As the readers’ editor, I use alternate obituaries to examine the critical issues facing journalism. When Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez died, I took the opportunity not only to celebrate journalism as a vocation, but also to stress the importance of using the right words. (> “When words fail”, April 21, 2014). I watched how the common good is the backbone of journalism to mark the untimely death of Bala Kailasam, a broadcast journalist. (“> Common good as the pivot of journalism”, August 18, 2014). I explored the limits of using information on the web to mark the death of the dean of Tamil magazine journalism, S. Balasubramanian. I would like to explore the idea of ââcheckbook journalism in my ombuds-obit in Vinod Mehta. I was office manager under his direction for the first seven years of Outlook.
Vinod led our team by example. Some of us were surprised to learn that he had agreed to pay for an interview with legendary actress Zohra Sehgal. Vinod asked us to wait for the publication of the interview before we could explain his reasoning. The interview, âA Nymph Named Zohra,â opened with an acknowledgment of payment. His fees were not too high, but not too small either. His argument: âI’m 85 and need to start saving for my funeral. Sunil Sethi, who did the interview, also mentioned in the article another episode where celebrity Lady Diana Cooper demanded a hundred pounds an hour for an interview. The English magazine that asked him to do the interview refused to pay, but asked him to get a quote from her instead. “Quote?” Lady Diana asked him. “Stop harassing me, young man, because I just gave you my quote.” “
Vinod came back to us with his reasons for paying Zohra Sehgal. First, the artist demanded payment for sharing her life and time, and the money she asked for was close to what the magazine paid its major contributors. Since the interview consisted mostly of his opinions, a first-person recollection, an author’s pay was not unfair. But the crucial lesson he told us to keep in mind was that paying for an interview is an exception, which confirmed the rule of don’t pay otherwise. âYou cannot pay politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, generals, businessmen, policy makers, lawyers, judges and any public office holder. This would amount to corruption and damage the public interest. It is a very delicate task to craft an exception that passes the public interest test. It needs solid editorial judgment. Exceptions should be rare and no exceptions can be made for the book cover at any cost, âhe said. Front of the book is a magazine understatement that covers everything from politics to economics, international relations to business, but excludes features. Returning to Zohra’s interview, he joked, “Don’t you think just two sentences from her -” How do you tear down every thread in a lifetime when you want to convey its texture. There is always the danger of tearing the fabric by mistake ‘- deserve to be paid for the extraordinary knowledge they offer on memory traps? This is what made Vinod such an interesting editor. His commitment to ethical journalism was second to none. But he was neither dogmatic nor doctrinaire.
The case of The girl from India
The reason we looked at checkbook journalism was not just due to Vinod’s passing, but the checkbook journalism controversy in the making of the documentary, The girl from India. The Hindu wanted to get the facts from filmmaker Leslee Udwin herself. In an interview with this newspaper, she said categorically: âI can tell you bluntly that we did not pay a rupee to anyone we interviewed. It is absolutely not true that Mukesh spoke in monosyllables and that therefore I filmed him in secret. From the start, he spoke fluently about himself and the conditions of detention. We never did a secret shoot. As a world famous producer who won a British Oscar, I would never do such a thing. There was no secret filming of Mukesh. We actually had to put a microphone on him.
Why do we need to know that no payment has been made, especially to interviewees, in this case? Peter Manning, former executive producer of “Four Corners” and former head of TV news and current affairs on both ABC and Seven Networks, recently wrote in The Guardian on how checkbook journalism blurs the line between news and infotainment by examining a range of ethical issues arising from the decision of Australian television networks, Seven and Nine, to offer hostages a six-figure charge from Sydney headquarters to appear in exclusive interviews. He wrote: âThe main objection is, indeed, ‘who pays the piper calls the melody.’ This puts the interviewee in a conflict of interest where they must meet the payer’s expectations, whether through truth, exaggeration or lies.
The Society of Professional Journalists has a detailed position paper on checkbook journalism. Checkbook journalism, supports the SPJ, undermines journalistic independence and integrity, and threatens the accuracy of information purchased. At a minimum, he recommends, news outlets that pay for an interview owe full disclosure to their audiences, as this would allow readers or viewers to gauge the credibility of this purchased information.