It’s been a chilly February for news journalists in The Sun, Britain’s best selling tabloid. Six months after Rupert Murdoch was forced to shutter affiliate News of the World and face a parliamentary enquiry over a phone hacking scandal, nine current and former employees of The Sun have been arrested.
The allegation is that staffers paid more than 100,000 pounds in bribes to public officials for information. As Murdoch pacifies a truculent newsroom in the London offices of News International, this is a red flag for newsrooms here that constantly drive news without monitoring information gathering techniques.
To be fair, Murdoch has demonstrated his desire to sweep clean the reporting methods at News International by allowing a Management Standards Committee to work closely with police officers to trawl through 300 million emails of journalists to weed out staff using unsuitable ways. He needs to win back public trust.
At The Sun, the task has led to outrage. Trevor Kavanagh, its associate editor, argued that the action is a “witch hunt”. He lashed out at the police and its heavy-handed searching of the premises of hacks. He also defended the actions of journalists, saying in the course of reporting, sometimes money changes hands and there is nothing disreputable about it. Not all, including former colleagues from News of the World, would agree.
Neville Thurlbeck, the former News of the World chief reporter, in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview said it’s the tabloid culture in the UK that led to aggressive reporting. He is under scrutiny in the phone-hacking investigation.
In many Indian newsrooms, which includes thousands of newspapers and at least 200 news channels, reporters and indeed some editors arguably feel the same pressure. The frenzy to be tuned in and appear invaluable to the organisation has led to embarrassments, some public. The infamous Radia tapes, at the very least, showed a chummy relationship between a lobbyist and journalists.
While it was nowhere as damaging as UK’s pay-for-news or phone hacking scandal, few affected newsrooms launched investigations into the range of methods reporters use to get news, or weeded out disreputable actors, demonstrating a surprising head-in-the-sand approach.
In India’s hyper-competitive environment, survival has taken on worse forms. Management in several organisations often protects individuals, political parties, advertisers or organisations that cannot be reported on, if the report is unflattering. Then there are those that encourage complimentary reports in exchange for advertising, fees or even services.
Trouble with this culture is that it runs contrary to journalism, which is a business of trust. The reader assumes that journalists through their actions demonstrate the ability to report without fear or favour. And they have an unsullied and defendable track record for being trusted. In the age of Twitter and citizen journalism, the only way journalists can justify their existence is through the authority they bring to the report.
Organisations and individuals that fail to demonstrate this often lose the right to remain in the business of news. In India, however, the failure to do so is hardly probed because of the rampant nexus of business, politics and media. Instead, this creates a climate of immunity.
The UK press is already speculating and some American commentators arguing, that Murdoch should now board up The Sun and exit murky tabloid reporting to save the reputation of his media empire. That’s unlikely though, given four decades of ownership of the title.
What the public drubbing should and can lead to, is better reporting methods and editorial management, not just at Murdoch’s titles but with the liberal media everywhere in the world, including India where it is badly needed.
Anjana Menon is a Delhi-based writer . You can send your comments to email@example.com