Recently a scandal broke about billions of rupees being paid to popular newspapers, magazines and news channels by influential politicians, corporate czars and Bollywood stars in order to get publicity. The latest outrage to hit the media is an allegation that they acted as lobby groups for one or the other party in the latest 2G spectrum scam that is alleged to have cost the exchequer billions of dollars.
It is naïve to believe that widespread corruption in all sections of Indian life, including the judiciary, could spare media where the competition is intense. So obsessed is India’s “world class” media with the internal affairs that the rescue of Chile miners or those killed in the New Zealand mine explosions do not make it into prime time slot. There is a race to outdo others, raise the Target Rating Points (TRP) or circulation at whatever cost. So you have the front two pages exclusively of the Times of India Bangalore, Nov. 20, 2010 edition, devoted to an advertisement of a telecom company. Every advertiser is welcome: a political party, a corporate house or marriage invitation through a newspaper. You have to throw money to have your voice heard.
The secretive paid news format is a different ball game altogether where the interests of all parties — except the reader or viewer — are taken care of with utmost caution.
Now, tapes have emerged with revelations of conversations between media persons and political lobbyists. The names of India’s celebrity NDTV anchor Barkha Dutt and Hindustan Times columnist Vir Sanghvi have been dragged into controversy with allegations that they lobbied for certain political masters and corporate biggies.
NDTV has issued swift denial on its website in response to the “Open Magazine” cover story dated Nov. 20, 2010 in which the anchor’s alleged conversation with alleged corporate lobbyist Niira Radia’s is presented in a way that is considered defamatory.
The NDTV website claims that it is a clear misrepresentation of conversations between Barkha Dutt and Nira Radia. Another magazine, “Outlook India,” in its special focus “Power Tapes” details the nexus between journalists, politicians, bureaucrats and corporate houses.
“Smear campaign astounding. Onus on Open and Outlook to prove quid-pro quo of any kind, before vilifying individuals and their work,” says Dutt in her Tweet.
Is it the dog-eat-dog syndrome as India’s journalists fight it out in the open or is it a just commercial fallout they are worried about? Despite the constitutional freedoms granted to the Indian media, most of them have failed citizens, notwithstanding some honorable exceptions.
The nexus between those in power and the media are so explicit that sometimes the government honors media houses as the best in some category while the media — the TV channels in particular — pay it back by honoring those in power as the person of the year and so on.
The channels and publications organize Bollywood-style events and honor virtually every influential minister and corporate honcho. The Press Council of India does virtually nothing, as it has no powers of any kind. It is not so much a watchdog as it is a watching dog.