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NDTV raids: Using journalists to bat for promoters defies media integrity, compromises channel's image

Author: Sandip Ghose
Publication: Firstpost.com
Date: June 8, 2017
URL:   http://www.firstpost.com/india/ndtv-raids-using-journalists-to-bat-for-promoters-defies-media-integrity-compromises-channels-image-3530929.html

A few opening disclosures may be in order. In an increasingly black and white world, dominated by binary arguments, it is important to specify the terms of reference and engagement. Otherwise, the risks of getting boxed even before one starts running are high.

On the NDTV raids, I admittedly do not have enough details at my disposal to pronounce a judgment either way, as so many others have been quick to do. Though I am a qualified Chartered Accountant, I lack the insights that some seniors in the profession seem to have on NDTV’s financial structural engineering. I am also not privileged with inside information on how NDTV's editorial policy is decided. Therefore, my comments are entirely on the basis of what is available in the public domain for a lay observer.

Like many of our generation, my television viewing habits evolved with NDTV, as state owned Doordarshan began to slip and look jaded. To that extent, I compare NDTV with Jet Airways that gave us the first real experience of a professional private airline, as Air India (then Indian Airlines) went on a terminal decline. While other airlines have come and gone, Jet has held on to its ground. Similarly, NDTV has maintained its identity in the cacophonic TRP bazar of Indian news channels.

What I do still admire about the editorial line of NDTV is consistency. While many of their peers have perforce joined the pack of hyenas, as it were, NDTV stuck to its style. The channel seems to have got the marketing logic right that, they would lose their core constituency if they tried to change the product positioning.

Besides, honestly, they lacked the capacity and competence to do so. A Nidhi Razdan could gently rap a Sambit Patra on her show, but you cannot imagine her in combat gear like Navika Kumar or Anjana Kashyap. A mild Vikram Chandra can never be a match for the nation's (nay, Republic's) self-appointed conscience keeper and his several clones on other channels.

In my professional capacity as a marketer, I have put money on NDTV even for some of my recent advertising campaigns. This was based on the advice of the media agency and objective assessment of their viewership profile vis-à-vis my target audience.

Enough disclaimers. Having said all that, I have not been able to reconcile with certain elements of the last couple of day’s developments. Let me answer why.

First, raids on promoters and industrialists by tax or investigative authorities are common. Often, there is strong reason to suspect that there may be political axe at work, such as proximity to previous regimes or favours denied to current powers that be. In almost all such cases, the employees and professionals in the company are kept out of the picture. Owners generally fight their own wars leaving the staff to run the business as usual.

It is not that in the history of Indian Media, there have not been instances of investigation against media houses and those were not just during the Emergency as some are trying to insinuate. Generally, the trigger of such action has been alleged financial irregularities.

Two recent examples that come to mind are those of Eenadu and Deccan Chronicle. But, in neither of these instances does one recall the journalist community instantly jumping into the fray accusing the government of vendetta and assault on the freedom of press.

In the NDTV case, the CBI was at pains to clarify that they did not raid the newsrooms or studios of the TV channel but only the residences of its promoters. The CBI also put up the entire 80-page FIR on the net and held a press conference to present their side of the story. But, such minor details were of no interest to those who had already made up their mind that this was a premeditated attack against independent media.

Some even simplistically suggested that the raid was a fall out of a studio spat between a ruling party spokesperson and NDTV anchor a few days ago. A lady, known for her anti-BJP views, tweeted that she had distinctly heard the spokesperson muttering “dekh loonga”, when asked to leave the show. However, she may be giving more credit to the clout of the junior politician than he deserved.

Since parallels are being drawn with attacks on the media during the Emergency (when by all accounts the so called “witch hunt” were decidedly ruthless and vicious) one does not recall the owners or management of the media houses fielding their editorial staff to bat against tax enforcement authorities. The doyens, be it Goenkas, Jains or Sarkars, usually fought their own battles keeping the editorial and news teams insulated, so that they could carry on with their jobs undeterred.

A story still fresh in the media circles is about a vernacular newspaper that had taken a very confrontational position with the state government. The government cut its revenue streams by stopping all state advertisement to the paper and there were murmurs about an arrest warrant against the owner-editor. To his credit, the iconic personality decided to step down rather than be cowed under pressure.

The golden tenet of media operations is the traditional “Chinese Wall” between management and editorial to ensure content integrity. Therefore, to put editorial staff in front to bat for the management or promoters goes against that very same principle.

A Bengali historian from Columbia University obviously stretched a point by comparing the army chief with General Dyer responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. But, putting journalists in front — for charges of financial impropriety against promoters — does appear a bit unbecoming of a channel that has been a vocal critic of the army using civilians as shields.

It may also be argued that, by allowing themselves to be drawn into a legal fight that ought to be left to the promoters and management with the authorities, the journalists are running the risk of diluting their own professional standing, personal brand and credibility.

It is entirely possible that, nothing will come out of these investigations and the NDTV promoters will come out squeaky clean after the probe. That will be the real moment of vindication for them and the channel.

Before this, NDTV had raised similar alarm about freedom to report, when the government had pulled them up for their coverage of the Pathankot Attack. They were successful in making the ministry backtrack on their order. However, reactions of the British government to unauthorised leaks after the Manchester concert tragedy, underscores that the concerns of the government were not totally misplaced.

The NDTV has so far been seen to be in the media race for the “long haul”. But, by protesting too much and too early they are showing signs of being jittery and nervous. That may not suit the otherwise cool as cucumber persona of its founders and the dignified image of the channel that it had assiduously cultivated over the years.

If NDTV is confident of their position both legally and morally, they should let the law take its own course and continue on their chosen editorial path leaving it to posterity and the viewers to decide on their innocence and commitment to fearless journalism.

- The author tweets @SandipGhose
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