Leadership Without Legitimacy: Will the Indian Media Get Its Act Together?

After remaining wilfully silent on India's biggest corruption story of the year (Hear the Radia tapes here), the immediate reaction of some sections of the Indian media was to divert attention to Brand India and corporate privacy concerns. We are now witness to another diversion -- the case for corporate lobbying (never mind that corporate lobbying has just robbed the country of hundreds of millions of dollars).

Let's take for example a single routine event like last week's conference on corporate sustainability addressed by Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Since the event was held in the wake of the Radia tapes leak the Minister was quizzed on legal regulation of the corporate sector by attending journalists. What follows is a quick and, unfortunately, dirty analysis of the reports that were published in the English media.

Of the fourteen randomly surveyed reports, not a single Indian publication mentioned the real context of the questions viz. the corruption issue unearthed by the Radia tapes. The only publication to report this context was non-Indian, the South Asia Mail. While the others remained silent, six of the Indian publications chose to cite a misleading context instead, viz. privacy concerns, not the issues of corruption that the tapes revealed. These publications include Times Now, Economic Times, Indian Express, Express Buzz, Deccan Chronicle and Business Standard.

Two of the corporate-owned and managed publications chose to include references by Deepak Parekh and Lalit Bhasin, leveraging these apparently "authoritative sources" in favor of their underlying argument against privacy violations. No references were cited on the corruption issue. These publications were Indian Express and Economic Times.

Most of the publications captured the cautious statements of the Minister who balanced issues of privacy with those of corruption. These were represented in headlines that spoke of 'regulations', 'curbs' and 'limits' to corporate lobbying. However, two publications spun headlines that were in dissonance with all others and even with their own news content. These were Indian Express and Times Now that headlined 'CorpMin gives thumbs up to lobbying, PR' and 'Khursheed for legalizing lobbying'. The only publication to underscore the obligations of corporate India was Hindu which headlined 'Stress on Ethical Business.'

With all due regard to Indian circumspection, how does one justify a failure to report -- to say nothing of actively misleading readers -- on the real context of questions posed to the Minister?! And with all due respect to Eastern mysticism and the eternal subjectivity of human experience, how exactly does one explain such variance in the headlines?! Was the Minister speaking in two tongues such that twelve reporters understood a case for regulating corporate lobbying and two saw a strong justification for it instead? Should the reader blandly apprehend the report content devoid of context, be tantalizingly diverted by the headlines, or perhaps conclude that maybe, just maybe, the journalist, sub-editor and editor are beholden to the news corporation and not to journalistic ethics?

Despite the enormity of the corruption issue in the Radia tapes leakage and the role played by the country's top journalists in facilitating it, the Indian media shows little accountability to the public and there are still no apologies forthcoming. On the other hand, at a recent forum by India's press corps, the President of the Editor's Guild continued to support those journalists who had manufactured convenient stories and brokered deals for corporate interests.

There can be no greater disgrace than the fact that the entire dissemination of the biggest corruption story of the year was managed by citizens and nonresident Indians through the Internet. If the Indian media wish to remain relevant in the Internet age, they will have to fight for change -- a working code of ethics, new leaders, better role models for a new generation of journalists, and if possible, a little humility now and then. ***** Update: As of the evening of December 24th, by unanimous vote, the Editor's Guild changed its top leadership. T N Ninan is the new President replacing outgoing President Rajdeep Sardesai.