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The Agusta scam shows the media at its murkiest

Author: Minhaz Merchant
Publication: Dailymail.co.uk
Date: May 5, 2016 
URL:   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-3573996/The-Agusta-scam-shows-media-murkiest.html

The AgustaWestland helicopter scam represents the media’s mea culpa moment.

It has ripped the veil off the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, armed forces personnel, and arms dealers. But at the heart of this nexus lies the media.

Last week, at the Red Ink awards for excellence in journalism hosted by the Mumbai Press Club at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), the theme was: 'Who shot the messenger?'

Maharashtra Governor C Vidyasagar Rao and Power Minister Piyush Goyal were in attendance.

The panel comprised Ravish Kumar (NDTV), Siddharth Varadarajan (The Wire), Sucheta Dalal (Moneylife), and myself. It was moderated by Shobhaa De.

Among the awardees were TN Ninan, chairman and editorial director of Business Standard, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The panel debate was followed by a spirited question-and-answer session. The panelists rightly raised concerns about violence against journalists doing their jobs in often difficult circumstances.

The example of Jagendra Singh, who was burnt alive by the mafia in Uttar Pradesh, resonated strongly. Many in the audience spoke about the need to report fearlessly despite the continuing attacks on journalists.

But who really 'shot the messenger?' In my opening remarks on this central theme of the debate, I said the messenger - a synonym for the media - often shoots itself in the foot by being co-opted by politicians and business houses.

Co-option leads to compromised journalism. That, in turn, has corrupted important sections of the mainstream media over the past decade. Loss of public trust in the media inevitably follows.

Co-option of journalists occurs in several ways.

Individual journalists in the AgustaWestland case, for example, wrote favourable stories on the helicopter deal. Middleman Christian Michel, now a fugitive from justice, had been given a six million euro (Rs 45 crore) budget to 'manage the media'.

The money was well spent. Between 2010 and 2013, few critical articles appeared on the AgustaWestland deal, though a large dark cloud of scandal hung over it.

The irregularities leading up to signing the contract have been spelled out in detail in the verdict delivered by the Italian court of appeal.

The staggering level of corruption in the deal, with kickbacks estimated at 30 million euros (Rs 225 core), would not have gone unnoticed had the media done its job. It didn’t.

The Radia tapes showed how senior editors could be manipulated, wittingly or unwittingly, to doctor stories. Their narrative was pre-decided. The facts were then moulded to fit that spurious narrative.

It should, of course, be the other way around: facts first, narrative next. In the AgustaWestland case, the facts were not allowed to intrude into the narrative.

The subversion of the Indian media is a relatively new phenomenon. Through the 1980s and 1990s corruption within the media was largely absent.

By the 2000s the advent of private news television channels made the media an attractive target for political parties and business houses.

A new breed of journalists had by then emerged. Many catapulted directly into television. They had little background in the principles of factual print reportage. Eventually, print itself became co-opted.

The pressure of political parties and business houses to 'manage the media' coincided with a downturn in the economics of media. Advertising dried up. The print business revenue model (80 per cent advertising, 20 per cent circulation) began to crumble.

Digital media’s free content drew eyeballs but little ad revenue. The time was ripe for co-option.

Distrust of media is not restricted to India. Opinion polls conducted in Britain have long ranked lawyers, politicians and journalists as the most 'mistrusted professionals'. Doctors and teachers are rated as the most trusted.

In the febrile US presidential campaign, both print and television journalists have come under fire for biased reporting by middle-class Americans fed up with the Washington-New York media establishment - an echo of India’s Lutyens’ media cabal.

CareerCast, an American website, recently ranked a journalist’s job as the 'worst profession'.

Here’s what it said: 'A gradual decline in print publications at the turn of the century became a steep downturn for the past decade. Publications folding mean far fewer job prospects, and declining ad revenue means unfavourable pay for those in the Fourth Estate.'

The malignant impact of PR-driven journalism was underscored in the recent four-hour interview by the Financial Times with Vijay Mallya.

Gentle questions were lobbed at the absconding businessman, allowing him to play the victim and paint Indian banks and the Indian government as the culprits.

A similar PR job had been done for Rajendra Pauchari, the former head of TERI, when he was in the midst of defending himself in a case of sexual harassment.

The polarisation of Indian media into Left and Right silos has worsened matters. Political parties and corporate houses take advantage of the ideological bias and financial weakness in the media.

Individual journalists and media houses are increasingly vulnerable to being compromised. In the end, whether or not an individual journalist succumbs to inducements (in cash or kind) depends on the balance of the journalist’s integrity and vulnerability.

The 20-odd journalists who witnessed Christian Michel’s hush fund know who they are.

Credibility is the principal currency journalists possess. Lose that and you lose everything. Reputations built over decades can be damaged irreparably within days.

When the full details of the AgustaWestland case emerge, some well-known bylines will have nowhere to hide.

- The writer is an author and publisher.
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