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Indian media's credibility crisis

Soutik Biswas | 14:11 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Indian news TV channels

"Indian journalists are fixers!" shouted a young lady in the audience during a play I attended in Mumbai last week. She even took the name of one of the country's leading news presenters to demonstrate her point. The play was about to begin, and one of the actors was engaging in casual banter with the audience. "Do you think news is unbiased in our country?" he asked.

Many in the audience guffawed, and the lady spoke up in outrage. At that moment it struck me how much the controversy over leaked phone conversations between some senior Indian journalists and a prominent lobbyist had enraged people. It is, clearly, the Indian media's biggest crisis of credibility.

To cut a long story short, transcripts of the leaked tapes, published in two magazines, reveal some journalists in conversation with a corporate lobbyist, who also owns a public relations company. Nothing wrong with that - journalists routinely speak to a range of people for information. In the leaked tapes, some of the reporters trade vicious gossip. Others "promise" to pass on sensitive political messages and information. Still others give the lobbyist tips on how to organise a scripted media interview with a business baron. The journalists have said in their defence that they have neither received any favours or relayed any information or fixed things as a result of these conversations.

People don't buy it entirely. A recent poll after the tapes were released showed that 86% of people felt let down by journalists. Also, 66% said that the media was protecting its own tribe by not reporting on the tapes adequately. Let's face it - the stock of journalists has hit a new low in India.

After last year's general elections, independent investigations revealed how "paid news" had become commonplace in many Indian papers and news channels - politicians were paying them to publish favourable stories. But the leaked tapes have cast a cloud over the credibility of some of the country's top journalists.

Whether the allegations of fixing and lobbying are true or not, we will possibly never know. But critics believe the tapes point to a bigger crisis in the media. The cosying up to politicians and businessmen is just one issue. Many point to an increasing lack of grace and dignity among many leading journalists, and the crass self-promotion that threatens to turn news into purely entertainment. My friend and editor Kai Friese says the mainstream media in India is "driven by compulsions of grand narcissism and greed".

Night after night, on India's news TV, top journalists, often fawning and self-righteous, conduct interviews and talk shows. It all sounds very noisy and rather contrived. They claim every other story as an exclusive, even when it isn't. Top film critics are paid off by producers to write glowing reviews - the Bollywood publicity machine has effectively muzzled most film criticism in India. Portions of an editor's letter to readers in a top magazine are plagiarised from a leading American online publication, then blamed on jet lag. Another big worry is how the public relations industry has subsumed a lot of journalism, mostly because journalists have been happy to play along.

Possibly, it had to happen in a country where institutions are weak and corruption is rife. It is an environment where the media can wield extraordinary power - and many a time this is used responsibly to expose and explore India's many ills. It is also an environment where journalists can lose their heads easily and suffer from delusions of grandeur because of easy access to politicians and businessmen. The fact that India remains an intensely hierarchical society also reflects the way journalists behave and interact with powerful politicians and businessmen - it is almost never a professional relationship between equals.

Most Indian media owners need a new covenant with their journalists. For too long and far too often, they have been seen to hire journalists to do their dirty work - negotiating with politicians, businessmen, public relations executives and lobbyists. It is an open secret that many editors and senior journalists are part-time reporters - and full-time fixers for their owners.

Critics say that many owners have emasculated editors so much that they have become faceless and supine, only too willing to roll over for the powers that be and facilitate deals. With some 60,000 newspapers and 500 news channels, India has one of the world's most vibrant and competitive media environments. It is now time to take a reality check and ask whether all is well with it.


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