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Homing pigeons and stool pigeons

April 25, 2013

I HAVEN’T scoured the list in case some friend’s name pops up, but I am caught between delight and relief that Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the publication of a list of journalists who were allegedly on secret payrolls of Pakistan’s information ministry.

Delighted because what was in the realm of whispers for years has now been thrown open to public scrutiny. Relieved because newspapers themselves stoically carried the story about their colleagues’ moment of introspection. (Not their moment of truth since the named people have yet to give their side of the picture — as they should.)

More needs to be unearthed in this affair, but rather than judges or other officials who could have a vicarious motive in humiliating them, the journalists should offer to do a probe themselves.

There is a churning on everywhere. Journalists who misled the world by cooking up stories of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have been exposed although the revelations came too late to save the Arab nation from being invaded. The mighty Rupert Murdoch and his best journalists were hauled over the coals in the British parliament for practices tantamount to corruption.

Closer home, we should be eager to know if the Indian media with its loftier name and hoarier past is prepared to follow the lead of their colleagues in Pakistan to diligently scan its own probity. The media in India has been under pressure from a changing profile of the profession, not always for the better.

Intelligence agencies and corporate interests are among the big under-the-table paymasters of journalists traditionally. Sometimes saddling the media with intelligence gathering can misfire. Queen Victoria is said to have cancelled a £500 annual contract with the British news agency that plied her with spurious intelligence from the battlefield in Crimea.

As a journalist I should not forget my humble origins. My predecessors were pigeons — homing pigeons. Most self-respecting journalists would, of course, prefer to be aligned with their human avatars.

Leading gurus like Alistair Cooke, Mazhar Ali Khan or Sham Lal were early mutants to transit from homing pigeons that mainly carried missives of relevance to the capitalist speculator, to an audience hungry for news and analysis of political, social and cultural importance.

Reuters, the agency I have worked with, started off in the 19th century by deploying homing pigeons to ferry market-moving stories between European bourses. From the battlefield too, it was a pigeon that brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat from Waterloo to England.

The man who kept a pet pigeon on the ship that carried the first account of Lincoln’s assassination across the Atlantic reportedly made a kill at the Liverpool bourse by offloading American scrips before the news-bearing ship could berth and the bear ran amok.

The list released in Pakistan — subject to verification — has shone a light on another kind of bird that purports to pass for journalist: the stool pigeon.

How else can we describe the eager pen pushers who may be on the dole of official and quasi-official agencies, hired to plant or kill stories? (Journalists flaunting their national flags seem somehow more prone to falling prey to the lure of rigged narratives. They may not be necessarily on the take, but their Walter Mitty-esque zeal has found them short on facts in Iraq and Kashmir, for example.)

The Murdoch phenomenon has not left any corner of journalism untouched. It cannot be presumed that his empire’s unethical ways in London are necessarily different from his interests in Delhi.

One obvious way to verify the linkages is to look at the neo-liberal editorial priorities of the media outfits Murdoch operates in India. Who are the Indian journalists associated with the text and TV outfits and what is their political clout and their worldview?

It has also been muttered on occasions that self-proclaimed defence analysts rented to run down one arms deal in preference to another on TV or in print may have a business stake in the outcome.

My friend and former BBC correspondent in Delhi Satish Jacob has made a short film on serious corruption dogging the Indian media. The phenomenon of ‘paid news’ that he discusses is structurally not too different from the prevalence of quid pro quo to plant or kill stories without publicly announced payoffs.

Paid news defines a new policy by editors and their corporate paymasters to offer positive publicity to political candidates for a fee. The dispatch reads like a credible report when it is in fact a shameless advertisement.

Jacob recalled another shameful incident for journalism in which senior scribes belonging to a widely watched TV channel were seen demanding bribes from a politician whose business interests they would otherwise besmirch with an exposé.

That the senior journalists were caught on camera was a valiant enterprise, but we have yet to be told what they had on his company that made its politician-owner make the secretly recorded offer of a bribe.

Everything in India today, from communal riots to the federal budget, has a corporate aspect. The evolving military strategy to take out Maoist rebels from the forests of Chhattisgarh is nothing if not of corporate orientation given the arriving plunder of the virgin resources business houses are drooling over. Curiously, private profit and the state’s perspective on Chhattisgarh, just to stay with one example, are not divergent.

When it started under questionable circumstances in the 1980s, it took a mysteriously proscribed book by a foreign scribe to throw light on the shady side of the Reliance group of companies, as no Indian news outfit would touch it.

Now the politically connected company owns more than two dozen TV channels. What chance for probity? Unless checked by some miraculous force (why not the Press Council of India?) the pigeons are set to mutate into an Orwellian nightmare, coalescing the genes of the homing pigeon and the stool pigeon.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.