Friday, September 23, 2011

International Media Ethics Day Today (Sep 23)

Following is the story I submitted to The Hans India's editorial section. An abridged version of this appeared in today's issue. This full version is for you. 
Ramu
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Groping for Ethics in Telugu media
By Ramu S
‘International Media Ethics Day’ today (September 23)
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“Yours was not, in the beginning, a criminal nature, but circumstances changed it. At the age of nine, you stole sugar. At the age of fifteen you stole money. At twenty you stole horses. At twenty-five you committed arson. At thirty, hardened in crime, you became an editor. You are now a public lecturer. Worse things are in store for you. You will be sent to Congress.”
A celebrated fortune-teller thus reveals the past of a man in Mark Twain’s short story “Lionizing Murderers.” One of the finest rural reporters of our times and a fabulous public speaker Palagummi Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought-fame, would quote this in his lectures on media. Alas, the dialogue would always meet with a thunderous applause from the audience. The reverberating sound is the reflection of the public frustration against the media, once the messianic institution in this great country.

I always feel that the fortune-teller mistook the “owner” of a newspaper to an “an editor.” Starting from Rupert Murdoch, to Alexander Lebedev to many media owners in Andhra Pradesh, we have umpteen number of live examples to refer to when we talk about “media ethics.” And, ‘the International Media Ethics Day’ being observed by the Centre for International Media Ethics (CIME), a non-profit organisation that strives for media ethics, today provides us a perfect setting to talk about the most pertinent issue related to the fourth estate and obviously Andhra Pradesh indeed is the perfect case study for the subject thanks to the ever-expanding media industry and the kind of people (businessmen, politicians, film personalities, realtors, criminals, crooks and their ilk) it has been attracting. Barring one or two well-behaved ethical media houses, the ‘agendas’ of other newspapers and news channels are clear, much to the dismay of poor readers/ viewers, who are forced to buy or view more than two papers/two channels to get the first hand information on any given issue.
The aim of the ‘Media Ethics Day’, according to the CIME, is to mobilize the journalism community and provide journalists around the world with an opportunity to discuss media ethics issues, examine case studies, and participate in role-plays and debates related to the various ethical dilemmas they might expect to face on the job.
Besides several on-site events around the world, additional activities will be available online for journalists whose limited resources prevent them from participating in person, says the CIME website (http://www.cimethics.org/).
Ethics and Journalists
Press Commissions and United Nations, MacBride report (Many Voices and One World) and other agencies time and again stress the need of a free press in creating public opinion, a key component for a sound democracy. Hence the “messengers” in the cycle of communication are expected to be ethical lest the ‘public opinion’ would go for a toss. Truth, nothing but truth, should be their mission but in this market-driven economy truth is distorted and consent is manufactured to suit to the needs of companies or individuals. Consequently, most of the media houses lost credibility and journalists lost the confidence of public.   
David Randall (The Universal Journalist, second edition, Pluto Press, 2000) says: “To the outsider, journalism and ethics are about as incongruous a mixture as you can get. Even to put the two words in the same sentence is to risk reducing the listener to helpless laughter. To the insider on a mass-market tabloid, ethics are largely an irrelevance… Lecturing these journalists about ethics is as pointless as advocating celibacy to sailors arriving in port after six months at sea.”
Indians can’t stomach bad journalism. They keep a tab on the unsavory trends in media, quickly pinpoint the chinks and lament over them despite the nonchalant attitude of the media houses. In the wake of the patriotic role played by the media during the freedom struggle as well as its watchdog role during the emergency, Indians see a great institution in the media irrespective of the mega transformation that took place in political, social, financial and ethical spheres. That’s why ethical behavior of the media is under constant scrutiny both within and outside of the media industry.
When H.Eugene Goodwin, the former reporter and columnist for The Washington Star and night editor for Associated Press and a professor of Journalism at Pennsylvania University, told his pals that he was doing a book on journalism ethics, he got some interesting reactions like this:
 “What ethics?”
 “Will it be a comic book?”
 “Will the right people read it?”
Later he says in the preface of his book (Groping for Ethics in Journalism, IOWA State University Press, 1983): “I do not agree with the attitude toward journalism expressed in those only half-kidding reactions, but I understand it. Journalism is not held in high esteem by many people in this country, some of whom are journalists. Many see journalism as a tawdry calling, practiced often by unprincipled boors.”
What Mr.Lebedev, owner of two British newspapers Independent and Evening Standard and co-owner of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, did to a fellow guest in a television studio during a debate gives credence to the observations of Mark Twain and Eugene Goodwin. The intolerant oligarch hit a former real estate businessman Sergei Polonsky with two right hooks, sending him off the back of the studio platform. The closest ally of the erstwhile USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev and the largest private shareholder in Aeroflot, later claimed that “I neutralized him.”
‘Critical Situation’ for all

“In a critical situation, there is no choice. I see no reason to be hit with the first shot. I neutralized him,” Lebedev justified his act in his blog forcing me recollect the media mogul Cherukuri Ramoji Rao’s justification to support the ouster of the then Chief Minister Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao and anointment of the latter’s son-in-law N.Chandrababu Naidu during the“August crisis” of 1995. The Telugus, who had witnessed the successful joint operation of N.T.Rama Rao and Ch.Ramoji Rao and Telugu Desam Party and Eenadu newspaper to dump the Congress to “save our self-respect” in 1982-83, were in for a shock with the way N.Chandrababu Naidu was made the Chief Minister in a modern day coup. The colossal politician by that time, NTR, who had won 226 of 294 Assembly seats hands down in 1994, was dumped unceremoniously because the conspirators, with active involvement of the press, also saw “a critical situation let them with no choice” like Lebedev.
War among Newspapers
The then Chief Minister Y.S.Rajasekhara Reddy later felt the need of owning a media empire to face Eenadu in “critical situation” and launched Saakshi newspaper and a television channel. YS Jaganmohan Reddy, the owner of Jagathi publications, which owns Saakshi, is under scanner for the flow of investments he received during his dad’s regime. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is after him and his cronies to find the path of the mind-boggling flow of funds to Saakshi. An entrepreneur Nookarapu Suryaprakasha Rao found that in the “critical” caste conundrum of AP politics, backward castes should have a voice and he gave birth to Surya, a Telugu daily. But he was arrested by CBI sleuths in a land grabbing case recently. At a “critical juncture” where the separate Telangana movement reached its zenith, its supporters launched Namaste Telangana along with a T-channel to air their views as well as to “checkmate the dominance of Andhra media.”
With a very few exceptions, the media in Andhra Pradesh has divided on political lines. Negative trends such as trivialization of news, dumbing down, editorliasation of news, sensationalisation of stories, planting of stories, over emphasis on crime & film, vulgarity, page-3 stuff and allegations and counter allegations among the rival newspapers have become the hallmark of the industry now. ‘Paid news’ is the deadliest among all ailments and it has left ethics to the winds.  One may get surprised to know that no newspaper in Andhra Pradesh prepared a set of guidelines or a code of conduct for its journalists.
At a time “media ethics” is taking a severe beating across the globe, a crucial meet of the Liberal Democrats in UK proposed heavy fines for newspapers that break the code of conduct. The party believes the fine would act as a real deterrent, and change the culture of newspapers in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at News International. In this “very critical” media environment in India in general and Andhra Pradesh in particular, this proposal may not sound like a bad idea for manys.
For sure there would be a hue and cry over this proposal. Before this idea gets a shape in all democracies, journalists and media houses should be constantly reminded of the following ten “absolutes” suggested by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Ethics Handbook:
1. Always hold accuracy sacrosanct
2. Always correct an error openly
3. Always strive for balance and freedom from bias
4. Always reveal a conflict of interest to a manager/senior editor
5. Always respect privileged information
6. Always protect their sources from the authorities
7. Always guard against putting their opinion in a story or editorialising
8. Never fabricate or plagiarise
9. Never alter a still or moving image beyond the requirements of normal image enhancement
10. Never pay a source for a story and never accept a bribe.

(Note: The author is the Dean of Indian School of Journalism and visiting professor at University of Hyderabad. He worked with Mail Today, The Hindu and Eenadu, all put together for two decades.)
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