Perspectives

On the Success of Ethics

By VINOD K JOSE | 1 December 2012
MICHAEL S. WILIAMSON / THE WASHINGTON POST / GETTY IMAGES

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a public function at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The audience included several prominent cabinet ministers, the heads of some of India’s foremost business families, and the usual retinue of senior journalists and former diplomats. Almost all of them were a generation or two older than me, and before the function formally began, the room buzzed with gestures of bonding and comradeship—like an alumni reunion or a gathering of long-lost friends. Men in their 50s, 60s and 70s hugged and exchanged good wishes; a few even pinched at each other’s potbellies.

After the event had got under way, a slim older man with a recognisable face hurried into the auditorium. Almost all the chairs were filled, except one or two stray seats next to outsiders like me. As this gentleman parked himself in the seat adjacent to mine, his identity clicked in my mind: he’s a lobbyist, I thought, but he calls himself a public-relations man. I had often spotted him hurrying past in the hallways of North and South blocks, and at the offices of other ministries in Shastri, Krishi and Rail Bhavans. But he’s also a regular face on television screens, where I had paid closer attention to his ruby-studded eyeglass cords and seductive hand movements, and the way his brow furrowed while stating an unconventional argument or making a difficult defence of some policy or person.

On the stage, a cabinet minister was making a rather dull speech, and like me, the lobbyist became distracted. He punched out messages on his Blackberry Curve and began scrolling through SMSes on a worn-out Nokia. The minister was boring, but my neighbour was far more entertaining. Much to my shame, I let my eyes drift toward to his phones, and for a second I invaded his privacy. He had just sent a BBM on his BlackBerry, which read:

“yes, yes. Met the min in the morning. He says he’s with you on this. But a moment later, he says the difficulties that he faces. Totally a chameleon. Yes, chameleon. Can’t trust him. I missed you being there!”

“Wow,” I thought. Which minister was he talking about? To whom was he sending this message? And what was the issue under discussion? I struggled against my journalistic curiosity-—wisdom prevailed, and I fixed my eyes straight ahead once again.

While I returned my focus to the minister’s plodding presentation, my lobbyist friend continued to hammer away at his phones. It was quite a distraction, and after some time had passed, I succumbed to temptation once more. He had shuffled from sending messages to checking his calendar, which read: “1030 am—briefing the NDTV reporter.”

My mind reeled. On what subject would he be briefing the reporter? Was it connected to his meeting with the chameleon minister? Was he hoping to influence the channel’s coverage of an issue for one of his clients—or trying to plant a story on their behalf? And if he succeeded in doing so, would the resulting story disclose the involvement of the lobbyist? How would I know, if I were watching TV later in the week, which story bore his fingerprints? How often was he able to plant stories, or influence coverage?

Of course, the lobbyist was merely doing his job. He wasn’t breaking any laws; he was only using all the available avenues—his contacts with the “chameleon” minister, the networking opportunities at events like the one we were both attending, his access to media and relationships with reporters—to advance the interests of his clients. This is what lobbyists get paid to do. As a journalist, I am concerned about the increasing role of people like the lobbyist in the production of news content today—and about how content designed to advance certain interests gets dressed up as “news” and presented to the public.

Later that night, I went online to look at the website for the lobbyist’s company, where I learned a few new phrases to describe the practices of the PR trade. The firm offers a diverse menu of services to prospective clients, including what it calls “Editorial Services” and “Media Intelligence”. The descriptions for these offerings are anodyne, and surely much of this work is innocent stuff like writing press releases and promotional materials. But it could also cover a few darker arts, such as planting stories in the media, putting forward certain experts to write opinion columns or participate in television discussions, and using intelligence about which journalists are most susceptible to outside influence to obtain favourable coverage for a client (or negative coverage for their rivals). “Editorial Services” reminded me of a familiar phrase from the classified pages—“Escort Services”. “Media Intelligence”, on the other hand, sounded like something a spy agency or a private detective might use, to exploit weaknesses in rival countries or companies. I wondered how it might sound if a company marketed comparable services designed to influence institutions other than the media: could you imagine a firm advertising its skills at “Supreme Court Management”, “Judicial Intelligence”, or “Cabinet Minister Services”?

ALL OF THIS SPEAKS to an increasing sophistication among our purveyors of influence, who are surely well-compensated for their innovative methods. But these advances in public relations have been enabled by a more significant development: the continuing institutional degradation of journalism. This decay has taken place at both a personal level, among individual journalists, and at a proprietorial level, among those who own and manage newspapers, magazines and television channels. Together, they raise a depressing cloud over the institution of journalism, even as the media industry grows.

 Among individual journalists, the definition of “success” has become increasingly problematic; too often it has less to do with the journalism one produces and more to do with the influence one wields. The ostensibly successful journalist is the one who uses the profession to become something more than a journalist.

The list of top editors who have leveraged their high offices, and the legitimacy and influence they carry, to advance their careers outside of journalism is a very long one in India. There’s a familiar pattern to these trajectories: many of them start by getting close to particular politicians or parties, and soon they enjoy such privileged access that the journalists become confused about the nature of these relationships. An admiration or a loyalty develops. In daylight, journalists demonstrate their allegiances by acting like spokespersons for their political masters inside newsrooms; in the dark, they serve those same masters as stenographers, taking dictation for press releases. These journalists soon double-up as messengers between political leaders, and sometimes even as lobbyists; some get rewarded with seats in parliament or even in the cabinet. Of course, anyone has the right to change careers, and in a democracy, anyone is entitled to enter politics. But the trouble starts when a journalist begins his political career before ending his career in journalism, thereby abusing the legitimacy, access and power of a journalistic institution and treating it as a stepping-stone to bigger (and more lucrative) endeavours.

There is another set of editors who have no desire to enter politics per se, but who happily deploy their editorial influence to help their proprietors obtain benefits from the government—from land to machinery to Padma awards. The more favours you do, the further you get hoisted up within the organisational structure.

Then there’s a third set of editors who fall for relatively frivolous things in life. For example, a senior leader of one political party—who is considered a potential future prime minister—is in the habit of lending out his official residence in Lutyens Delhi to senior journalists for the wedding parties of their sons and daughters. And when an editor compromises his integrity on a matter as sentimental as a child’s wedding, it undermines the independence of more than one editor: a few hundred journalists in the editor’s employ will now think twice when it comes time to write about that important politician, and will pay special attention when he calls up to suggest a story.

In transitional democracies—in the case of India, from a semi-feudal society to a modern nation-state—there’s always an oligarchy at the centre of power. Many politicians and businessmen are bound to be important operators in that oligarchy. The duty of journalists is to dissect the workings of power— to explore and describe and reveal how power is acquired and used. But today the successful journalists are those who use their own power and influence to join the oligarchs or become important operators in their midst.

It goes without saying that when top editors compromise the profession’s values and ethics—for the sake of power, influence, or financial gain—they send a clear message to the reporters beneath them, who learn to strive for the same kind of success. They discard any qualms they may previously have had about accepting favours from the very people they’re supposed to be covering. This new sense of success, which has little to do with the merit of one’s journalism, ties into another deplorable trend, the emphasis on individuals rather than institutions. In an age of television and social media, journalists have come to regard themselves as brands; their jobs, and the institutions that employ them, have become accessories in the service of aggressive self-promotion. One sees this most widely in television, where so much depends on the reputations of each channel’s stars. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to television anchors: increasingly, top print editors appear to be devoting less time and energy to building their institutions, and more effort to building their own reputations.

Consider the many duties of an editor-in-chief or editorial director: increasing the quality of existing coverage; pushing reporters to pursue deeper investigations into new stories or tips; motivating the staff to produce their best work; understanding the business side of the operation; and working to develop innovative ways of delivering content, from the web to mobile phones to tablets. These tasks—among many others—constitute the primary job of an editor. There may be time left over to write novels or pontificate on television, but if these exercises distract from the duties an editor is supposed to attend to, he’s compromising. When editors surrender their institutional responsibilities, owners bring in business managers to take care of their investments, and the managers begin to displace the editors as the custodians of journalistic institutions.

All of these unhappy trends are visible in what we might call an increasing epidemic of laziness, abetted by a surplus of pre-packaged content of the sort provided by public relations firms and live press conferences. Contrast this with the work of non-lazy journalism: coming up with original ideas and vetting new avenues for investigation, reporting that involves visits to the relevant locations and cross-checking with multiple sources, fact-checking and careful editing. Laziness has no age—it afflicts entry-level journalists and seasoned senior editors alike—but lazy work no longer seems to be an impediment to surviving and even thriving within the profession. The public relations hawks know this all too well, as do the politicians and fixers who offer up stories to reporters on a platter. What got me so worked up at the lobbyist’s website—with its offers of “Media Intelligence”—was exactly this: the ease with which the individuals who plant stories discover the moral and ethical orientations of journalists, and take advantage of those who represent low-hanging fruit for purveyors of motivated content.

It has become increasingly common for even some of the best investigative stories to originate as plants from lobbyists, business houses, or politicians. It is true, of course, that crucial information for an exclusive story is usually passed to a journalist by sources with their own motivations: whether they are whistleblowers committed to a larger public good, or vested interests with their own axes to grind. But the second type has of late become dominant. There is nothing wrong with an investigative reporter collecting documents and information from any source, whatever his motives. The problem begins when reporters and their editors fail to take two critical steps.

First, they prefer to hide the fact that the information was provided by sources with much to gain from the stories that will appear. (In the past two months alone, I learnt of two examples of politicians of potential future prime ministerial level planting stories about scams implicating their rivals, both of which became lead reports on the front pages of two prominent national dailies.) Whistleblowers often need to have their identities protected, but such standards should not apply to rival politicians waging their wars through the media. This is not to suggest that these stories should remain unpublished: information about corrupt politicians deserves wide public attention. But there’s no reason why such stories should not contain even the slightest hint of who presented the information—or at least who stands to benefit from its exposure.

The second failing, related to the first, is that these reports are often presented as the independent findings of the journalist. In fact, he may have done little more than process the file supplied by the source, as such pieces are often written and printed without any further investigation or cross-checking. If the planter is a figure of sufficient stature (or sufficiently friendly with the relevant editor or reporter), the story will go straight up on the front page of a national newspaper or on prime-time television without any delay. The politician (or lobbyist) who successfully plants a story rarely has their cover blown, while the necessary effect is created—the advancing of a career or the sullying of a rival—and the journalists play the role of condoms, letting the planters get where they want while protecting them from exposure.

THERE HAS BEEN A SIMILAR, and equally dismaying, dilution of ethical standards among those who own and operate media houses. Media is a business, of course, and decent profits can be made from it. But quality journalism requires considerable investments and tends not to produce windfall earnings. Problems arise when businessmen regard the media as akin to any other industry. The moment a publisher puts himself in competition with his family and friends in telecom, steel or mining, he will be forced to take big gambles, or expand into other sectors, to multiply profits—and the sanctity of journalism may soon be undermined.

Like the successful journalists who really wish to be politicians, brokers, or celebrities, too many media owners are eager to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And they are all too happy to use the influence of their news operations to leverage other investments. In the recent “Coalgate” scam, for example, at least three print publications and one electronic channel have been identified as beneficiaries of questionable allocations of mining blocks.

Only two of these companies have been named in news reports: the largest-selling Marathi newspaper group, Lokmat, with a readership of 24 million, and the Hindi newspaper group Dainik Bhaskar, with a readership of 20 million, are both being investigated for cheating and corruption. Lokmat’s owner, who has been a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha since 1998, and his brother and co-owner (also a politician—he is the Education Minister in Maharashtra) provided patronage to a construction company in securing government licenses to coal blocks, and subsequently, the Lokmat owners invested money in these companies. Within months after investing, they began selling each of their ten-rupee shares at a windfall profit of Rs 8,885. Dainik Bhaskar, on the other hand, floated its own power company, DB Power, and bagged blocks worth 67 tonnes, and retained the blocks untapped. While the criteria for awarding the minefields were supposed to include prior experience in the sector, the newspapers had nothing remotely linked to mining or power—except, ironically, the power of the media.

There’s a long history of businessmen from other sectors becoming involved in the media: from construction magnates to pickle manufacturers to liquor barons, many of them undoubtedly motivated by the visibility and influence that accrues to men who buy ink by the barrel. A more recent trend has involved media owners desperately trying to augment their own riches by expanding into other sectors. Most recently, the owners of the Deccan Chronicle invested in unrelated businesses like the Indian Premier League and civil aviation, and now find themselves deep in debt, while also facing charges of fraud and forgery. The expansive appetites of media owners for success in other sectors causes two problems: for one, these risky investments undermine the health of the media institutions; at the same time, they throw up more and more possible conflicts of interest. The Times of India has been the most prolific innovator when it comes to rearranging the lines between journalism and commerce—but as the profile of Samir Jain in this issue demonstrates, rival media houses have been all too quick to follow in Jain’s footsteps. The Times’ “Private Treaties”, which allow companies to swap equity stakes for advertising space, are undoubtedly a clever business practice, but they have multiplied the potential conflicts of interest a hundredfold. So much so that the Securities and Exchange Board of India felt it necessary to intervene and warn media houses that they should disclose these holdings when reporting on companies in which they own stakes. It is to the great shame of Indian journalism that the government’s stock market regulator has been forced to play the role of ombudsman, since the media houses themselves have abdicated any responsibility to police their own ethics. These innovations may bring in enormous profits in the short run, but in the long run they will undermine the stature of all journalism—in the eyes of both readers and advertisers. These aggressive new tactics for boosting revenues look attractive now, but in the long term they become pernicious—to misappropriate a Malayalam proverb, it is akin to scrubbing a baby so clean that the baby disappears.

Consider just one example from history. At the dawn of the 20th century, when half of New York’s population could barely read, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World—for which the pejorative phrase “yellow journalism” was coined—had a circulation of more than half a million copies, riding the success of sensationalist reporting, scandal and entertainment. In the same era, the sober and careful New York Times had the circulation of a pamphlet—a mere 9,000 copies. Two decades later, the Times was selling 350,000 copies, while Pulitzer’s World folded in 1931; the steady, brick-by-brick and fact-by-fact growth of the Times gave us the newspaper we know today. The lesson is that the big and the mighty may not always remain that way—and that a deep reverence for ethics and principles can be good business for proprietors as well as journalists.

Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a public function at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The audience included several prominent cabinet ministers, the heads of some of India’s foremost business families, and the usual retinue of senior journalists and former diplomats. Almost all of them were a generation or two older than me, and before the function formally began, the room buzzed with gestures of bonding and comradeship—like an alumni reunion or a gathering of long-lost friends. Men in their 50s, 60s and 70s hugged and exchanged good wishes; a few even pinched at each other’s potbellies.

After the event had got under way, a slim older man with a recognisable face hurried into the auditorium. Almost all the chairs were filled, except one or two stray seats next to outsiders like me. As this gentleman parked himself in the seat adjacent to mine, his identity clicked in my mind: he’s a lobbyist, I thought, but he calls himself a public-relations man. I had often spotted him hurrying past in the hallways of North and South blocks, and at the offices of other ministries in Shastri, Krishi and Rail Bhavans. But he’s also a regular face on television screens, where I had paid closer attention to his ruby-studded eyeglass cords and seductive hand movements, and the way his brow furrowed while stating an unconventional argument or making a difficult defence of some policy or person.

On the stage, a cabinet minister was making a rather dull speech, and like me, the lobbyist became distracted. He punched out messages on his Blackberry Curve and began scrolling through SMSes on a worn-out Nokia. The minister was boring, but my neighbour was far more entertaining. Much to my shame, I let my eyes drift toward to his phones, and for a second I invaded his privacy. He had just sent a BBM on his BlackBerry, which read:

“yes, yes. Met the min in the morning. He says he’s with you on this. But a moment later, he says the difficulties that he faces. Totally a chameleon. Yes, chameleon. Can’t trust him. I missed you being there!”

“Wow,” I thought. Which minister was he talking about? To whom was he sending this message? And what was the issue under discussion? I struggled against my journalistic curiosity-—wisdom prevailed, and I fixed my eyes straight ahead once again.

While I returned my focus to the minister’s plodding presentation, my lobbyist friend continued to hammer away at his phones. It was quite a distraction, and after some time had passed, I succumbed to temptation once more. He had shuffled from sending messages to checking his calendar, which read: “1030 am—briefing the NDTV reporter.”

My mind reeled. On what subject would he be briefing the reporter? Was it connected to his meeting with the chameleon minister? Was he hoping to influence the channel’s coverage of an issue for one of his clients—or trying to plant a story on their behalf? And if he succeeded in doing so, would the resulting story disclose the involvement of the lobbyist? How would I know, if I were watching TV later in the week, which story bore his fingerprints? How often was he able to plant stories, or influence coverage?

Of course, the lobbyist was merely doing his job. He wasn’t breaking any laws; he was only using all the available avenues—his contacts with the “chameleon” minister, the networking opportunities at events like the one we were both attending, his access to media and relationships with reporters—to advance the interests of his clients. This is what lobbyists get paid to do. As a journalist, I am concerned about the increasing role of people like the lobbyist in the production of news content today—and about how content designed to advance certain interests gets dressed up as “news” and presented to the public.

Later that night, I went online to look at the website for the lobbyist’s company, where I learned a few new phrases to describe the practices of the PR trade. The firm offers a diverse menu of services to prospective clients, including what it calls “Editorial Services” and “Media Intelligence”. The descriptions for these offerings are anodyne, and surely much of this work is innocent stuff like writing press releases and promotional materials. But it could also cover a few darker arts, such as planting stories in the media, putting forward certain experts to write opinion columns or participate in television discussions, and using intelligence about which journalists are most susceptible to outside influence to obtain favourable coverage for a client (or negative coverage for their rivals). “Editorial Services” reminded me of a familiar phrase from the classified pages—“Escort Services”. “Media Intelligence”, on the other hand, sounded like something a spy agency or a private detective might use, to exploit weaknesses in rival countries or companies. I wondered how it might sound if a company marketed comparable services designed to influence institutions other than the media: could you imagine a firm advertising its skills at “Supreme Court Management”, “Judicial Intelligence”, or “Cabinet Minister Services”?

ALL OF THIS SPEAKS to an increasing sophistication among our purveyors of influence, who are surely well-compensated for their innovative methods. But these advances in public relations have been enabled by a more significant development: the continuing institutional degradation of journalism. This decay has taken place at both a personal level, among individual journalists, and at a proprietorial level, among those who own and manage newspapers, magazines and television channels. Together, they raise a depressing cloud over the institution of journalism, even as the media industry grows.

 Among individual journalists, the definition of “success” has become increasingly problematic; too often it has less to do with the journalism one produces and more to do with the influence one wields. The ostensibly successful journalist is the one who uses the profession to become something more than a journalist.

The list of top editors who have leveraged their high offices, and the legitimacy and influence they carry, to advance their careers outside of journalism is a very long one in India. There’s a familiar pattern to these trajectories: many of them start by getting close to particular politicians or parties, and soon they enjoy such privileged access that the journalists become confused about the nature of these relationships. An admiration or a loyalty develops. In daylight, journalists demonstrate their allegiances by acting like spokespersons for their political masters inside newsrooms; in the dark, they serve those same masters as stenographers, taking dictation for press releases. These journalists soon double-up as messengers between political leaders, and sometimes even as lobbyists; some get rewarded with seats in parliament or even in the cabinet. Of course, anyone has the right to change careers, and in a democracy, anyone is entitled to enter politics. But the trouble starts when a journalist begins his political career before ending his career in journalism, thereby abusing the legitimacy, access and power of a journalistic institution and treating it as a stepping-stone to bigger (and more lucrative) endeavours.

There is another set of editors who have no desire to enter politics per se, but who happily deploy their editorial influence to help their proprietors obtain benefits from the government—from land to machinery to Padma awards. The more favours you do, the further you get hoisted up within the organisational structure.

Then there’s a third set of editors who fall for relatively frivolous things in life. For example, a senior leader of one political party—who is considered a potential future prime minister—is in the habit of lending out his official residence in Lutyens Delhi to senior journalists for the wedding parties of their sons and daughters. And when an editor compromises his integrity on a matter as sentimental as a child’s wedding, it undermines the independence of more than one editor: a few hundred journalists in the editor’s employ will now think twice when it comes time to write about that important politician, and will pay special attention when he calls up to suggest a story.

In transitional democracies—in the case of India, from a semi-feudal society to a modern nation-state—there’s always an oligarchy at the centre of power. Many politicians and businessmen are bound to be important operators in that oligarchy. The duty of journalists is to dissect the workings of power— to explore and describe and reveal how power is acquired and used. But today the successful journalists are those who use their own power and influence to join the oligarchs or become important operators in their midst.

It goes without saying that when top editors compromise the profession’s values and ethics—for the sake of power, influence, or financial gain—they send a clear message to the reporters beneath them, who learn to strive for the same kind of success. They discard any qualms they may previously have had about accepting favours from the very people they’re supposed to be covering. This new sense of success, which has little to do with the merit of one’s journalism, ties into another deplorable trend, the emphasis on individuals rather than institutions. In an age of television and social media, journalists have come to regard themselves as brands; their jobs, and the institutions that employ them, have become accessories in the service of aggressive self-promotion. One sees this most widely in television, where so much depends on the reputations of each channel’s stars. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to television anchors: increasingly, top print editors appear to be devoting less time and energy to building their institutions, and more effort to building their own reputations.

Consider the many duties of an editor-in-chief or editorial director: increasing the quality of existing coverage; pushing reporters to pursue deeper investigations into new stories or tips; motivating the staff to produce their best work; understanding the business side of the operation; and working to develop innovative ways of delivering content, from the web to mobile phones to tablets. These tasks—among many others—constitute the primary job of an editor. There may be time left over to write novels or pontificate on television, but if these exercises distract from the duties an editor is supposed to attend to, he’s compromising. When editors surrender their institutional responsibilities, owners bring in business managers to take care of their investments, and the managers begin to displace the editors as the custodians of journalistic institutions.

All of these unhappy trends are visible in what we might call an increasing epidemic of laziness, abetted by a surplus of pre-packaged content of the sort provided by public relations firms and live press conferences. Contrast this with the work of non-lazy journalism: coming up with original ideas and vetting new avenues for investigation, reporting that involves visits to the relevant locations and cross-checking with multiple sources, fact-checking and careful editing. Laziness has no age—it afflicts entry-level journalists and seasoned senior editors alike—but lazy work no longer seems to be an impediment to surviving and even thriving within the profession. The public relations hawks know this all too well, as do the politicians and fixers who offer up stories to reporters on a platter. What got me so worked up at the lobbyist’s website—with its offers of “Media Intelligence”—was exactly this: the ease with which the individuals who plant stories discover the moral and ethical orientations of journalists, and take advantage of those who represent low-hanging fruit for purveyors of motivated content.

It has become increasingly common for even some of the best investigative stories to originate as plants from lobbyists, business houses, or politicians. It is true, of course, that crucial information for an exclusive story is usually passed to a journalist by sources with their own motivations: whether they are whistleblowers committed to a larger public good, or vested interests with their own axes to grind. But the second type has of late become dominant. There is nothing wrong with an investigative reporter collecting documents and information from any source, whatever his motives. The problem begins when reporters and their editors fail to take two critical steps.

First, they prefer to hide the fact that the information was provided by sources with much to gain from the stories that will appear. (In the past two months alone, I learnt of two examples of politicians of potential future prime ministerial level planting stories about scams implicating their rivals, both of which became lead reports on the front pages of two prominent national dailies.) Whistleblowers often need to have their identities protected, but such standards should not apply to rival politicians waging their wars through the media. This is not to suggest that these stories should remain unpublished: information about corrupt politicians deserves wide public attention. But there’s no reason why such stories should not contain even the slightest hint of who presented the information—or at least who stands to benefit from its exposure.

The second failing, related to the first, is that these reports are often presented as the independent findings of the journalist. In fact, he may have done little more than process the file supplied by the source, as such pieces are often written and printed without any further investigation or cross-checking. If the planter is a figure of sufficient stature (or sufficiently friendly with the relevant editor or reporter), the story will go straight up on the front page of a national newspaper or on prime-time television without any delay. The politician (or lobbyist) who successfully plants a story rarely has their cover blown, while the necessary effect is created—the advancing of a career or the sullying of a rival—and the journalists play the role of condoms, letting the planters get where they want while protecting them from exposure.

THERE HAS BEEN A SIMILAR, and equally dismaying, dilution of ethical standards among those who own and operate media houses. Media is a business, of course, and decent profits can be made from it. But quality journalism requires considerable investments and tends not to produce windfall earnings. Problems arise when businessmen regard the media as akin to any other industry. The moment a publisher puts himself in competition with his family and friends in telecom, steel or mining, he will be forced to take big gambles, or expand into other sectors, to multiply profits—and the sanctity of journalism may soon be undermined.

Like the successful journalists who really wish to be politicians, brokers, or celebrities, too many media owners are eager to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And they are all too happy to use the influence of their news operations to leverage other investments. In the recent “Coalgate” scam, for example, at least three print publications and one electronic channel have been identified as beneficiaries of questionable allocations of mining blocks.

Only two of these companies have been named in news reports: the largest-selling Marathi newspaper group, Lokmat, with a readership of 24 million, and the Hindi newspaper group Dainik Bhaskar, with a readership of 20 million, are both being investigated for cheating and corruption. Lokmat’s owner, who has been a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha since 1998, and his brother and co-owner (also a politician—he is the Education Minister in Maharashtra) provided patronage to a construction company in securing government licenses to coal blocks, and subsequently, the Lokmat owners invested money in these companies. Within months after investing, they began selling each of their ten-rupee shares at a windfall profit of Rs 8,885. Dainik Bhaskar, on the other hand, floated its own power company, DB Power, and bagged blocks worth 67 tonnes, and retained the blocks untapped. While the criteria for awarding the minefields were supposed to include prior experience in the sector, the newspapers had nothing remotely linked to mining or power—except, ironically, the power of the media.

There’s a long history of businessmen from other sectors becoming involved in the media: from construction magnates to pickle manufacturers to liquor barons, many of them undoubtedly motivated by the visibility and influence that accrues to men who buy ink by the barrel. A more recent trend has involved media owners desperately trying to augment their own riches by expanding into other sectors. Most recently, the owners of the Deccan Chronicle invested in unrelated businesses like the Indian Premier League and civil aviation, and now find themselves deep in debt, while also facing charges of fraud and forgery. The expansive appetites of media owners for success in other sectors causes two problems: for one, these risky investments undermine the health of the media institutions; at the same time, they throw up more and more possible conflicts of interest. The Times of India has been the most prolific innovator when it comes to rearranging the lines between journalism and commerce—but as the profile of Samir Jain in this issue demonstrates, rival media houses have been all too quick to follow in Jain’s footsteps. The Times’ “Private Treaties”, which allow companies to swap equity stakes for advertising space, are undoubtedly a clever business practice, but they have multiplied the potential conflicts of interest a hundredfold. So much so that the Securities and Exchange Board of India felt it necessary to intervene and warn media houses that they should disclose these holdings when reporting on companies in which they own stakes. It is to the great shame of Indian journalism that the government’s stock market regulator has been forced to play the role of ombudsman, since the media houses themselves have abdicated any responsibility to police their own ethics. These innovations may bring in enormous profits in the short run, but in the long run they will undermine the stature of all journalism—in the eyes of both readers and advertisers. These aggressive new tactics for boosting revenues look attractive now, but in the long term they become pernicious—to misappropriate a Malayalam proverb, it is akin to scrubbing a baby so clean that the baby disappears.

Consider just one example from history. At the dawn of the 20th century, when half of New York’s population could barely read, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World—for which the pejorative phrase “yellow journalism” was coined—had a circulation of more than half a million copies, riding the success of sensationalist reporting, scandal and entertainment. In the same era, the sober and careful New York Times had the circulation of a pamphlet—a mere 9,000 copies. Two decades later, the Times was selling 350,000 copies, while Pulitzer’s World folded in 1931; the steady, brick-by-brick and fact-by-fact growth of the Times gave us the newspaper we know today. The lesson is that the big and the mighty may not always remain that way—and that a deep reverence for ethics and principles can be good business for proprietors as well as journalists.

Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.

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we need milestone to see how far more...watch, to know how longer or shorter as the case may be...You are timely and resourceful as both watch and the milestone. but it is important to understand what i'm tripping on in my journey. India and its industries are all at such inflection point that a few have words to explain. One guy called Riggs called it prismatic to suit himself and another something else. So its not so much about the individual or industry or India per se but the times we live in. Not New York Times, but the Times of India. When light enters the prism nobody sees what is happening inside; only to see the colours emerging outside. It takes an inquistive to stop by and say what just happened. Thanks for being that…Also give a follow up on how to explain. I’m sure there are media analyst and thinktankers.

While I agree that journalism should be more about fact-finding than pandering to power, let's accept the fact that no institution (in India or elsewhere) is out of the ambit of the politics. I think it's not so much the proclivity of our media persons and politicians to fulfill each others' needs than the way in which they keep the public in the dark that is a cause for worry. It's every person's right to have an opinion and to air it - however, it should also be a moral obligation on their part to let the public know what cause they are seeking to further and for whom. How do we bring such accountability into our media houses and politicians? It's actually very simple. One needs only to find out their source of funds - and that should suffice as an indicator of who is seeking to further what cause. For example, unconfirmed reports say that the source of NDTV's funding is from an Arabian corporation, whispered to have spent millions in getting Ms Dutt an Mr Sardesai to report the plight of the Muslim victims of the post-Godhra carnage. NDTV also happens to be the only Indian news channel to be aired in Pakistan, and interestingly, it's also one of the foremost proponents of the innocence of Afzal Guru to the extent that on the day of his execution, NDTV aired one of Guru's previous interviews followed quickly by the J&K's chief minister's absurd attack on Delhi. Please do not construe my unconfirmed reports as an attempt to call NDTV's bluffs. My only point is that subterfuge is an unholy art in the public space - and in the fourth estate in particular. This same principle can be applied to politicians and political parties - much of the histrionics displayed in the Parliament and elsewhere can be watered down simply by making their source of funding public. It's not too much to ask for my right to information - is it? Once the public knows what it ought to know, it can make meaningful choices. Question is, will our politicians deliver?

Your premise is correct about finding out the source of funding- but the example of NDTV that you give doesn't hold water. Without any Arab funding (or other Muslim allegiance) behind us, many of us think that in these instances NDTV was doing some good reporting. Standing out from the herd doesn't necessarily mean you are being influenced in some way to do so. And no, I am in no way associated with NDTV.

What a helpless situation it seems... Armed forces, police and now media. Even judiciary is not trustworthy. What do we have to uphold today?

Nothing in the article is surprising. That perhaps in itself is a tragedy that every one deals behind a very thin veil. What I really liked is the summation of everything that is wrong with the unholy nexus of media men, politicians and corporate big wigs. Can you give us a follow up essay on realistic changes that can be implemented, policy or otherwise, that could change this scenario. Clearly our media lacks the capability to be self policed. How does one teach morals to morally bankrupt people. Its akin to teaching sight to blind men. Also you discussed many grey areas that are legal but not necessarily ethically tenable. There are significantly more black areas that are plain illegal - extortion and blackmail for instance as alleged by Jindal. Surely there can be a framework for sting operations that can hold up in a court of law, otherwise it degenrates to one man's word against another.

The undeniably fabulous writing aside, I think the the take away from Mr. Jose's writing is the contextualizing the debate where it belongs, in the ever evolving Indian journalistic traditions. M Modi and Abhimanyu are right to be outraged by the instinct to invade privacy, but its time we made intention count. One could argue that creation of discourse has traditionally been in control of a few. The changing levels of access and response, between Journalists-Readers, Journalists-Sources and three actors in this scenario and information itself. The outrage should be due to the lack of debate, than an outright dismissal of any admission, within the profession and public domain. Even if it is a broken profession, like the other piece by Mr. Jose, the thing to remember is that this is a call to think, no prosecute. Unless we make that distinction, we will continue to see value in punishments, over restructuring. This may speak to the state of mind of an angry nation. It doesn't respond to value of change. Lets hold back and breathe before giving up and seeing punishment as a legitimate response without a greater examination of self. The piece more than successfully does that. I'm not sure if the responses do.

Mr. Jose, In an article about journalistic ethics, describing peeping at someone's phone screen is indeed questionable. To then describe the concerned gentleman in sufficient detail so as to make his identity almost public is even worse. Three google searches - one to look for the phrases on the 'PR' company's website, followed by one to find out who the company is associated with yeilds a name. Image searching the name yeilds pictures of a slim, tall gentleman, with a spectacle tether around his neck. This is so blatant an invasion of his privacy, I wonder if it was intentional!

Erm...in a story about ethics in the Indian media space, you happily talk about almost spying on someone sitting next to you by surreptitiously peeping into his phone? How is this substantively different from NewsCorp listening in to other people's conversations? Say, if you'd read anything more substantive, something you could spin a story around, what would you've done? I'm appalled.

As always, loved the writing, but I don't see the argument for the success for ethics. It was supremely concise and more wishful thinking than anything. Sadly, in my view, there will never be absolute success in doing something the 'right way'. A tabloid will always outsell a serious publication; a shouting man will always get more TRP ratings than someone with composure and wit. But these are the times that we live in. One that is growing to recognise intelligence as an impediment, doubt and inquisitiveness as a sin, and diligence as delinquency. While I'm not a journo, I think your point on laziness captures the ethos brilliantly. Every form of work is now recognised as a revenue stream, and as a consequence resources are now allocated to turn out as much of the work as possible, with the premium on quality work reducing daily. I'd think the case to make is that there is still revenue in ethics and hard work. It doesn't make for a great story or a victory of good over evil. It’s a story of compromise and attaching value to the intangibles. Hopefully caravan becomes a testament to that fact. You are a product of a readership which has the time, the desire and the money to read long form. You will never ever sell as many issues as maybe a Stardust. And maybe the volume of your readership the topic of the national debate. but you sure will define it.

Loved reading "On the Success of Ethics". Gutsy, analytical, and heartening. To hear a sane voice from our generation is refreshing. While individual editors can make a difference, journalists like you should also consider forming a collective of the like-minded, to support each other and avoid plunging into the pit (of cynicism and despair).

It's time for a Leveson style enquiry in India on media ethics and press culture. Seriously.

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