Paid for not being paid



Years ago, when I was aspiring to become a journalist and had just about got my first job in a newspaper my maternal uncle a high ranging bureaucrat in the Madhya Pradesh cadre expressed both contempt time sorrow time that his niece had chosen to become a reporter. He had wanted me to sit for civil services exams instead or at least for some bank entrance tests. That would be more honest work than becoming a journalist, he said.

I returned the compliment and told him that corruption could happen among bureaucrats and bankers too and told him you could be honest even in hell and corruption could also invade heaven where angels might turn into devils for their own personal gains.

He gave up. “Tere jaise chaar reporter main har waqt apni jeb me rakhta hoon” he snapped back leaving me to wonder until he took pity on me and explained how in a provincial state capital like Bhopal there were many so-called journalists who were into the profession merely because they could not get jobs elsewhere.

“They are merely petty blackmailers and thieves and do not even have any world view beyond their need for self-gratification. “The specific task entrusted to me is to keep them happy – with sacks full of rice and wheat and dal and tickets to the first day’s first show for the latest movie to release in town so that they do not end up blackmailing the chief minister and other government functionaries. That is not an honest profession by even a long shot.”

Unfortunately, he was proved right as right from my early days as a rookie, I came across many of his kind of reporters who lived in other people’s pockets. I saw many senior reporters lighten the wallets of many legislators or ministers to accord them a paragraph or two while reporting on the question hour in the legislature; others reversed the modus operandi promising to keep inconvenient facts out of their stories. I also came across a senior journalist who set up his own newspaper just to blackmail the rising industrialists in the. 1980s. He would start a series and publish the first part and wait for the victims to call him and make a pay off. If they did not he would be shameless enough to personally approach them and threaten to go public with more damaging facts in the second or third part of the series. Reputation was no big deal with him – all he cared about was crates of imported liquor and pay offs in the form of cars and flats.

Then one day, he ended up in jail. He slipped up and made a serious mistake while blackmailing a rising builder from Bombay. Technology was still very basic in those days. But the builder nevertheless succeeded in mounting a sting upon him, much like Congress MP Navin Jindal has done a la Zee TV today. This journalist ended up handcuffed and in prison; his newspaper folded up. Ultimately he ended up selling his wife’s mangalsutra for a last crate of whisky before both his wife and the press fraternity threw him out of home and press club respectively. He could never get a job in any newspaper ever again.

However, much of this kind of cheap blackmailing tactics by so-called journalists continued only up to the. 1990s when it got Institutionalised at least in Bombay in the wake of T N Seshan’s-attempts to reform the electoral process in the country. I once heard Seshan say he would not use a particular leasing newspaper to even wipe his bottom because of the filthy things they had written about his alleged use of a private aircraft to fly to Tamil Nadu to attend the funeral of the then Shankaracharya Chandrashekhar Saraswati. But inadvertently he helped newspapers to make crores of rupees during the 1995-96 elections when he decreed a fixed limit (I think it was just Rs 50,000) towards a candidate’s electoral expenses. That came as a boon to corrupt reporters who soon had rate cards ready for those independent candidates who could not advertise for votes in various newspapers without overshooting that limit (registered and recognised parties could pass off most expenses as incurred. by the party and not the candidate).

I remember my editor throwing out several such candidates who first came begging, then bullying and finally bribing for some space in the news pages that would bring their message to the electorate supposedly free of cost. But they were willing to pay, under the table handsomely and at times even more than the advertising rates for similar amounts of space in the news section.

Soon managements caught on to what the reporters were doing and while Seshan disappeared into oblivion he has unwittingly opened a new door to new means of unsavoury operations in the media. For the managements took over where the reporters left off at the next elections and gradually paid news has now become stratified in various publications and electronic media in the country.

However, I have noticed that newspapers who have adopted such practices are no longer too well regarded by readers though there are some exceptions that thrive despite this not too correct means of revenue gains. And while many of us in the media are labeled as paid journalists by groups whose views might differ from ours, I cannot even begin to understand how many journalists in the regional press survive even to this day without being paid anything at all by their employers.

I was teaching journalism at a couple of colleges some years ago and when I recommended some students to a reputed newspaper, I was horrific to discover that they were not paid either stipends or even for their reports and articles by the word as we do in the reputed English language newspapers.

One of my most promising students then decided to go into public relations and when I asked why he said, “When I interned with the newspaper you recommend me to, the owner-editor clearly told me I would never be paid a salary.”

Instead he was told, “I have given you a visiting card. That arms you with the brand name of this newspaper. Now go out and learn to make your own way in this world”

He would rather earn less but earn an honest salary than blackmail people to make a living,” he said, with tears edging his eyes. He had so wonted to be a journalist but he would rather live with self respect than contempt for himself, he said.

I have still not got over that one. However, I wonder how really honest reporters can get if the managements get so corrupt. For I guess that is what has happened to the journalists in the Navin Jindal sting, isn’t it?

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