crisis, it is India's greatest moral challenge ever.

The cryptic understanding that 'Indian media will not write on the private lives of public officials' has perhaps seriously contaminated our public morality standards. The entire media is guilty of being an accessory to repugnant abuse of that magnanimous facility by our numerous netas and other high profile luminaries. It has emboldened politicians et al and weakened media perception. Time to bite the bullet, perhaps. It is a self-inflicted sanctimonious balderdash that the media needs to review.

Even in the world's most liberal society of the United States, a national head or a public representative is supposed to be a paragon of unquestionable integrity, hence the relentless scrutiny of a checkered past, and even decades old shenanigans often tumble out to destroy political aspirations.

Once considered a natural Republican nominee, 9/11 superhero New York mayor Rudy Giuliani finished a poor third thanks to suspect personal morals on exhibition. The list of such political losers is legendary.

So why are we so uptight, squeamish, near pusillanimous in reporting facts just as they are? This is a prime manifestation of the media intentionally looking the 'other way'. Soon we start to casually ignore other major indiscretions.

Actually anything even remotely doubtful should be promptly exposed. Public figures have no business to have a margin of error; they always have every right to retire into oblivion or enjoy the anonymity of being an ordinary citizen if privacy matters so much to them.

For the media this is not the time for snarling mutual antagonism, but to correct their collective credibility against this planned exploitation by scheming politicians and their numerous cohorts, including the globe-trotting lobbyist.

This is time for ethical journalism, not competitive stratagems for circulation numbers or TRPs. It is very unlikely that there will be one or two crowning heroes emerging from the internal war-rooms if the media itself becomes vulnerable on its core credentials.

Many media companies are publicly listed, and have investor analyst meetings on quarterly earnings and EPS forecasts. But the hard fact is that the whole media business model rests on character and correctness much more than cash, and this needs to be strictly adhered to.

The media's product is just one: news, which is wholly credible. One option is to make the news channels into a separate company, while all the other entertainment vehicles are bundled into a separate venture. An arm's length distance is not enough, we need to stand miles apart.

India needs to soon wake up to a brighter morning. And the media must lead the way, like a shining lodestar. It is important to hold ethics sessions, tighten recruitment standards, and create a work culture that encourages transparency, fearlessness and innovation.

Paradoxically enough, 2010 is actually the year of the media. It has exposed serious corruption in high places to remarkable effect in CWG, Adarsh housing society, 2G spectrum, land extortion, IPL etc. The taped transcripts also give it scope for much needed self-examination. After all, aren't we all still work-in-progress?

"I want to be a journalist, dad!" my 13-year-old daughter said quite some time ago, with a fierce resolve.

I thought the recent unpalatable exposes would have dampened her spirits. But she sounded pugnacious, if not altogether pugilistic when I asked her if she had changed her mind. Barkha Dutt is one of her role models.

"Not at all. In fact more so, I want to be a journalist, dad!"

There is hope. There always is.

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