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YESTERDAY’S SCRUPLES
- What journalists must guard against

The butler in an Arthur Clarke novel who announces, “Three reporters m’lud and a gentleman from the [London] Times,” would not have approved of the Canadian barber’s son and former radio salesman who became Lord Thomson of Fleet upon buying Britain’s Top People’s paper. Neither would the media glitterati who supported Markandey Katju’s recent fusillade against governments that use advertising to influence editorial content. The earthy Thomson punctured all their balloons by famously dismissing news as “the stuff you separate the ads with”.

Second generations being more genteel, Thomson’s son who sold the Times but retained his father’s American media empire, tried to present a more gentlemanly face. He said he was proud of his papers “both as vehicles of public service and as sound business operations,” adding “The two are invariably interlinked.” India’s media seeks to distract attention from a linkage with which it has never been comfortable with lofty evocations of the noble purpose of the Fourth Estate and furious denials of both proprietorial interference in editorial matters and kow-towing to political deities. This is as much humbug as election laws framed on the idealistic supposition that virtue wins votes and money is an unnecessary encumbrance. Political operators assiduously maintain that fiction to conceal the formidable interplay of money and muscle power that has reduced politics to a scandalous farce.

The cozy relationship between the media and governments is equally expedient. I say media and not journalism because with the exception of a few stellar figures, journalists are not directly affected by the weighty problems — advertising, circulation, newsprint, cross-ownership, delinking from business houses, etc., — that make or mar media fortunes. As P. Sainath, the Magsaysay-Award-winning rural affairs editor of the Hindu, told Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in an exhaustive interview for his book, Media Ethics, “Newspapers might be a business or a part of a business. [Television] Channels might be a business or a part of a business. Journalism is not a business but it is a profession.” I would add for most it is also a vocation though I will stop short of calling it a mission. As for the media, a footnote to one of the financial tables in the report that PriceWaterhouse Coopers produced some years ago for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry says it all: “The figures above include only the legitimate revenues [emphasis added] in each segment.”

Posturing is part of the game. It’s bad enough that screams of fascists trying to subvert democracy by suppressing the freedom of the press should ring out whenever a media house is called upon to obey the law of the land. It’s worse that the government’s record makes the allegation entirely plausible. The unfortunate effect is that when a media house does take a valid stand for or against a particular regime, people instinctively look for hidden motives. What did it hope to gain? What did it not get? Interestingly, the media men who commented on the Press Council chairman’s display of righteous wrath showed a rather more mature grasp of what is possible and what isn’t. Self-serving compacts are not exclusively Indian. Richard Nixon might have opposed the Newspaper Preservation Act if the powerful Hearst chain had not discreetly reminded him of the political consequences of not supporting a measure that though ostensibly intended to enable multiple newspapers competing in the same market to survive by cutting costs, really inflated the profits of national newspaper groups.

A 1987 dispute between Lee Kuan Yew and the Asian Wall Street Journal highlighted advertising’s centrality in government-media relations. When Singapore restricted the AWSJ’s circulation in the island to 400 copies, the paper offered to distribute it free, forgoing sales revenue, to paying subscribers, especially businessmen. The authorities agreed, providing the AWSJ left ad spaces blank “to prove its motive was altruistic and had nothing to do with advertising revenues”. The AWSJ retorted that ads are an integral part of a paper and dropping them would entail additional mechanical costs and scheduling problems. The government promptly offered to bear 50 per cent of the additional costs. When this, too, was rejected, the government wrote back saying, “We do not want to leave any of your supporters befuddled with the idea that you are defending the freedom of information. You are not interested in the business community getting information. You want the freedom to make money selling advertisements. If our offer helps to dispel this myth, it has served its purpose.”

Publications are usually coy about ads. The Manchester Guardian’s owners suppressed Malcolm Muggeridge’s novel, Picture Palace, ridiculing C.P. Scott who refused tobacco ads on moral grounds while letting them appear abundantly in its popular stable companion, the Manchester Evening News, which earned enough for both papers. The New Statesman which editorially opposed the denationalization of British Steel accepted advertisements supporting privatization but had the grace to try to explain the inconsistency on grounds of survival. I also recall a supplement in the Times on the state visit of the king of Saudi Arabia with a small panel attributing the absence of advertisements to the Royal Saudi embassy’s “generous cooperation”.

Given this complex, T.N. Ninan, president of the Editors Guild, must be applauded for the frankness with which he extends the argument to demand ads without strings not only from the government but from private corporations as well. His repudiation of the old adage “He who pays the piper calls the tune” can be justified by arguing that advertising isn’t charity. While the government handles public funds, companies deal in shareholders’ monies. But can corporate boards splurge out on publications of their choice without reference to shareholders? As for governments, the Press Council’s admirable report on integrity would have been even more persuasive if it had also honestly acknowledged the use governments make of patronage to woo the media, and if those who have profited handsomely from official benevolence did not thunder only against the abuse of “paid news” and “private treaties”. Objectionable though these devices are, they are not the only distortions.

Thomson’s phrase that a television station was “a license to print money” eventually applied to the print industry as well and prompted his other famous remark, “I buy newspapers to make money to buy more newspapers to make more money.” His son’s empire probably made the word “advertorial” popular. As a chronicler wrote, “Buy an ad for your new hamburger stand and we’ll run a story about it, too …. Getting married? Let us sell you a wedding announcement. Dead? Let us sell your kids an obit.” Circulation managers became “circulators” and a Thomson editor in Britain justified demolishing the wall between them and newsrooms because they are “joined at the hip”. Another Thomson editor said he and his colleagues were too isolated to feel the public pulse but his circulators were in the field, taking abuse and meeting folks who knew what was right and wrong in his newspaper. They kept him in touch with the real world. He advised old-fashioned editors who might squirm at being upstaged by circulators, “Don’t be afraid about losing your virginity, don’t worry about selling your soul.”

Thomson’s earthiness — rather than the New Statesman’s candour or the sophistication of the Times — is India’s emerging norm. Official manipulation of advertisements is only part of the danger. The bigger threat lies in the patronage that gives governments additional leverage. Ian Stephens, the Statesman editor whose role during the Bengali famine belongs to history, warned of the “peril in confidences” when the viceroy wanted to meet him. “A journalist must guard against accepting any (confidences) that seem designed to curtail his scope for comment” he wrote. I can’t imagine many — or any — of today’s media leaders suffering from such scruples.