Police, Press, Politician and the Reader

By Patricia Mukhim

At no time has the media been under such intense scrutiny as it has this week. When news producers turn news makers then something is deeply rotten somewhere. The events in News Of The World (NOWT) have snowballed into a major crisis for tabloid journalism. So much so, the debate today is whether tabloid journalism can survive the onslaught of the present telephone and internet hacking episodes. It’s a news crazy world we are living in. The competition is getting stiffer by the day as newspapers and television channels seek to stay afloat at all or any cost. Revenues must come from the market and the market is a hard and cruel taskmaster. No one will appreciate that better than the seemingly invincible Rupert Murdoch, who has now had to bitethe dust after the shenanigans of the NOWT. It’s not everyday that a media baron is called before Parliament to be grilled by the MPs. Not that Murdoch will fold up his tents so soon. He is shrewd as Shylock, sharp as a whip where business is concerned and a survivor to boot! He could not have owned the media in nearly the entire world if his business credentials were any lesser than that. But that’s precisely where the rub lies. Keeping a tab on the day to day function of all his editors is a tough call. They have a budget and how they use the budget to further their news gathering machinery is perhaps their look-out. But I am quite sure that even Murdoch’s eyebrows would have been raised at the amount of money thrown around by RebekahBrooks for spying on all manner of people and using every trick in the trade and beyond to get hold of information that people would have rather kept private.The difference between tabloid journalism and the run of the mill media in our part of the world is that the former survives on salacious gossip. Tabloid journalism shocks. But it also depends on the standards of morality accepted by a particular society. Western society is scandalized each time an affair between a politician and his paramour blows up. Yet it continues to happen with regular frequency. After all, to stray from what is normally called a ‘marriage destined in heaven’ is a very human failing. In India we accept such male vagrancy with rare equanimity. As somebody said, straying from amarriage is banal. It does not shock. So tabloid journalism might not have too much to stir up in India. People are likely to ignore such gossip as inconsequential. From what we have seen of Rebekah Brooks on television she drives a hard bargain. Her thick tuft of curly red flowing hair stands out and has been the most commented upon attribute in the western media. It must have been electrifying and at times frightening to work under an editor who cares a damn about ethics and who was known to be a ruthless go-getter. Only now, are reporters who have worked under Brooks, spilling the beans about what they were compelled to do. They had to disguise themselves and resort to bullying. One reporter had to constantly wear a Harry Potter costume to tap into the Potter mania that had swept across the world in 2001 when Brooks was NOWT editor. For Brooks it was ‘all or nothing’ and reporters who did not play ball were given the boot, literally. Was it only competition that drove Brooks to the point of becoming a megalomaniac as much as her boss Rupert Murdoch is? We will never know the answer because the media is an unforgiving, all-consuming animal. Look at what the 24×7 television channels have to do to survive! Yesterday I received a message from CNN-IBN quoting that it is India’s No 1 English News Channel in the latest 13 weeks. The message says CNN-IBN has garnered more viewership than NDTV 24×7 and Times Now across Audience Groups. The source of course is TAM (Television Audience Measurement) rating. This vicious competition to survive is turning the news world upside down. With every news a reporter gathers, the question he/she has to face is whether it has enough cut and thrust to sustain audience interest 24×7. Breaking news is the mantra. News gathering has turned reporters into some sort of sleuths and newshounds in the real sense of the term. It’s good to be incisive, cruel and merciless in pursuing news that matter to the public. Those who wield power should not be allowed to get away with inane blustering with the intention of hiding their crimes. But that’s not the stuff of tabloid journalism. And this is where I wish to join issues with HH Mohrmen who in his last article (ST July18, 2011) accused journalists in our State of being lazy and basically resorting to armchair reporting. Comparisons are odious and that cannot be overstated. Journalists in our State remain an untrained, underpaid lot who are expected to produce good journalism. It is not for nothing that people spend time and money to study and understand the theory and praxis of journalism. Like every profession, journalism too requires expertise. It’s a different matter that in Meghalaya this remains in the realm of idealism. But we are getting there. The competition is getting stiffer and if we do not perform we will perish. It’s a simple equation! To perform, the management of every newspaper has to invest in skill- building and skill up-gradation of their staff. It is a fact that the newspaper business (I am not talking television here because it is too nascent an activity) also suffers the highest attrition rate. Journalists float from one paper to the other, either because of job dissatisfaction with one paper or because someone has offered a higher pay packet. Sometimes they have been picked up by so-called ‘national’ or ‘regional’ media after having got their grounding in the local media houses. But these are constraints around which the media business has worked and must continue to work. Mohrmen spoke about our ‘kind’ of journalism as being insipid, without character and a non-starter; that we are only reproducing press releases, covering events where politicians make pedantic speeches; that news is as predictable as a formula movie starring Shah Rukh Khan. I plead guilty as charged. We are no Murdochs here and do not have the wherewithal to bribe willing policemen to tell us exactly what they did to let Fullmoon Dhar a hardened criminal to slip out of jail under their noses. We also do not have money to bribe other policemen to tell us who shot Fullmoon from point blank range and later claimed that he was killed in an encounter. Most of what we know today was reconstructed by Agnes Kharshiing who has the rare quality of a sleuth. She should actually be employed by the newspapers for her excellent investigative skills. I dare say she is better than a paid detective. But Agnes needs to be a free bird so society can rely on her to unearth more scams on their behalf. I also plead guilty to depending on Agnes for startling stories of rape and domestic violence, among others, although some stuff is unprintable because of the lack of source authentication. And no, we have never paid the lady a single penny because we do not believe in bribing anyone to give us news. There is also a slight difference in the way journalism is practiced here and in the manner Murdoch operates. We are, at the best of times, adversarial towards the police and politician. None of the two give us any leverage. No one would do a Gordon Brown to facilitate our access to juicy stories. So there is no comparison here as well. Funnily Mohrmen also calls Rebekah Brooks’ brand of journalistic practice ‘unethical’ and he even revels in the demise of NOTW. So what sort of journalism is he looking at? Good journalism, practiced by good journalist who does his/her work out of a commitment for the profession and is not too gung-ho about his/her pay packet? Is that it? Sorry this is idealism and it hurts to know that a senior columnist should even harbour such romanticism. In the real world you only get what you pay for. Period. There are no saints or sinners in the world of journalism. There are only real men and women trying to eke out a living from their professions. To take journalism to a higher plane requires greater commitment from newspaper mana
gements. That does not mean taking things to Murdoch’s rarified atmosphere, but doing enough to make the profession a respectable and dignified one. And finally, the reader too has a responsibility towards good journalism. They have the right to air their voices when they are fed trash. That might spur a healthy competition among newspapers.

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