What ails business journalism

By A. S. Panneerselvan

The Hindu

Gavin MacFadyen, an inspiring investigative journalist and an excellent teacher, succumbed to lung cancer on October 22. Some of his major investigations include nuclear proliferation, the torture of political prisoners in Turkey and Bolivia, U.K. industrial accidents, the history of the Central Intelligence Agency, Guyana election fraud, sanctions-busting and the Iraq arms trade, Frank Sinatra and the mafia, and the Diamond Empire. He founded the Centre for Investigative Journalism, which is housed at Goldsmiths, University of London.

MacFadyen came to Chennai last December to devise a module on investigative journalism for the Asian College of Journalism. His zest and commitment gave him the courage to take up much more than any other professional journalism teacher. ACJ’s investigative journalism module was one among his many works in progress. A recurring theme during our 15-month interaction was the need to empower business journalism. “Follow the money is the oft-quoted idea of investigative journalism. Unfortunately, journalism is not adequately following this principle. A close scrutiny of the corporate sector, from where the big money flows, is just not happening. The U.S. media, despite having some of the best-trained financial journalists and resources, did not detect the sub-prime crisis till the housing bubble burst. Indian media should not fall into that trap,” he said.

Tensions within the Tata Group

The disheartening fact, which became evident two days after his death, was that the Indian media had already fallen into that trap. On October 24 evening, a wire copy from the Press Trust of India read: “In a dramatic development that took the corporates and others by surprise, Cyrus Mistry was today sacked as Chairman of Tata Sons and was replaced by Ratan Tata, from whom he had taken over the reins of the over USD 100 billion salt-to-software conglomerate four years ago.”

It was dramatic news but was it really surprising is the question. A careful reading of the Economist story, “Mistry’s elephant” (September 24, 2016), reveals the tension within the Tata Group. The British magazine had documented the loss-making ventures, the legal dispute with the Japanese telecom company NTT DoCoMo, and the differing style and powers wielded by Mr. Tata and Mr. Mistry a month before the PTI copy landed. The concluding sentences of that story clearly established that things were not hunky-dory: “Mr. Mistry has shown some signs that he knows what needs to be done. For the moment, however, he appears dangerously content just to sit atop what has grown into an impressive but lumbering pachyderm.”

The cadre of Indian business journalists has grown with the Indian economy since the 1991 liberalisation. We have more than two dozen specialised media outlets — newspapers, television channels, magazines and websites — exclusively to cover business. This is in addition to the business desks in almost every newspaper worth its name. Yet we do not have a credible answer to this question: how did these professional reporters, who were trained to keep their ears to the ground and their eyes on the balance sheets, fail to detect the rumblings at Bombay House, the seat of the Tatas? In 1992, it was business journalists who broke the Harshad Mehta story. By the time the energy giant Enron filed for bankruptcy in December 2001, they seemed to have lost their ability to detect the early shifts of tectonic plates that create corporate tremors.

Reporting corporate affairs

Two changes in methods in news gathering are largely responsible for this erosion in the ability to sense and report corporate affairs. The first is the way corporate reporting distinguished itself from political reporting. No one is surprised to read about the war of attrition between Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav. The tension within the Samajwadi Party has been documented for well over five years. Political reporting was not mediated through a network of Public Relations professionals, but remains a product of the direct interaction between journalists and politicians.

However, in the case of corporate reporting, direct interaction between the top honchos and the media is limited. The corporates came up with PR agencies for gatekeeping, and business journalists permit them to wield power in regulating the discussion between reporters and business leaders. The biggest nightmare for any journalist is the fear of losing access, which corporates and the PR industry capitalised on.

The second impediment flowed from the growth of the business news industry, which resulted in proliferation rather than plurality of content. With the emergence of 24×7 platforms, the model of business reporting moved away from the sponge-like structure that absorbed various strands by talking to decision-makers to a room of multiple mirrors. It could only see and hear the same story. Social media, with its trend metrics and analytics, further created a peer compliance that robbed them of the ability to look at issues individually. In this environment, the scope for doing something original and path-breaking is limited. Business journalists cannot afford to postpone a critical re-evaluation of their working.

This column was originally published in The Hindu on 31 October 2016.

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