Corruption in business journalism: a worrying malaise (Comment)

April 26th, 2009 - 11:12 am ICT by IANS  

By Sushma Ramachandran
The startling order of the markets watchdog recently on the Pyramid Saimira stock manipulation case over the alleged involvement of a business journalist from a leading financial daily should make the media sit up and think hard about the issue of corruption.

It is certainly not a new issue in business journalism. It has been widely whispered and speculated over for years, even though there are few cases of business journalists having actually been caught for accepting remuneration or incentive for writing or broadcasting slanted and biased information.

The malaise of journalists involved in insider trading and using the media to manipulate the shares of a particular company is also a well-known phenomenon not just in India but also in countries like the US and Britain. In fact, every time there is a bull run, market observers blame the media for propping up the markets by their overly optimistic projections about the corporate sector.

One cannot forget the classic story of Harshad Mehta, the legendary bull player on the Indian markets who was ultimately jailed for fraud and share manipulation. Till Mehta was ultimately hauled up by the authorities, he was a media darling.

Many reputed news and business magazines carried the “Big Bull” - as Mehta was called - on their covers, posing in front of his favourite Lexus. Clearly, there was no attempt at a critical evaluation of this market player by any of the corporate reporters who were involved in writing about his role in the bourses.

The issue of corruption in the business press has been around for much longer, however, than the era of Mehta. In the 1970s, when even printing the name of a private company on the business pages was considered to be giving some kind of publicity to that firm, it was widely known that some companies gave generous doles to journalists to ensure that only positive write-ps appeared in the papers.

Even some industry associations were able to take care of their image by cultivating some scribes on their beat. In fact, reporters have often found to their shock and surprise that the same news release they had ignored for lack of news value would appear the next day in the newspaper. The representative of the association would make it a point to convey to the beat reporter that even if he or she ignored their releases, they could still push their news into papers.

There are also instances when corporate houses, unable to push their viewpoints from one bureau of a newspaper, would get them past some other bureau in another city. Even newspapers that pride themselves on being credible and authentic have succumbed to such tactics.

The problem is that even though such news items show a clear bias in favour of a particular company, the gatekeepers in the media allow these to appear, apparently without any qualms. Many financial dailies publish news items that are blatantly one-sided, invoking questions about the cavalier attitude of those who should be monitoring the flow of news.

Similarly, there is little critical evaluation done by business channels who are apparently content to report the news as it flows from the corporate sector or the government. Many questions have been raised, not just in India but also in the US about the compliant role of the news channels in the months just before the recession.

As far as India is concerned, there should be worries over the fact that puff pieces on the corporate sector seem to have become the order of the day on both business pages and TV channels. One leading mainstream English newspaper had a business editor for about a year who specialised in long articles praising one big business house after another.

While this is an unusual case, there are business magazines that thrive largely on articles commending the role of corporate houses in different sectors. One can speculate that this could be a way of bringing in more revenue through advertising but it certainly does not make for good journalism.

These issues are difficult to gauge precisely as there is no hard evidence. But there is a view within the media community that despite the huge salaries now being paid to business journalists in the print and electronic media, the incidence of corruption remains the same as when scribes were paid a pittance.

There was a time when business journalists would queue up to get a free shirt after a press conference by a textile company. Now they can afford to buy their own shirts. But it is whispered that much more is now being doled out by these firms that need to have positive write-ups in the media, especially at crucial times such as prior to a public issue to raise money or before launching a major project.

As far as the public issues are concerned, there has even been a pernicious practice of handing out envelopes filled with cash, or cash vouchers, to reporters at the press conference with the explanation that they could buy a small gift for themselves rather than being given the obligatory clock or tie from the organisers.

Insider trading by journalists is yet another story. Some journalists had become famous among their colleagues for the huge portfolios that they had built up over the years through getting preferential allotments from blue chip firms. Others were alleged to have been adept in planting stories at key times to ensure that prices of shares move up or down as the need may be.

But what is significant is that, as mentioned earlier, the gatekeepers in the media organisations concerned are clearly not being vigilant enough to ensure that such manipulation of news is kept to the minimum.

There is also the issue of the foreign junkets organised by multinationals to visit their factories all over the world. In this case, the media institutions’ managements and editors take the call. Rare are cases where journalists can go on such a trip without a clearance from their bosses.

Most managements take the justifiable view that the free trip provides a tremendous learning opportunity to the scribe concerned, especially since Indian newspapers lack the financial muscle to fund such trips on their own. And there is no doubt that actually seeing a huge automobile or telecom giant’s operations enhances the writer’s education apart from the enormous contacts gained during the course of the trip.

But ever since India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s, these junkets have assumed ridiculous proportions. To the extent that business journalists would ask each other where they were going every month. One leading South Korean carmaker has been organising two-three junkets every year and several business journalists have visited Seoul, courtesy the carmaker.

On the plus side, the vast majority of business journalists try to remain as free of bias as possible. This is why firms trying to buy their way into good news and column-centimetres in newspapers do not always find it easy to locate a pliable scribe. There are also editors and reporters who have consciously decided to avoid buying any stocks or shares to ensure complete objectivity in their writing.

So it is not all bad news. But the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has shown in its latest report that a problem does exist. Greater vigilance, therefore, is needed to eliminate this blot on the media’s reputation as a public watchdog.

(26.04.2009 - Sushma Ramachandran is an economic and corporate analyst. She can be reached at sushma.ramachandran@gmail.com)

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