Sunday, January 13, 2013

Media Recruitments: Need for Transparency

Media fiercely fights for self-regulation and freedom from even a remote semblance of government control. But should a public service like journalism be kept away from public scrutiny? Asks Charu Kartikeya, General Secretary, Sahbhag.

(Published in Media Critique journal, issue July-September 2012)

In an interview after picking up a 27.5 per cent stake in the India Today Group recently, Kumar Mangalam Birla said that the “media sector is a sunrise sector from an investment point of view.” While the Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group was only explaining the rationale behind his recent investment, the boom in the media sector is not an unnoticed story.

Media is a visible industry and the growth in the number of news TV channels and newspapers is for everybody to see. At last count, there were about 500 news TV channels and about 82,000 newspapers in the country. With the rise in the number of TV sets, significance of TV news channels for the average Indian is also going up. It isn’t surprising then, that media has become a preferred career choice for millions of young Indians today. A sizeable number of the lakhs of students who enrol into institutions of higher education every year are choosing media as their career. Not just that, media has become a rare professional subject to be introduced in the school curriculum in India!

Accordingly, the number of institutes that offer courses in journalism/mass communication/media is also increasing exponentially. In Delhi/NCR alone, there are at least 200 such institutes. Even if we go by conservative estimates, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation would reveal that this region alone is churning out at least 6000 students every year, who dream of entering the media sector. Does the sector have enough jobs for them? At least 20 well-known newspapers and 15 prominent news TV channels have head offices/regional offices in the region. At a per organisation average of even 100 staff members in media-related departments, as distinct from departments like HR, Accounts, IT etc, total number of media-jobs in Delhi/NCR would amount to not more than a total of 4000. That implies a shortfall of at least 2000 jobs. These students are then left with no option but to use “jack”, as the back-door entry system is popularly known in Delhi, to enter the industry.

But what is of bigger concern than this deficit is the lack of transparency that media organisations observe in their recruitment processes. Newspapers still advertise vacancies for reporters/sub-editors and certain other positions from time to time, but TV channels, especially private ones, don’t even do that. In the last five years, there has been only one instance of a major private TV news channel announcing via advertisements that it is “seeking dynamic, young and news driven talent.” Nobody knows what happened to those positions that were vacant, since the vacancies are still displayed prominently on the channel’s website, nine months later. And the fact that new faces have been brought in for presenting news and other content on these TV channels is for everybody to see. So you don’t announce vacancies but your staff changes? How?

People change jobs and organisations hire and fire staff all the time in all sectors. Only, in most sectors one doesn’t get to know about these developments. But since media, as emphasised earlier, is a visible industry, it is at a particular disadvantage here. And yet it pays no heed to principles of transparency, such is the brazenness. Of late, most big media houses have floated their own media institutes where they charge hefty fees from students and, in return, promise to absorb them as interns and, subsequently, as staff. But all students in such institutes run by media houses too do not get this chance, primarily because of the mathematics explained above.

Public service broadcasters (PSBs) are not exactly holy cows in this regard. Several journalists who are at top positions in various TV channels and other media organisations today are known to have joined Doordarshan when particular governments were in power and moved out as soon as their benefactor government fell. Two years back, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) had quashed appointment of 25 news-anchors and reporters posted at Doordarshan News, saying that allocation of marks in the interview of the candidates was done in an arbitrary and malafide manner. However, PSBs are accountable to the public at the end of the day and corruption in their recruitments can be unearthed and exposed without too much difficulty. But private TV channels’ have no such accountability and, therefore, it is nearly impossible to detect such anomalies there.

Media fiercely fights for self-regulation and freedom from even a remote semblance of government control. But should a public service like journalism be kept away from public scrutiny? After all, even in this era of rising corporate control of media, journalists still use terms like “your newspaper” and “your channel.” Shouldn’t an entity be held accountable to the entity in whose name it professes to operate? Gone are the days when journalism was one of the noblest professions and men of honour used to run newspapers. Today, the constraints on journalism are many. The institution of the Editor has been massively subverted by the proprietor. Many editors too have fallen to the charms that come to you once you throw the code of ethics out of the newsroom’s window. It is hard to envisage how the sector would make itself more transparent, but if it has to retain its credibility among the public at large, it must find out ways to. One might like to add a note of caution for the media here. There isn’t enough awareness about the fact that under the RTI Act, definition of a "public authority" includes any authority or body that is substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the Government. If one looks at the money that private TV channels make by airing advertisements of Central/State governments and their various agencies, many of them may be liable to answer RTI queries about the way they go about their business. So wouldn’t it be advisable to pay a little more attention to concerns of transparency voluntarily before the public starts demanding it?

The call recently given by the CPI, CPI(M), BJP and DMK to introduce a collegium system for the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and Comptroller and Auditor General has a lesson for this sector. The essential argument is that appointments to offices in whom public reposes its trust must evoke confidence among the people and must not be vulnerable to manipulation and partisanship. This must apply to journalists too since crores of common men and women repose their trust in what their favourite newspaper or favourite TV channel tells them every morning.

Charu Kartikeya