Friday, March 25, 2011

Media and Morality



My speech at the recent symposium on "Deepening Moral Crisis and Solutions ’’ at Bangalore.


-Media and Morality -

Dignitaries, organizers and friends I see that in this group there are some who fit into all these three groups. So I address them. If there is anyone who feels I have not addressed him, I hereby I address him.

When I was invited to talk about media and morality, I wondered why I was asked to talk about these two unrelated things? Everyone else has been given a subject that has interrelated themes. Then why I was being victimized?

I expressed this doubt to one of my friends who is an engineer and he corrected me. ``You are wrong’’, he said. ``What is you need to discuss is that there is a direct but inverse relation between the two themes of media and morality!’’

Well then, let us examine the various dimensions of this apparently non existent relationship. But before I do so, I will tell you a famous joke about media persons. The presence of Swamijis, pious men and judges makes me slightly hesitant. But then I consider myself as a fearless journalist and here I go.

I heard this joke from legendary Kannada journalist Iqbal K Jahagirdar. A newly trained doctor opened his clinic one morning to find a patient waiting. The patient complained he was suffering from severe constipation for some weeks. The doctor gave him some tablets and sent him away. However, the patient returned two days later saying he was not cured. The doctor gave him a medicine that he said would cure any stomach related disease, let alone constipation.
However the doctor was shocked to find the patient return in two more days. This time, the confident young man thought he had to investigate the cause of this constipation more deeply.

The doctor began asking him.
What is your name? -``Ramanna’’.
Where do you stay? -``Ram Nagar’’.
What do you do for a living? ``I work in a newspaper. I am a journalist’’.

The doctor realized the meaning of the last answer so well that he began banging his head against the wall. While Ramanna was wondering whether he had transferred his illness to the doctor, the doctor began smiling.

The doctor took out a Rs 10 note from his pocket and gave it to the journalist. ``Please go out and eat something immediately. Only after that can we expect some development!’’ he said.

It had taken the doctor sometime to realize that journalists were paid next to nothing and that this journalist was so poor that he was not eating enough.

We will revisit the joke at the end to know why a joke about one person in the story could be a cruel joke for another.

Here, I want to look at morality in a wider context. Dishonesty is just one small part of the whole spectrum.
There are three main issues here. One is moving away from truth.
1. Reasons may be dishonesty- individual or institutional.
2. Prejudice- personal or at the level of journalists as a group. The media tends to have and spread prejudices. This can be pro or anti certain individuals, groups, classes, castes or institutions.
3. A sense of false prestige that makes the news writer think he is not writing for everyone. (That is what Aamir Khan said about Dhobi Ghat. But Khan saab is not a journalist. He is a businessman).
4. Or plain lack of skills and lack of professionalism

Secondly
1. News-making and not plain reporting. That is trying to influence events instead of just covering what happens. Veer Sanghvi and Burkha Dutt have been accused of trying to be so powerful that they could make any person a minister of anything. (Kannada daily Udayavani had a great headline that day. Idu enu? Neera? Radia?)
2. That happens here also. Recently Kannada protagonists blackened the face of a BJP leader. The accused revealed to the police that a reporter had told them to ``do something interesting if they wanted some good publicity’’.

Thirdly,
1. The danger of journalism changing from service to business.
2. This leads to many things. Breeds differing notions of what is news. It can promote untruths deliberately.
3. For example. It can be as hollow as a film star falling in love, (whoever first called it falling!) getting married, having children, or separating.
4. It can be as bizarre as a child falling in an unclosed bore well or burying children till the neck during an eclipse. (A TV channel had missed the story and asked its reporter to go back to the family, bury the child in mud again and get video feed)
5. It can be as misleading as a snake in the CM’s house that heralds fall of the government. A famous astrologer called to say we should write about Sarpa Dosha to the CM and to mention that he was contacted by the paper and not the other way round.
6. Former RBI Governor Reddy noted that TV anchors promoted companies whose shares they owned.
7. Business promotion happens at an unimaginable scale in newspapers. A crime reporter who wrote that a Maruti Car was involved in a road accident was fined as the company was giving regular Ads to the paper.
8. The government literally controls newspapers it is the single largest advertiser for them. Most Indian language newspapers depend on the government. There is little criticism therefore, of government schemes anywhere.


What are the solutions?

Let me ask you a few questions

1. Time for some more jokes. During a weekly planning meeting in a newspaper office, the Editor asks reporters. What are the stories that we can expect this week? The editor asked the political reporter, business reporter and the film reporter. When the editor asked the same question to the crime reporter, he was shocked. It was like asking what will be the weather next monsoon.

2. Mohammad Gawan was the architect of Medieval Bidar. A Kannada reporter wrote Mohammad Jawan. Then I called to correct him. Sorry Kanayya gottagalilla. Gawan anta yaradadaru hesaru idutta anta andukondu barede. Are Gawan anta iruttaro illo ninage gottilla. Aadare, Jawan anta iruttare anta yake andukonde?

3. You have all heard of the Cauvery dispute and the Krishna tribunal judgment. You have all heard of TMCFT of water. But how many of you know how many liters is one TMCFT of water?

4. You have all experienced power cuts and read about it in the next day’s papers. But do you know the difference between a watt and a volt? Or one Unit and one Mega Watt? Have the newspapers not told you? Did you ask them?

5. When the Krishna tribunal judgment was given, there was no expert in any newspaper office in the state to interpret it. A week later, all newspapers carried an analysis by a former minister who had written a political copy. The Unfortunate Kannadiga had to suffer this misinformation.

6. That is why Lord Northcliff said that journalism is a profession that tries to explain things that it does not personally understand.

First, media houses should understand that their duty is to explain events and phenomenon by making things simple.
US president Barak Obama has signed a bill that makes it mandatory for government orders and policy documents to be written in a simple language that everyone can understand.
There is a big plain language movement in Britain too. We need to adopt this in English and other Indian languages. Have you not felt that the reports of the annual budget are as complicated as the finance minister’s speech?
In Kannada, how many of us can really understand what they mean when they say `Pattabhadra Hitasakti’ (¥ÀlÖ¨sÀzÀæ »vÁ¸ÀQÛ)?

The solutions are
1. Deliberate use of plain language. This is difficult as it requires hard work.

2. Reducing the pressure of the Advertiser on media houses and attracting talent to the industry.
Did you know that among the products that you use daily, a newspaper is the only one that is sold for less than 10 % of its cost of production? A newspaper costs between Rs 20-40 per copy. But you pay anything between 50 paise to Rs 3.5. If you pay Rs 300 for your mobile currency or TATA sky subscription, why cant you pay Rs 10 for a newspaper? That would significantly reduce pressure from the advertiser. The advertiser can be a private company, the government or a politician. This would address dishonesty at the level of the reporter and the establishment. The situation is slightly better in TV channels, but the channels need to find low cost technology and an efficient revenue model.

3. Attracting talent to the field of journalism is a serious challenge. Needed is a reversal in the obsession with medicine and engineering in the middle class parents. I met a girl in the USA who was the manager of a grave yard. I told her she was so beautiful that people were literally dying to meet her. But I was fatally shocked to learn that she had studied Mortuary Sciences in college. Can we imagine such courses in India?
4. Intelligent, research minded young men and women will improve the quality of writing. We will have a truly informed democracy this way.

5. We should make media houses resource centres by encouraging research and reducing the pressure of the deadline and letting writers chase stories in the fields of their passion.

Non representative bodies
There are other problems too. Media houses are not representative. This leads to a situation where people get to read opinionated stories about issues. For example, the number of anti -reservation stories are always bigger than pro –reservation ones that is because the number of journalists from Dalit or other deprived communities is far less than it should be.

A Dargah that flew an Islamic flag was reported to have hoisted the Pakistani flag. Only a sports reporter could point out the mistake. Secondly, many people speak of forced conversion by Christian missionaries. Few can explain how untouchability and conversion are related. This does not happen if there more journalists from among the minorities.

In Karnataka there are several writers who volunteer to write about the Cauvery dispute, but not a single journalist who understands the Krishna that flows in backward north Karnataka. Similarly, people read more about the coffee

I can say with complete confidence that the first story about tribals by a tribal journalist is yet to be written in India. The solution lies in Media managements deliberately choosing journalists from a matrix that reflects the character of the society. We should have journalists from every class, caste, region, gender and language group. This could be encouraged two ways, creating awareness among youth and parents and by
providing social support in the form of information and counseling, scholarships and fellowships.

Corruption of the society
Corruption, as I said earlier, is not a one dimensional thing. It is a like a snake eating its tale. You don’t know where it begins and where it ends. We should ask ourselves this important question from where do journalists come from? This Society. So when the whole society is corrupt, you can not expect journalists to stay clean. Therefore, any thought or action of cleaning up journalism can not be isolated from cleaning up the entire system.

Holy cows or reckless bulls?
The society seems to treat journalists as if they can do no wrong. In these 60 odd
years of independence, there have been only 60 major cases of defamation or false publication against newspapers. Why so few? Don’t you find defamatory, false and
prejudiced reporting in papers everyday? Why are journalists allowed
to murder truth and get away?
A law is slowly refined over the years, once it begins to get implemented. So the acts relating to protecting the sacred status of the press should be implemented. We know the media calls itself a watchdog, but who should watch the watchdog? When there are complaints against judges and military men and they are being investigated against, why should media persons be left out ?

Those who make us proud
Have I only been talking about the bad- guys? I am extremely glad that there are journalists who have given nothing less than their lives for the cause.
I am reminded of an anecdote from the black days of Emergency. A senior
journalist who had an Asthama problem, was tortured by the police who asked him to sit on a block of for a few hours. The Next day when the police took him out of the police station, they asked him: ``Where do you want to go now?’’ He said Office chalo, kal ka paper nikalna hai na?

Palagummi Sainath, the man who brought star value to development
journalism, asked a politician on National TV. Tell us five things you
have done for the people? He could not answer. We are happy to have been around when they lived.

Now let me come back to the joke about the doctor and the journalist with constipation. Please understand that I am not complaining. I am just stating facts. A qualified doctor in a remote town now -a- days makes nearly 100 times more money than a journalist. The Karnataka government announced proposal to provide health insurance to journalists on the lines of Yashaswini eight years ago. It has not happened.

Even today, a senior journalist in a newspaper or TV channel in this country gets less salary than a second division clerk in a government office. Other givens like job security, health and retirement benefits are unheard of in journalism. It does not mean that journalism itself is a loss making venture. You would have experienced it if have ever tried to publish an advertisement. A one square inch of ad space slot in the national edition of a newspaper costs more one than one square feet of land in a prime area in Bangalore.

Studies have shown that an average Indian language paper makes a profit of Rs 50 lakh per day, after deducting all costs. The profits of English papers and TV channels are even higher.

What most of you don’t know is that journalists have a wage board. However, most managements don’t implement the recommendations. Yesterday, the association of newspaper owners has said it would reject the recent wage board recommendations. Most media houses don’t have the system of giving weekly off or leave to their employees.

May I proudly add that the there are honourable exceptions like The Hindu group that has been a committed pro-employee group for nearly one and a half centuries.

Increasing remunerations and improving working conditions will lead to better results. After all, investing in journalism is investing in a better democracy.
Sometimes I feel expecting change is hope. But expecting change in my life time is greed. Precisely therefore, let us all be very greedy. Even though greed can have no place in a seminar on morality

Thank you

The symposium was at the Eidgah Quddus Saab, (Haj camp) Millers Road, Bangalore. Date: Jan 26, 2011

The speakers were
Dr.Taha Mateen Pres.JIH Blore-South
Dr.Belgami-Pres. Jamaat e Islami Blore Metro,
Sri Veerabhadra Channamalla Swamy,
Justice Santosh Hegde (Absent)
Katyayini Chamaraj
Justice M.F Saldhana,
Rishikesh Bahadur Desai,
Prof. G.S Siddalingaiah
Ejaz Aslam-Secy. JIH, Delhi
& Editor Radiance Views Weekly, Delhi

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1 comment:

Ranjani said...

I particularly enjoyed the ending!! "Be greedy" what a profound thought!
The speech raised several pressing concerns that seem to hold true in the field of education as well. With words like "return on investment", "customer satisfaction" and "proactive thinking" invading our meetings, one has to stop and remind oneself that this is still a school and not a corporate house... or, is it?!