Politicians, business persons, civil servants, a range of professionals, including doctors and organisers of sports events, and even the judiciary have been in the media spotlight on charges of corruption, nepotism, sleaze and worse. It was to be only a matter of time before the media and media professionals came under public scrutiny for similar acts of omission and commission. The expose on paid news content in the media was the first important investigation into corruption within the media. If that was about the greed of media barons, selling space and time to those who were happy to buy publicity for themselves, the recent expose on the nexus between media professionals and corporate lobbyists shows professional journalists in poor light. It is true that a journalist has to meet all manner of people as part of her professional work. A journalist must go where the news is, and often news comes from unsavoury sources. Journalists are required to maintain professional contact with a wide range of persons, including public relations professionals. However, there is a red line that separates professional contact and an extra-professional equation. In the recent case of telephone conversations involving a PR professional and senior journalists, transcripts of which have been published in the latest issue of two news magazines — Outlook and Open Magazine — the conversations suggest that professional journalists were going beyond the call of duty.
These exposes are, however, only the tip of an iceberg of professional misconduct in the Indian media. The unprecedented quantitative growth of media in the past decade has overtaken qualitative improvement. The enormous improvement in financial compensation has, paradoxically, blunted the edge of professionalism. But these problems pale into insignificance against the rising tide of corporate and political influence, interference and control in the media. An increasing number of television channels and newspapers and news magazines are either owned by politicians with parallel business interests or business persons with political affiliations. These and the growing dependence of the media on advertisement revenue are undermining the independence of the fourth estate. The good news, however, is that increasing competition and an expansion of the market have acted as built-in stabilisers. The wider range of media options does empower readers and viewers. Competition is, in the final analysis, the best guarantor of quality and professionalism. In the medium to long term, however, Indian media must depend less on advertising and more on subscriptions to be able to liberate itself from the pressure of vested interests.
Equally important would be the role played by professional organisations that enforce codes of conduct on media organisations and professionals. If the media does not correct itself and improve its own ways, it can hardly inspire public confidence when it turns the spotlight on wrongdoing in other walks of life. Moreover, if the media will not reform itself, some other institution — the judiciary, the executive or the legislature — may step in to do so. That would be a sad day for the media and a bad one for Indian democracy.