Such has been outlandish frequency of statements attributed to anonymous “sources” across India’s media outlets in recent weeks that I visited the Enforcement Directorate (ED) website to sardonically check if this anti-money laundering agency actually employed a Mr. Sources. Peculiar omnipresence of  the “according to sources” entity on TV, online and in newsprint raises questions of professional ethics to an extent I have not seen in 25 years as a journalist.

No Mr. or Ms “Sources” are listed in the Enforcement Directorate organizational structure, of course. But the agency’s director Rajan Katoch, his six deputies of Special Directors, or their collective boss, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, should be seriously wondering at this outbreak of “sources” — if top officials and ministers themselves are not the bashful masterminds.

Trusted confidential sources are part of journalistic armory, but too large a helping of anonymity, like sugar and salt, is unhealthy and shouts credibility questions about transparency of a government, and media manipulation through “sources.” Their motives may be other than only exposing the truth.

In effect India’s media industry, one of the largest and most independent in the world, seems to be dealing with ministries, governmental departments, investigating agencies, issues and controversies like a secretive mafia. Information dribbles out more often from unmentionable “sources” than spokespersons, through apparently a whole tribe of people with names missing in their birth certificates:

* “The ED, sources said, had scrutinized a number of documents and financial statements of these firms, after taking them from the CBI….” — Times of India, July 6

* “Highly-placed CBI sources” claimed the 48-year-old (former Information Technology minister Dayanidhi) Maran, who held telecom and IT portfolio in UPA-I from 2004 to 2007, was “evasive on many points” during his 22-hour questioning over three days beginning last Wednesday.” — Press Trust of India, July 5, 2015

* “A Madhya Pradesh police constable, who committed suicide on Monday, was questioned by a team probing the Vyapam scam, sources said. Constable Ramakant Sharma committed suicide by hanging himself at his official residence in Orchcha police station” — Business Standard, July 7, 2015

* “The Enforcement Directorate has issued summons to ex-IPL boss Lalit Modi in connection with an alleged money-laundering case registered against him in Mumbai … an ED source said. According to the source, Modi has been asked to appear in three weeks.”  — India Today, July 6, 2015.

In the past five years, everything to do with Lalit Modi and the Enforcement Directorate has been remarkably attributed only to anonymous sources. Instead of being exceptions, as with genuine whistle blowers, these “sources” have become routine in epidemic of “breaking news” in a high-decibel hyping among desperately competing media, particularly the electronic variety. Sensation-driven reporting has sunk to lows where “#presstitutes” is a hashtag currently doing rounds in Twitter –  as how general public opinion rates mainstream media.

You have to watch the aggressive yelling, with five or six “guests” shouting at the same time, as “debates” in Times Now channel’s 9.00 pm news, to understand why the 1976 movie “Network” ranks as an all-time classic. Anything goes for these murderers of media-credibility, including Times Now chief editor Arnab Goswami’s cartoonish ranting, as long as you get high viewer rating. Circus clowns are amusing, but not if they have taken over a country’s news media.

From ‘paid news’ to ‘#presstitutes’

I had no illusions about the profession into which I was entering, as a full-time freelance journalist circa 1991. The satisfying career decision I made early in my erratic life was to exchange chasing monthly “comfort” of a nice fat salary for more writing freedom; and since 1994, more free time for serving as a volunteer at the Vipassana International Academy, Dhamma Giri, near Mumbai. So in a way, I was an outsider getting to know the inner workings in the news world of the 1990s, from publications for which I wrote.

My commissioning editors and colleagues sometimes told me of incidents of bribes given to “kill” a story, sexual exploitation, hypocrisy of publications indulging in racketeering with newsprint subsidies and then shrieking about corruption from editorial pulpits. Every profession has its share of crooks, but only the media has crooks frothing about dishonesty in other crooks.

For society to change for better, the individual has to change — this impermanent, continuously changing mind-matter phenomenon called “I.” Bigger my ego, harder it is to face unpleasant realities about myself. It helps to remember advice from a fully enlightened super-scientist: “to straighten the crooked, you must first do a much harder thing — straighten yourself.” Another self-realization becomes clear, courtesy the powerful Vipassana mind exercise to straighten oneself: I am ever ready to point fingers at faults of others, but not so ready to look at and correct my own many faults.

It is this much harder process to first “straighten oneself” that India’s media needs to concentrate on, before hollering in banner headlines about corruption in the country. Press institutions turn “#presstitutes” with shady funding, political ambitions and conflicts-ridden corporate links, and then splashing banner headlines on governmental and bureaucratic corruption.

Media crookedness hit a rare higher altitude the past decade when the Mumbai-based Times of India (it claims to be the world’s largest broadsheet English daily), almost institutionalized dubious practices with its infamous “Medianet” that openly sells editorial space. Earlier, publications sacked crooked journalists. Times of India (ToI) decided to earn a stake in the loot– by openly selling advertisements as news. Media ethics slid down the slippery slope since then. The prostitution of news continues apparently to the extent that a quid pro quo of advertisement for an editorial plug seems now almost standard practice. I rarely read any finger-pointing article published in the Times of India without wondering, “is this fact, or has somebody paid ToI to publish this?”

In past five years, the term ‘paid news’ has becoming an alarmingly common currency in the world’s largest democracy. As the Radia Tapes revealed, the Fourth Estate, watchdogs of freedom in a democracy, has some of its senior editorial dogs more busy chewing bones thrown by thieves than barking at them.

Currently being hunted by the media like a wolf pack, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had her chance in 2010 as an opposition leader to expose some of those crooked watch dogs, but she chose otherwise. “Paid news” and “#presstitutes” flourish. “Paid news has become an organized and properly structured industry,” said veteran journalist P. Sainath.  “It is corporate-controlled and functions with the full patronage and participation of some of the largest media groups in the country.”

Trusts for reducing media pollution

India has a diverse, vibrant media industry with over 12,000 newspapers (Wikipedia says 70,000), 800 television channels, and over 240 million Internet users. Cut-throat competition, rising production costs and shrinking shares of advertising revenue becomes partly a reason for sensationalist news coverage, a shrill raising of the voice to be more noticed in an over-crowded marketplace. Anonymous “sources” then spreads like a virus in dubious news coverage, the 24/7 “breaking news” that more often only fractures media credibility.

The situation is prone to desperate compromises as long as media owners have profits to make, ratings to reach, have pretensions as influence peddlers, or at least worry about salaries to pay. A way out is for a basic change in perception of media funding — in not seeing independent news media as a business deal, but as an essential entity in a genuine democracy — as is parliament, executive and judiciary. Which means investment in media is seen as a not-for-profit public service. Just as non-profit trusts promote education, health and protect the environment, protecting media independence may be seen as an essential social responsibility investment.  The only fruit expected is honest journalism. A bit of the millions of dollars (India’s economy crossed US$ 2 trillion in GDP this month) circulating as philanthropic money can be channeled into registered non-profit trusts that support credible publications.

Credibility and transparency go together, which means editors of such trusts-funded publications should be required to make public their personal financial assets, as is required from parliamentarians and the judiciary. India’s media has substantial freedom — given the number and intensity of anti-establishments stories that daily appear. But unless source of media funding becomes clear and clean, freedom and democracy become endangered in a “presstituted” media environment of increasingly polluted news “sources.”

Ultimately how we make our world is a matter of individual choice: a far better choice to die rather than become a thief by taking a bribe, or be party to propagating deceit. The independence of free nations were won through selfless courage and conscious choices. And the mainstream media is blindly heading to losing this priceless freedom for a few rupees more.

Raja Murthy is a journalist based in Mumbai, India.

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