By Ashok Dixit
New Delhi, Feb.22 : Indian and European media experts getting set to attend a two-day EU-India Editors Round Table in the capital from Saturday have unanimously lamented the erosion of the art of investigative journalism, and called for its revival at the earliest.
Participating in a seminar titled "The Dilemma of Investigative Journalism" organized jointly by the European Commission (EC) and the Editors Guild of India (EGI) at the Claridges Hotel here on Friday evening, veteran and emerging journalists arrived at a consensus that challenges persist for the media fraternity to reinvent the true purpose and mission of journalism, especially in the context of recapturing editorial freedom from the prevailing trend of "brand or advertised-managed" news.
In his welcome remarks, Alok Mehta, Editor, Outlook Satahik, said: "Dramatic changes are taking place in print and television, and in the name of investigative journalism, standards in both are going down."
Describing investigative journalism as a "fine arm" of the media, Mehta further went on to say that the real heroes of this largely vanishing breed are essentially "unsung heroes", and blamed the new tribe of editors for this.
"They are victims of brand conscious editors and their blurred vision. Kite flying is gaining prominence. Exceptions exist such as the Tehelka expose, Outlook's expose on the submarine deal. Investigative journalists' have vanished. Page Three reporters are taking precedence. very big newspaper in India wants to compete with international newspapers like the Washington Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times etc. In the electronic media, the race is for TRPs and corrupt journalists' are emerging. Any good reporter who has the patience to follow leads, has the makings of becoming a investigative journalist," Mehta said.
In her opening remarks, the Head of the EC delegation, Daniele Smadja, said efforts should be directed at promoting an understanding, or exchanges between the EU and India, which she said is dynamic, and added that the media "is the bridge that links civil society of both sides."
Insisting that the media has a watchdog role to play on all forms of government, Smadja said both the EU and India had common values and this was reflected in various spheres, and the media was no exception.
For example, she said in India, the Right To Information (RTI) Act has been introduced, while in Europe, the EC has launched a Green Paper on the European Transparency Initiative (ETI) since November 2005. Both were aimed at making government more accountable for its actions, she said, adding that it would ideal if their content succeeded in having an impact in other spheres of society as well.
Fidelius Schmid, Financial Times Deutschland Correspondent for EU and NATO affairs in Brussels, did not agree entirely with the view that investigative journalists were a vanishing breed, and insisted that misconceptions existed about investigative journalism.
Investigative journalism, he said, is essentially the art of using primary sources to bring incidents of a glaring nature to light, and "not waiting for people (read government) to tell you what you should hear."
Schmid was emphatic that investigative journalism did not include eavesdropping, wire-tapping, hidden cameras, as these were all mediums of "providing crap with zero impact."
He further went on to claim that investigative work is being threatened by both external and internal factors, including tight editorial budgets, online media, poor pay packets, all of which contributed to quality in journalism suffering, and corruption taking root. He also said that exposing sources in court is a major threat to the freedom of the press.
"Investigative journalists are a rare breed facing a lot of problems," he concluded.
Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of the Outlook Group, said many sins are committed in the name of investigative journalism, and this particular medium of journalism has been misused for a long time, and would continue to be misused for a long time.
However, he said, investigative journalism has its uses, and all investigative journalism "need not make headlines. The story must be true."
Stating that investigative reporting primarily surfaces in print media, Mehta described it as a "slow and painful process", the rewards of which were inevitably slow, but when it comes, immensely satisfying.
"Occasional bursts of investigative journalism are good. It cannot happen all the time. Indian society is too opaque and has never been an information-rich society. We live in a society where people don't want to have information, and most of investigative journalism is targeted at politicians and the urban areas. The real inequalities existed in the rural countryside," Mehta said, adding that it would immensely satisfying for him if the focus shifted from exposes on political scandals to the shocking incidents of the rural areas that rarely found a voice in print or TV.
Adian White, Secretary General, International Federation of Journalists, Brussels, called on journalists' to introspect about what they were all about. He said that he is concerned about the quality of journalism these days, as opposed to the breed of journalists that existed in the past.
Lamenting that there was no time spent on proper research, White asked "How do we take the moral high ground when scandals are taking place within the journalist fraternity itself?"e blamed it on crass commercialization, where the interest of the public good is almost always given a miss.
He further said that the quest for truth must be requested, impartial reporting must be encouraged, journalists' must do no harm, and last but not least, editors must reclaim their position as the first among journalists' rather than being last in the management.
Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief, Tehelka, was categorical in saying that journalism in the public interest does not exist. The journalism of today is a "cozy conspiracy" where media could not survive without corporate or advertiser support.
Another factor was the issue of predatory pricing, where the general public is most reluctant to pay up for reading a paper or a magazine that in its eyes was beyond budget or pocket. dvertisers were also most reluctant to invest in media entities that courted controversy or sought to expose the truth.
The message going out now was indulge in "pretty journalism" Tejpal said, adding that editors as he understood them to be, were now a "missing and vanishing breed."
He concluded by saying that the Editors Guild of India needed to acquire more teeth to get the message across that the rights of journalists as an investigative medium must be respected at all costs.