Friday, April 6, 2012

Indian express takes sensationalism to a new high…..

We need freedom of press. But is this the meaning of freedom of press? Shekhar Gupta is a well regarded editor and I personally have always enjoyed reading his articles and his paper. The Indian Express has been at the forefront on breaking news – but never before has the paper made such a massive goof-up. It’s time for Shekhar Gupta to personally apologize to his readers and to his countrymen at large and be ready to face any action that may be required under law.

Instead, he is most likely to continue defending his highly imaginative and poorly corroborated story. General VK Singh himself has said recently in rather harsh words that “the story is stupid”. Does Shekhar Gupta have anything to say more than hinting that the whole issue has been covered up?

In fact, the whole of media is responsible for an environment of competitive sensationalism. Today, not a single media outlet can claim to be doing its homework well; researching a topic before putting it out.

Why blame media alone though. The CAG is another body that has made sensationalism in its reports a habit. The CAG made a huge mistake in the S-band spectrum issue – comparing it with 3G spectrum – escalating the valuation of the airwaves and hence alleging a “loss to the nation” of some Rs 2 lac crores. It has now been asserted by the scientists themselves (not by the Government) that S-band cannot be compared with 3G. But has the CAG apologized to the nation? No way. In the meantime, the reputation of several decorated scientists like Madhavan Nair has been torn to pieces. Sensationalism is the continuing mantra with the CAG under its present boss.

Take the Supreme Court. In the past, there have been many charges of judicial overreach or judicial activism, but the judiciary has by and large stayed within logical bounds. In the 2G “scam” for instance, the SC has strayed deep inside government territory. What expertise does the SC have to suggest a specific policy – “auctions” as the only way to allocate national resources? What is its authority to declare FCFS as a flawed policy? The SC has no business to tread on these subjects. The SC can of course rule on policy abuse like it is doing with Vilasrao Deshmukh’s land allocation abuses. But the SC is also prone to sensationalism. The headlines it grabbed by canceling 122 licenses is what must have got its adrenaline up. And when the telcos have asked for a review, guess who reviews the decision? The same judges who passed the order in the first place! What is the chance that the same judges will overrule their own order? Next to impossible. And yet, the rejection of the review petitions of the telcos became sensational news in the media. The telcos will now seek a “curative petition” – which in reality will be the first review of the decision passed earlier by the two judges. Till the curative petition is heard and decided on, the media will have a field day with all kinds of sensationalal and scandalous stories.

Coming back to the Indian Express story, the sensationalism crossed all limits. In one way, by raising the spectre of a coup, the paper may have actually kindled the possibility of one. It may have planted the germ of this disastrous idea in the minds of some in the military establishment – a germ that will continue to fester. Maybe someday in the future, that germ may become a full-blown monster – and maybe the country will actually witness a coup. That’s the real risk Shekhar Gupta’s story has exposed this country to. That’s why he should just apologize and be ready to face whatever punishment he should rightfully get.

It’s also important for the entire media industry to sit back and review its current state. We have rampant competition in media – and that is forcing it to lower its standards. At one time, the written word in a national daily of repute like the Indian Express would be taken as the gospel truth. No longer can we claim that. Today, sensational stories are put on the front pages of papers – and apologies if any are placed on inside pages. Journalism is a profession of ethics – if that basic truth is violated, journalists can turn this country upside down. It’s time for media pundits to sit together and evolve the basic minimum standards in the business.

The real truth is that sensationalism is one of the major challenges before the country. The temptation to sensationalize is enormous. But the damages are enormous too. If this remains unchecked, we will indeed be reduced to a banana republic, where rumors rule and the process of law is given the go by. Maybe, this is a good time to stanch this trend. Maybe Shekhar Gupta can start himself by apologizing. Maybe he can help build the new rules for media….

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