Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No room for gifts in journalism

By Abhay Vaidya

I entered the profession in Pune in 1987, after my journalism degree from the University of Pune's Department of Communication and Journalism (popularly know as “Ranade Institute”).

Almost every single Press Conference (PC) then concluded with a “gift-giving ceremony”, during which the organisers would hand each journalist a gift-wrapped box. It would mostly be a costly pen. Sometimes, the gifts would be far more expensive – a clock, a wrist-watch, digital organiser or some such thing – depending on whether the PC was organised by some business entity.

It would sadden some of us immensely when poorly-funded NGOs or labour unions, calling a PC about some wage dispute, also succumbed to this practice of giving gifts to journalists, on the advice of their PR consultants.

There were some of us who were extremely uncomfortable with this convention. It would often be a nuisance for us to refuse these gifts because the PR person and the PC organisers would plead with us to “accept their token of love and affection”. The usual practice was to take the gifts home or give them away to grateful peons at office, turn-by-turn, or, as one journalist did, give them to some charity.

One particular incident alarmed the Pune journalists, when this business of "the giving and taking of gifts" soiled the reputation of the entire fraternity. A small furniture dealer had called a PC, one afternoon. He was advised by some journalists to re-schedule the PC at night, after work, when things could be discussed “in a relaxed environment” (over drinks and dinner). The person obliged; the PC was a happy-happy affair with a lot of mirth and wise-cracks.

Then came the issue of the parting gift.

Someone in the room suggested that a raffle be held and that one of the revolving office chairs that the dealer was launching be given away as a gift to the winner. Everyone liked the idea and someone won the chair. There was then a murmur about others being left out so, finally, the dealer had chairs delivered to the homes of each of the journalists present at that PC.

Normally, evening PCs would have high attendance from anyone “posing” as a journalist, because of the drinks-dinner-gifts culture. At another PC, the organiser complained that a mini tape recorder had been stolen; the suspicion fell on someone “posing” as a journalist.

These two incidents, in particular, alarmed many journalists. A few of us in the executive committee of the Pune Union of Working Journalists (PUWJ) decided to call a meeting on the subject.

I vividly remember that meeting in the basement of the Savarkar Bhavan (near Bal Gandharva Rangmandir, Shivajinagar, Pune), because there was a heated discussion. Many of my seniors, such as the late Varunraj Bhide of Sakal; the late BM Purandare of the Times of India; Anand Agashe, currently Editor-Director of the Sakaal Media Group; Kiran Thakur, then Bureau Chief (UNI), and who recently retired as the Head of the Department from which I passed out; and others participated.

One group had then proposed that the PUWJ should not only ban press conferences after 9pm but also introduce a rule that no gifts should be distributed at PCs.

There was no unanimity on the subject and the meeting was inconclusive. The issue, however, became a talking point in Pune and Mumbai, because I ran a news-item about the PUWJ discussion in the Mumbai edition of The Times of India (there was no Pune edition then).

***

There are countless anecdotes of how low journalists can stoop to receive gifts.

PR firms and executives don't hesitate to give gift-vouchers or even cash in envelopes. One well known journalist in Delhi was not present for a PC, but wanted his gift and instructed the PR person to have it delivered.

In Mumbai, there are journalists who have tie-ups with pan-wallahs outside their offices so that they can deposit their gifts with them before entering their office building. I heard of some journalists in Mumbai enquiring about gifts being doled out and then deciding to attend PCs.

The issue of journalists accepting gifts has been discussed at the highest level in our profession, from time to time. I remember Arun Shourie calling for a comprehensive Code of Conduct for journalists.

I also recall an edit-page article by, I think, C. R. Irani in The Statesman. That article mentioned that during interviews for a business journalist, one candidate proposed that instead of receiving a salary, he would instead pay the company some amount for being appointed as a business journalist. In that article, which appeared in the mid-1990s, Irani estimated that a business journalist in Mumbai could make upto Rs.70,000/- per month through gifts and gift-cheques.

Sometime in the 1990s, The Times of India, where I worked for about 14 years in Pune and Washington DC, USA, introduced a "no-gifts policy" for their journalists. People coming with gift boxes, particularly during Diwali and New Year, are politely instructed by the security desk to take back the gifts.

The variety of PCs, I attended in Washington DC, USA, were conducted professionally and there was no gift-giving.

When the subject of gifts comes up, I fondly refer to my 1994 copy of The Washington Post Deskbook on Style which begins with a chapter on "Standards and Ethics" by one of the great gurus of journalism, Ben Bradlee.

Bradlee says it there: “We pay our own way. We accept no gifts from news sources…”

Gifts in journalism are a form of bribe and should be declined.

One can be fastidious about it, as is one of my colleagues, who refuses to accept even a pen, because he says journalism is the source of his livelihood, so he will not write with a pen gifted at a PC.

I have not been as fastidious as my friend and have accepted gifts on certain occasions, based on my judgement. On other occasions, I have given a return-gift in the form of a book, as I did with a politician who sent me two books of JRD Tata's letters and keynote speeches.

I remember the story of our former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam declining to accept an expensive crystal and mentioning how, as a child, he was taught by his father not to accept gifts that came with a purpose.

There is no room for gifts in journalism.

Abhay Vaidya,
Pune, 3 December 2008.

(Mr. Vaidya is currently Deputy Resident Editor of the Pune edition of DNA. His email ID is abhaypvaidya@gmail.com. His contribution was made, at my request, in response to queries raised by Smita Aggarwal and Amith Prabhu (see my post "Working one's way up and other queries" . I am grateful to him for sharing his experiences in his typical forthright manner - shorn of adjectives and adverbs; packed with facts. - Joe.)

11 comments:

Smita said...

Dear Sir,

Lovely to read Vaidya Sir's input on this. Just when I thought discussion had died on this rather uncomfortable topic, I get to read an extremely interesting, forthright and intrepid response.

It just reaffirms my faith in certain beliefs. I believe these discussions should make their way into media.
While we strive to report on everything under the sun and beyond, I wonder why we refrain from questioning practices in our profession. After all, our audiences/readers should also be given, if not an insight, at least a glimpse of behind-the-scenes in mediadom.

Joe Pinto, Pune said...

Hi Smita,

Abhay Vaidya referred to The Washington Post in his piece. I went to the Net and had a look at
their "Standards and Ethics". The link is at: http://www.asne.org/ideas/codes/washingtonpost.htm

The section is under "A. Conflict of Interest"

"This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible. We have adopted stringent policies on these issues, conscious that they may be more restrictive than is customary in the world of private business.
In particular:

"We pay our own way.

"We accept no gifts from news sources. We accept no free trips. We neither seek nor accept preferential treatment that might be rendered because of the positions we hold. Exceptions to the no-gift rule are few and obvious – invitations to meals, for example. Free admissions to any event that is not free to the public are prohibited. The only exception is for seats not sold to the public, as in a press box. Whenever possible, arrangements will be made to pay for such seats.

"We work for no one except The Washington Post without permission from supervisors. Many outside activities and jobs are incompatible with the proper performance of work on an independent newspaper. Connections with government are among the most objectionable. To avoid real or apparent conflicts of interest in the coverage of business and the financial markets, all members of the Business and Financial staff are required to disclose their financial holdings and investments to the assistant managing editor in charge of the section. The potential for conflict, however, is not limited to members of the Business and Financial staff. All reporters and editors, wherever they may work, are required to disclose to their department head any financial interests that might be in conflict or give the appearance of a conflict in their reporting or editing duties. Department heads will make their own financial disclosures to the managing editor.

"We freelance for no one and accept no speaking engagements without permission from department heads. Permission to freelance will be granted only if The Washington Post has no interest in the story and only if it is to appear in a medium that does not compete with The Post. It is important that no freelance assignments and no honoraria be accepted that might in any way be interpreted as disguised gratuities.

"We make every reasonable effort to be free of obligation to news sources and to special interests. We must be wary of entanglement with those whose positions render them likely to be subjects of journalistic interest and examination. Our private behavior as well as our professional behavior must not bring discredit to our profession or to The Post.

"We avoid active involvement in any partisan causes – politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations – that could compromise or seem to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly. Relatives cannot fairly be made subject to Post rules, but it should be recognized that their employment or their involvement in causes can at least appear to compromise our integrity. The business and professional ties of traditional family members or other members of your household must be disclosed to department heads."

Their entire Code is also interesting in its own right.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has its own site, where the "Codes of Ethics" of US papers have been compiled in one place. The link is: http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?ID=387

Thank you, Amith and Smita for raising this issue, in the first place.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto, Pune said...

Dear students,

Jeeja Purohit, one of my outstanding students from SIMC, Pune and currently a correspondent with the Associated Press (AP), and based in Pune, sent me this response:

*****

"That's a wonderful thought by Abhay. I agree with him entirely.

"It's not only gifts. Many from our profession not only accept gifts but avoid to pay the vehicle toll on the express-way between Pune and Mumbai, by showing their Press Cards and get many things done by using the TAG ...

"When we complain about politicians misusing their power ... we from this fraternity too should be extremely careful about each and every step that we take.

"We should avoid misusing our strength and utilise it for making our society a better place to live in ... Not only for us but for many generations to come ...

A thought-provoking article from Abhay ..."

signed - Jeeja Purohit.

*****

Please narrate your own experiences and give examples that you have witnessed. Write on the blog itself.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Amith Prabhu said...

Mr Abhay Vaidya's ' from the heart' notings on gifts is truly insightful and shocking.

It's good to note of efforts being made to abolish gifts.

I belive that everyone in the PR profession as well as those now in Corportae communications should make it a pact to stop this evil practice of gifts, which not only lowers the dignity of the reciever but of the giver as well.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Sir,
these are very candid inputs.

Can you, your friends and colleagues each write abt 100-150 words on their views abt the media coverage of the mumbai terror attacks. I really want to know what those from media think abt the TV coverage.. This blog would provide the ideal space for a collage of such viewpoints and start a lucid, much needed discussion about the media and censor.

Joe Pinto, Pune said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Pinto said...

At the request of Dr Vivek Pinto, my colleague from school and college in the Bombay of the late 1960s, I am posting his detailed comment to Abhay Vaidya's post.

*****

So much for pens ... and gifts.

The article by Abhay Vaidya, “No Room for Gifts in Journalism” (3 December 2008), hits the proverbial nail on the head. It is authentic.

What the giver of a gift to a journalist does is that in one stone, two birds are shot: the journalist and his article. In other words, the messenger and the message are bought. This is a way to manipulate the journalist and his/her writing.

The gifts are mere baubles or worthless objects, but sometimes they are not so. What is most difficult for a journalist to refuse is an invitation to a party, where drinks and dinner (not just any fare, but elaborate cuisine) are on the house and those invited are “inside sources” who are in reality well-placed persons in embassies, military, intelligence, and so on. Every budding and blossoming journalist should read Abhay's article between the lines.

Writing from the High Church of “gift-giving”, it is considered an offence to refuse a gift. Japanese businesses are notorious for this practice and woe to anyone who refuses. Such persons are ostracized. I write from experience, having been the foreign correspondent for a leading Indian weekly. However, I continue undaunted and am glad to pay the price. In fact, I wrote for the Indian weekly gratis (free of cost) as I was and still am interested in conveying to an Indian audience what goes on in Japanese society and how India interacts with it at all levels, from politics to nuclear energy and beyond.

Talking about hired or gifted pens, reminds me of a chief secretary to the Government of Madhya Pradesh, the late R.P. Noronha. He served for 10 years in this office, in two terms (1963-68 and 1972-74). When he retired, the late P.C. Sethi, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, begged him to return and be the chief secretary. Noronha politely took out his pen (in those days, pens were thick and ink-filled), showed it to the chief minister and said: “Sir, this is my pen and it will only write what I tell it to.” Sethi got the message.

I am quoting here from memory. The facts may be checked in his Tale Told by an Idiot (New Delhi: Vikas, c1976). I had the honor to meet and know Noronha when I worked with Kishore Bharati, a science-education NGO based in an M.P. village. What a giant of a man the late R.P. Noronha was, in terms of integrity, transparency, and sheer honesty! Some of these facts may be gleaned from the following link: http://www.mp.gov.in/mpacademy/noronha/trib1.html

So much for pens ... and gifts.

*****

Dr Vivek Pinto is a research fellow at the International Christian University, Tokyo and teaches history, religion, and philosophy. He also teaches English at a university as a part-time professor. He earned a doctorate in the U.S. and taught there for some time. Earlier, Dr Pinto worked for a few years at Kishore Bharati, a pioneering NGO in science education in a village in Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh. Kishore Bharati was founded by Anil Sadgopal, a molecular biologist at TIFR, who was disillusioned with the way science was taught in schools and with his own research work.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

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