Keeping it real

News must be free of the distortions of money, as well as the eagerness to please the audience

The Zee News editors caught on camera allegedly trying to cut a deal of Rs 100 crore in advertising from industrialist-politician Naveen Jindal's company and promising, in return, not to air damaging stories, are now being investigated. There are unanswered questions on both sides, but Jindal has alleged extortion and criminal conspiracy, while Zee has appealed to public sympathy and support from its peers, even invoking the Emergency. This is not a question of media freedom, however, or a prompt for us to ponder greater regulation. It is an allegation of a criminal act. Extortion — in this case, yet to be established — is met with serious legal consequences, whether committed by an individual or on behalf of a group.

In the UK, after the phone-hacking scandal foregrounded entrenched tabloid malpractices and the collusion between the media and politics, Lord Leveson's inquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics of the press" has recommended strengthening and insulating a press complaints body, while stopping short of statutory regulation. In India, we are certainly not at that juncture. In the absence of explicit First-Amendment-style protection for media freedom, we rely on the courts' expansive reading of Article 19(a), as part of a citizen's fundamental right to free speech and expression. Deriving legitimacy and protection from such an unwritten social contract means the media must hold up its end with sincerity and responsibility.

Incidents like this one should be a wake-up call for media groups and journalists. The media must check the creep of practices that take it away from those foundational principles, its obligation to the public's right to accurate, unbiased news. Paid news undermines the media like nothing else. Many businesses in mining, real estate, power, etc own and use media outlets for leverage with the state. Advertorials, sneaky shills and undisclosed interests erode the only currency the professional media has — of credibility. But apart from keeping out these egregious practices, journalism must obey a higher call of duty. It can't afford underthought campaigns because they might be popular, or pander to the lowest denominator. Or ignore its own training to give the people what it thinks they want. It cannot let the ratings run the news. The media's greatest service is in its scepticism, its refusal to be persuaded by power, money or charm.

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