Media Ethics

Transcripts of tape recordings of Ms. Niira Radia revealed the dark side of Indian media. To give a brief background, the Tax Department was investigating Ms Radia for suspected evasion of tax. During the investigation, her phones were tapped with government approval. The published transcripts give details of conversations she had with high-profile corporate heads and media magnets. The transcripts expose the linkages between media, corporate and political parties.

The critical issue raised by this incident is  about the ethical practices and means adopted by Indian media. Independence of news reporting is compromised with inter linkages and lobbying between media, corporate houses and political parties. Reported media personalities are stating that they were using baits to get the right information and were not resorting to anything unethical. Read these few paragraphs given below from an article The Spotlight is on Media Now” published by The Hindu to decide whether you would give the media personalities a 100% clean chit.

 In the tapes, NDTV Group Editor Barkha Dutt and Hindustan Times’ Advisory Editorial Director Vir Sanghvi both appear to be offering to use their connections and influence with Congress leaders to pass on messages from Ms Radia, who seemed to be representing a section of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam interests. Other senior business journalists have discussions with Ms Radia about the gas-pricing dispute between the Ambani brothers, mostly regarding favorable coverage for Mukesh Ambani. Prabhu Chawla, India Today’s editor of language publications, appears to be offering her “advice” on how to pursue an appeal in the Supreme Court.

On the political front, in multiple conversations, both Ms Dutt and Mr. Sanghvi offer to mediate between the Congress and the DMK, and even help to set up meetings, in order to dispel misgivings between them on the specific role of Dayanidhi Maran and the allocation of portfolios more generally. In what seems to be an ongoing conversation during the stalemate between the Congress and the DMK over Cabinet berths, Ms Dutt asks Ms Radia what she should tell her Congress contacts. “Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?” she asks.

In my opinion, there is a strong likelihood of media doing favors for corporate houses and politicians. Media always operates with conflict of interest; hence, complete independence cannot be expected. Media industry revenue stream is advertisements from business houses and political parties. These two sectors have the largest advertising budgets and news media houses are dependent on them for their revenues.

The second aspect in Indian media industry is that most of the big media groups are owned and managed by family businesses. Prime examples are Hindustan Times and Times of India. When the control is central in a few hands, it is unrealistic to expect that there will be no favors given to friends and social contacts.  There will definitely be a tilt in favor of some parties.

The twist in this case is that Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata group, has moved a petition in Supreme Court under Article 21 of the Constitution. He has stated that media has brazenly breached his right of privacy which amounts to violation of his fundamental rights. In the tapes there is no evidence regarding his or Tata group’s involvement in any unethical practices. Hence, as there is no criminal offence, his personal conversations should be kept private. He has further requested to government to find out the persons responsible for leaking the tapes and hold them accountable. I agree with Mr. Ratan Tata’s contention that his privacy was breached and action should be taken against people responsible for the breach.

The court has authorized the investigation to determine the source of leakage of information. Outlook and Open magazines, the first ones to  publish the transcripts are being asked from whom and how they have obtained the tape recordings. My viewpoint here is that a government official is unlikely to share this sensitive information with media from the goodness of his heart to fulfill social responsibility. This again raises a question on unethical practices adopted by Indian media to access information.

The last aspect of my argument is that should the corporate houses be entitled to complain when the boot is on the other foot. I am playing the devil’s advocate out here. If corporate houses are pampering media persons and are string-pulling journalists for putting the right inserts favoring them, are they entitled to complain when something goes wrong? Legally yes, but it is an open issue to discuss. I am giving below an example of how the corporate influence works on media.

On 28 October 2010, Economic Times reported that TRF (a Tata promoted manufacturer of material handling equipment) share prices are down by 20% as it has disclosed an accounting fraud of Rs 46 crore (Rs 460 million). Information regarding how the fraud was conducted and who was responsible is not available. I had wished to write about it, and found no further information of the fraud besides the Economic Times article given below.

Accounting fraud talk drags TRF 20% down

Shares of TRF — a Tata-promoted manufacturer of material handling equipment — crashed 20% on Wednesday, after the management told analysts at a conference call that it had to write off Rs 46 crore because of an accounting fraud in one of its divisions. An e-mail sent to the company spokesperson did not elicit any response.

Trading in the shares was frozen at Rs 689.45, after there were only sellers. Around 1.25 lakh shares —nearly 9 times the two-week average daily volumes — were traded on the BSE on Wednesday.

“The company said ‘a misrepresentation and underestimation of costs by one particular department of TRF has cost it around Rs 46 crore,” said an analyst who was part of the conference call addressed by senior company officials. Ajay Parmar, head, institutional research, Emkay Global Financial Research, said the stock was likely to be under pressure for some more time.

Now considering the above-mentioned article, does it not seem suspicious that no details are available regarding such a huge fraud? Again, my question is how is it ethical for media to give selective details about a story? The second aspect is, is it ethical for corporate houses to ask media to provide edited versions of the story?

When corporate houses are dependent for their reputations on the media and media houses are dependent on corporate sector for revenues, can either of them work independently? Is it realistic to expect independence in dealings when conflict of interest is so high? What according to you is the solution to this problem?