Are Journalists Corrupt?

When I worked with Outlook about a decade ago, I did a story on corruption among financial journalists. In retrospect, I think that was like telling half the story, because corruption may not be confined to financial journalists alone.  In my novel, I’ve written a fictional account of corruption among journalists on the crime, business and political beats. In recent years, entertainment journalists are also said to be raking in the moolah. Below is the full text of the Outlook article. You are invited to comment on the subject of corruption among journalists in the past and today.



Don’t Touch That Cash
The Press Council attempts to cleanse financial journalism of all the slush with a new code of ethics
Oswald Pereira, Charubala Annuncio
FOR years now, it has been common knowledge that a large number of financial journalists are not above accepting gifts, in cash or kind, from companies for services rendered—writing nice things about them or running their rivals down. Now the Press Council of India (PCI) too has taken note. A Council subcommittee is proposing a separate code of ethics for financial journalists which urges them to refuse cash, gifts, loans, junkets, discounts and preferential shares from corporates.Observes Justice P.B. Sawant, PCI chairman: “There is no doubt that after liberalisation, financial journalists have become more powerful and there are enough instances to show that they have been misusing their position.
“After liberalisation, financial journalists have become more powerful and enough instances show they are misusing this.” JUSTICE P.B. SAWANT, Chairman, Press Council
And this was prevalent on a scale large enough for the Council to take cognisance of it.” The recommendations on the code of ethics will be submitted on March 25 to the full PCI, which consists of the chairman and 28 members. If approved, the code will be published for guidance of financial scribes. But will it be enough of
an antidote? “There were complaints about financial journalists receiving preferential shares from directors’ quotas on a priority basis just to publish favourable reports about a company or reports against a rival,” reveals Sawant. “We received complaints from investors as well as readers that reporting by some f i n a n c i a l journalists was obviously motivated. The code of ethics applicable to newspapers, magazines, news agencies and journalists—which has been evolved by the PCI over the years—is not sufficient to deal with cases of malpractices by financial journalists. We have been thinking for a long time about the need for a separate code for financial journalists,” he says.Says a young journalist: “Several of my college-mates were quite clear that they wanted to become business journalists. ‘That’s where you can make a lot of money’, they would say.” In the course of his work, every business writer gets insider information—an upcoming foreign tie-up, an imminent merger—that he could use to make money on the stock market. Many do so with casual impunity.The worst offenders, and this has been an open secret for years now, are the hordes covering upcoming share issues. Gifts are today de rigueur at share issue press conferences. And demands on the companies keep rising, enough to now alarm the corporate community which started it all but are finding journalistic greed slipping out of control. A textile company thought it had it all sewed up when they offered scribes expensive suiting material at a press conference. The hacks insisted that the company pay tailoring charges too. They got it.Many investment periodicals are known to function under a strict quid pro quo: the size of the company’s advertisement decides the story length. On a good day, when a journalist has been invited for four or more press conferences, it’s not unusual, at least in Bombay, to see scribes keep taxis parked outside conference venues so they can leave as soon as they have collected their gifts and rush to the next press meet (where another gift awaits them). Indeed, in Bombay today, there is a thriving secondary market in gifts and gift vouchers ( see box ).Says the PCI subcommittee report: “Financial journalists today enjoy considerable influence over the readers’ minds and therefore they owe it to them to present a balanced and objective view of a company. It has been observed that some companies are given excessive news coverage in newspapers/magazines because they have issued advertisements. Sometimes adverse reports are published of those companies which do not give advertisements to the newspapers/magazines.

Again, whenever a newspaper/magazine is not happy with any company/management for whatever reason, the negative aspects of the company are highlighted, while in the reverse situation no negative aspects are brought to light.” And it admits: “At the same time, there is no mechanism for raising public opinion against such unhealthy practices.”

 The fallout is obvious. Doctored corporate reports harm the interests of investors, especially small investors who treat the media as the principal source of information to base their decisions on. The proposed code, apart from “ensuring clean journalism, will also help in protecting investors, complementing the work of the various investors’ associations,” feels Sawant. Says Suman Dubey, country representative with Dow Jones & Co. Inc., owners of The Wall Street Journal :I personally feel a lot of financial news in India can hardly be called reliable.” 

Those who breach the new code will be reprimanded, as is the practice for violation of the general code. In 1994-95, the Press Council censured journalists in 19 cases and issued 22 warnings. There are three types of moral reprimand, censure being the most severe, followed by admonitions and warnings. Responsible newspapers do take reprimands by the PCI seriously because their credibility and respectability are at stake, asserts Sawant.

The key problem, of course, will be to figure out which articles are written with personal profit motive in mind. Says senior financial journalist J. Mulraj: “Views on a public issue are subjective—what I consider a good issue may be regarded differently by another. So it becomes difficult to pinpoint who is writing with vested interests.” He also offers a rationalisation for the state of affairs: “Correspondents, even freelancers, aren’t paid well. And seeing peers get into FIIs with whopping salaries does cause heartburn.  The jounalist eventually self – justifies when he sees that the publishers isn’t fairly sharing the huge profits he makes. And publishers turn a blind eye.”

What about junkets, those all expenses-paid-for trips for journalists within the country or abroad? With more and more transnationals coming in, these are now a common feature of the business writer’s life: factory visits to Sweden, and strategy dissemination sessions in London. Says Dubey:”A token gift, or a drink or two is something that could be regarded as courtesy.” But, adds he, “when it extends beyond this, it may not be a good idea to accept it.” Sadly, in India, the dividing line between courtesy and corruption appears perilously narrow.

Mulraj suggests that financial journalists can be made more responsible for what they write by encouraging reader response. “Close the feedback loop to make correspondents more answerable and therefore more responsible for what they write,” he says. “There could be a rating of sorts for their reports by which the best people could be actually rewarded and the worst performers punished rather than have no evaluation at all.” But again, pure statistics dictate that stock-markets being, by definition, uncertain, the most well-intentioned analyst will go wrong in his predictions 50 per cent of the time. Developing a workable ratings mechanism will be a tough job. And after that comes the issue of scribes accepting that system.

Says Dubey: “While the initiative of the Press Council is welcome, it is obvious that its code of ethics can be violated. Hence, it is best left to the employers to stipulate a code of ethics in the conditions of employment itself.” He adds: “At The Wall StreetJournal, for instance, norms for journalists are strict. No journalist can write about a company whose shares he owns. If he breaks this code, he loses his job.”

Sawant agrees. “It should be a matter of concern for journalists as a whole that some among them are surrendering the best part of their judgement for some gains. This is tarnishing the name of the profession,” he says. It is also the responsibility of journalists themselves to “spot the black sheep in the profession and take measures against them internally such as suspension or cancellation of their membership of associations, press guilds and clubs.” Ultimately, he says, “social boycott is the most effective way of dealing with corruption in the journalistic fraternity.” No one can disagree with that. 

The Other Scoop
How companies help scribes make their stash
IT was during the mid-’80s stock market boom that the practice of giving gifts to journalists covering share issues became institutionalised. At the beginning of the ’90s, however, merchant bankers and financial advertising agencies noticed that attendance at share issue press conferences was dwindling. Enquiries revealed that the scribes now possessed so many wall clocks and wallets and tea-sets that they no longer found it worthwhile to attend these press meets. By common consensus, it was then decided to give Rs 500 gift vouchers from leading department stores so the reporters could buy what they wanted. Last year, the value of the voucher was raised to Rs 1,000. This is the average. Depending on how desperate you are to get positive media mileage, the value of the gift voucher (or gift) could go up to Rs 5,000.In Bombay, things are very organised. There are people who even buy gift vouchers off the journalists—the equation being Rs 450 against a voucher worth Rs 500. Many of these vouchers are then bought back by the ad agencies from the touts for Rs 475. This is a system stunning in its simplicity: the scribe gets cash, the tout makes his profit, the agency recycles a gift voucher several times, while charging all its clients for new vouchers for every press conference.”A press conference can cost up to Rs 1 lakh in a metro for a medium-sized issue (about Rs 10-15 crore). In the main cities, about 12-16 conferences have to be conducted. That’s Rs 8-10 lakh in total. Yet, it’s cheaper than advertising, which could cost 10-20 times of this, and a press report goes much further in getting investor support. No matter how staid, an ad always looks like propaganda,” says the chief of the financial advertising division of a leading agency. “Again, advertising gets a one-time exposure,” he points out. “A correspondent who is on the take is available to the agency to write for all my clients whenever needed. Senior editors are also into it. Even though the juniors write the piece, it makes sense to keep seniors happy because they can ensure the right placement of the piece and priority if space is short.”Besides straightforward gifts, a common way to ensure fourth estate loyalty is by allotting shares out-of-turn to scribes, or doling them out free. “Only one or two men in a 100 will refuse this sort of an offer,” is the cynical observation of the public relations chief of a large corporation. “In one way or the other, all companies do it. Favours ranging from buying flight tickets to huge gift hampers are common.” Indeed, entertaining can become an expensive affair. For, PR men too misuse company resources to dine and drink every night and charge the bills to ‘journalist entertainment’.What would happen if companies didn’t give anything? “Frankly it wouldn’t affect a big company. But smaller guys would suffer,” says a leading PR person. But if your company’s performance is good and your share issue is an attractive investment, why do you need to still pay? “Because the quid pro quo system is so ingrained that if you don’t hand out gifts, many of them will write nasty press reports. And that’ll hurt.” Will the formal Press Council code help? “It might help, for a journalist would be made to realise that he is breaking a code for which he can be penalised.”Others, however, remain unimpressed. Says a leading adman: “I can’t figure out how a code can be set up because both the parties involved—the corporate world and the pressmen—are benefiting. Why should the company squeal when it is getting a good deal?”
Manual For The Honest Scribe
The Press Council subcommittee has recommended the following guidelines for financial journalists:

  • Financial journalists should not accept gifts, loans, trips, discounts, preferential shares or similar gratification which compromise or are likely to compromise their position.
  • A journalist who has financial interests (share holdings etc.) in a company should not report on that company.
  • No newspaper owner, editor, or anybody connected with a newspaper should use his/her relations with the newspaper to promote his/her other business interests.
  • The journalist should not use for his/her own benefit, or for the benefit of his/her relatives and friends, information received in advance for general publication.
  • Whenever the Advertising Council of India indicts a particular advertising agency or advertiser, the newspaper in which the advertisement was published must publish the news of the indictment prominently.
  • It should be mentioned prominently in a report about any company that the report is based on information given by the company or the financial sponsors of the company.
  • When trips are sponsored for visiting establishments of a company, journalists must invariably state that the visit was sponsored by the company concerned and that it had also extended hospitality, as the case may be.
  • No matter related to the company should be published without verifying the facts from the company and the source of such a report should also be disclosed.
  • A reporter who exposes a scam or brings out a report for promotion of a good project should be encouraged and awarded.
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    26 thoughts on “Are Journalists Corrupt?

    1. Yes, it’s common knowledge that journalist are a corrupt lot, somewhat in the same category as policemen and clerks in government entities.

    2. “In recent years, entertainment journalists are also said to be raking in the moolah.” You are right on your money. Its common knowledge how a lady Page 3 journalist was kicked out of her job for accepting bribes from those featured on the supplement. She is supposed to have made a substantial amount while she was at the helm.

    3. How very unfortunate that the so-called watchdogs of democracy themselves are soiled by the lure of easy money! I’ve heard that journalists who are supposed to earn modest incomes own big bungalows and have lots of cash and jewellery stashed away. This was in fact revealed when the house of a journalist from a leading newspaper was robbed.

    4. Journos, I understand, are more corrupt than police constables or clerks in government offices. They are into big time man! More like top-notch bureaucrats, though not as slick and sophisticated, you might say.

    5. Everytime I read a novel or expose by some courageous reporter or author I worry about their safety. Are they not in danger from the horrible people they expose? There is much money to be won or lost.

      Also I think that a contributing factor to the lack of quality journalism is the response of the vast majority of the public. In the United States people have become indifferent to corruption at all levels of government and journalism. The few who care and wish to change things cannot rouse the public to action because they lack the means or platform from which to do so.

      Eventually everyone begins to feel powerless to change things which is the dangerous place the people of the United States are in today.

    6. Pitambara alias Guruji, one of the characters in Mr Oswald Pereira’s novel, Beyond the Newsroom (page 60) provides an apt description of corrupt journalists. I quote: “He (Guruji) had an almost pathological hatred for scribes because he felt they wrote pompous stuff but behaved like two-bit whores when they were offered money.” This is the most succint and bold description of journalists I have read. Will journalists in our country able to stomach this dig on them?

    7. Very true! My colleagues and I have come across any number of instances of corruption among journalists. In the eighties, you could get a paragraph published for a (Rupees) hundred or two hundred. Then the rates get going up with inflation. Now it can cost you thousands for the same small para. And a big write-up, of course, costs a few lakhs of rupees. It’s going to get costlier as India grows into a superpower!

    8. This is turning out to be a very thought-provoking discussion. But we should firstly analyse why journalists are corrupt. Is it because they are underpaid? Are they misusing their position? Is it part of the general lack of morals that is setting into the Indian social milieu? It would be wrong to pick on journalists and brand them as corrupt. But at the same time, there is no reason to excuse corruption among the journalistic fraternity. However, it must be determined what percentage of journalists are corrupt.

    9. Indeed! Indeed! Shilpi Narula seems keen on white washing corruption among the journalistic tribe. God, only those who have been at the receiving end of the irate scribe, not pampered and greased enough, would know why I react thus. They are not nice people to know. And if you do come across them in the course of your job, then God save you. You know what I mean?

    10. Yes, the profession of journalism though noble is not free of black sheep. We often see news stories tailored to serve the narrow business interests of particular corporates. Sometimes, these stories are so laboured that anyone can make out that they have been planted. There might be different reasons, ranging from poor compensation to lack of moral fibre in journalists, for corruption in media. However, reputation of the profession also takes a hit along with integrity of the concerned publication in such cases.

    11. Let’s face it folks that journalists can’t be free of the general Indian scenario, where ethics is given the short shrift. I am not trying to make out a case for corruption, but merely stating the reality – we can’t expect journalists to be demi gods and free of temptation. If politicians, bureaucrats and police officers can be corrupt, then why not journalists. Look at the sacrifices and good work that the fourth estate does. Please don’t taint the entire profession because of a few black sheep.

    12. Let us all find solutions to the problem rather than cast aspersions on a noble profession that otherwise performs a very useful role in society. Why has the situation so deteriorated that we need to raise a debate about it? And then why pick on one profession? Are we making an example of journalists who crusade a lot of noble causes as can be seen with regard to various constructive reports in newspapers and magazines. I would say that let him who has not sinned cast the first stone and we should all stop this malicious campaign against our brothers in the fourth estate.

    13. Codes alone will not work as they are more of a moral nature rather than with a legal sanction. There should be general public awareness and boycott of journalists and their publications that publish plants, puffs or doctored articles.

    14. Well, im a part time journalist. Well….just starting out. So probably i wouldnt b in a position to comment whether the entire breed of journalists are corrupt or not. But going by what we read in the papers today, it is crystal clear that a certain bias exists amongst journalists and newshouses. We rarely, if ever, get to read both sides of the story. Now, whether this is because the scribe was paid to put it that way or simply his personal bias remains a debatable issue. Nonetheless, by doing so, i believe that the very essence of journalism is lost, that is – To be fair, unbiased and non-judgemental.

    15. We have corruption among journalists in the UK and the US as well. So I’m not surprised that the malaise is prevalent in India also. But since I have my roots in India, I’m really concerned that such corruption is affecting the quality of the press and coverage in other media as well in this country. I don’t think it’s a case of poorer salaries to journalists as compared to other professions that is the cause of corruption. It’s a question of pure greed by individual journalists. There is no institutional corruption as such. That is it doesn’t emanate from the owners of newspapers but has its origins in the employees.

    16. What is Sanjeeva Rao talking about? Noble profession and constructive reports? Isnt it apparent by now by the print media reports and the stuff you see on TV news that journalists are concerned only with sensationalism and biased in almost every report, except for the mundane which no one cares about. And, why single out a single profession? Why, because the media is supposed to be the four pillars of a civilised societry. That’s why corruption in the media is so jarring, my dear friend.

      And, as for being a noble profession as i guess rao and people like Noor Mohd are trying desperately to point out, I have just this to say: come off your utopian pedestal and get back to reality.Face the truth and care to see what’s happening around you. Good luck, friends.

    17. What is Sanjeeva Rao talking about? Noble profession and constructive reports? Isnt it apparent by now going by the print media reports and the stuff you see on TV news that journalists are concerned only with sensationalism and biased in almost every report, except for the mundane which no one cares about. And, why single out a single profession? Why, because the media is supposed to be the four pillars of a civilised societry. That’s why corruption in the media is so jarring, my dear friend.

      And, as for being a noble profession as i guess rao and people like Noor Mohd are trying desperately to point out, I have just this to say: come off your utopian pedestal and get back to reality.Face the truth and care to see what’s happening around you. Good luck, friends.

    18. Actually, the point is that not all journalists are corrupt. I have worked with some very fine journalists, but also know lots of others who have been really sick. It’s not nice when people say that the whole of the journalist community is greedy and aggressive. Wish people wouldn’t think all journalists are bad.

    19. There are bad people in every profession; yes real greedy and sick colleagues can be upsetting. But the worst lot of professionals seemed to have flocked to the media world. They always seem to be keen to dig up dirt about others. But don’t want to do anything to set their own house in order. There are some journalists who use their right hand to expose corruption and open their left hand to receive gratification. It’s really tragic. And the number of corrupt journalits are increasing by the day.

    20. I fully agree with the view that journalists are corrupt. And it is more shameful because they are supposed to be the ones that should be watching over the bad deeds of the world and reporting it in a balanced and independent manner. But a free press has become somewhat of a joke today. There is so much of doctoring of news and a visible slant of news that the fourth estate seems to have lost its credibility.

    21. Journalists seem to be at the receiving end in this discussion. It’s good that people are coming out into the open. It’s clear that corruption is not confined to the police, politicians and bureaucrats alone. But frankly speaking I’m quite surpised that corruption among journalists is spreading like the plague.

    22. I think it’s a tad unfair to label journalists as corrupt. I have been in the business of news at a point in my life, and had the opprtunity to work alongside and learn from some of the sharpest individuals in the business. Also, as in life, it takes all kinds to make the world – some earnest, some indifferent…

    23. Not only correspondents, but even editors are guilty of corrupt practices. This can take various shapes. For instance, in a magazine that I worked for, the editor sacked a special correspondent for not writing about a hospital that was dear to his heart. This editor is still at the helm of one of India’s leading news magazines and is sometimes seen pontificating on national television!

    24. woh,this one of the best site i have come across.the latest is BUILDERS LOBBY and MEDIA.just observe how they make news about growth and bla blah etc and sell property and make money.just see bangalore,mysore,mangalore and points for guessing.our whole country is getting sold by some media ,hope if govt can do something.

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