When media coverage of ISRO spy case peaked out, a senior journalist faced some critical questions in a television programme about media coverage of the case. The correspondent explained that news reports are called ‘stories’ in English. That translates into ‘Kadha’ (fiction) in Malayalam. What we do are stories, he asserted.
The journalist was later elected as president of the Trivandrum Press Club. That leader of journalists is none other than the present CEO of Mangalam television channel R. Ajithkumar who is now in the middle of controversy over the channel’s ‘sting’ operation.
If you do not have good grasp of journalistic principles, you are bound to flounder in doing a sting operation which is a tight rope walk on journalistic ethics. Where Mangalam television erred seriously was in misrepresentation of facts. Its story claimed that Transport Minister A. K. Saseendran’s conversation aired by it was with a housewife.
Confident of success of its manipulation, the CEO told another channel later that his reporters were not involved, only to be forced to make a retreat later. He admitted that it was a sting operation by its staff member.
It is also notable that the reporter concerned did not present the story herself as done in legitimate sting operations. Besides, what she was telling the Minister was edited out.
Apparently, the channel was not keen to probe further to find out whether the Minister would be willing to misuse his office and grant undue favours for sexual favours. Going by the details that have come out, it was just a honey trap, and what we get is a glimpse of a side of the Minister’s character that, at best, raises questions of propriety and morality. Its prime purpose was to tickle and create a sensational debut for the channel. There was little legitimacy for the story. Professionalism was absent.
The judicial enquiry ordered by the government is a fair attempt at fact finding though one cannot be optimistic about what ultimately would happen to the recommendations of the judicial commission, given the history of such commissions. (Reports of several commissions are gathering dust at the Government Secretariat.)
Considering importance of freedom of the Press and larger interests of media and society, it is better for the government not to use police to probe the issues until the judicial commission submits its recommendations. However, police investigation into specific and credible complaints from individuals need not wait.
Tailpiece: The election of Ajithkumar, whose distorted understanding of journalistic ethics was well known to journalists, as president of Press Club, which also runs an Institute of Journalism, points to the fact that the malady is not confined to a single organisation. Till now, there was hardly any peer pressure on journalists in the capital if they breached journalistic ethics. While majority of the journalists in the city are not grossly unethical, many will not mind some favours from those seeking publicity, in disregard to guidelines issued by the Press Council of India.
(Note: An edited version of this opinion piece appeared in Deccan Chronicle on April 9, 2017)