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Hyenas!

Journalists, members of the hallowed fourth estate, make a living out of junkets and free lunches. Dancewithshadows plumbs the dirty depths and brings out the filth.

BY OUR NEWS EDITOR 

The honest correspondent had been painstakingly working his sources, extracting stories out of the most uptight CEOs and making ends meet as a hack with the 'hip' designation of an IT correspondent with a business newspaper. Over the years, he had built up some reputation of being a diligent reporter and one who had come up from the bottom. So when a Finland-based cellphone major invited the newspaper for a sponsored visit to its headquarters, we thought he would be the one the publishers will depute to go and cover the event.

But there were other hyenas on the prowl. The correspondent's superior, who had been hungering for an overseas holiday grabbed the offer with both hands. The tech correspondent meekly went back to his job, when the superior, who had never been miles around a tech company's premises holidayed abroad in colder climes, on official duty, all expense paid trip. He came back after a couple of weeks and distributed chocs. When no one was looking, I threw them in the waste bin.

Welcome to the shady world of greedy journalists who live on junkets, live off their sponsors. For the uninitiated, well, journalists, as a creed, thrive on free lunches. So much so that many journalists are trained to believe that its is their God-given "right" to demand and extract free lunches. They believe that they have to be taken around, fed, clothed, accommodated, and supplied with gifts and liquor. This is why many of them have come to the profession in the first place. After his first sponsored holiday, err.. junket abroad, a friend of mine remarked with a lot of self-satisfaction: "Finally, there has been some use for joining this shitty place." I haven't asked many junketeers for their comments on their workplaces which arranged similar trips for them, but I don't think the reactions would be much different.

When I was a novice journalist unaware of the wicked ways of smart junketeers, I used to be amazed at the frequency with which some of my seniors would go on joyrides abroad, with full attendance, and come back with boxes of chocolates and bagfuls of tales. Initially, I shared the chocs and the jokes. It took long to figure out the wheels within wheels.

Corruption and gratitude are built into the junketeering system. Almost every journalist you bump into can be seen sneaking around the production section of his office pushing minor company announcements and PR notices which no one but the company's PR department is interested in. But these do find their way into the paper. This is
usually the journalist's quid pro quo to keep the source (Usually PR-Corporate communication people) happy so that when the next good thing comes along, they would know whom to call.

The sports section of a newspaper is the junketeers' paradise. Walk into the sports section of any leading newspaper on any given day and you will be surprised if all the sports reporters are in town. Since sporting events are transnational, the sports reporters are the biggest frequent fliers in the publishing industry. Ask the sports
bureau chief (if he is not already holidaying) where his staffers are, and most probably he will rattle out names in Australia, UK, Sri Lanka etc etc. Most of these are sponsored trips. By sponsored, I mean the corporate sponsors; the publishers seldom bother to send their staffers on paid trips. if you are an aspiring journalist and have
junkets in mind, this is the place to be.

Automobile journalists are another. Since many of the automobile firms in India are either foreign-owned (Hyundai, Honda, Suzuki) or have JVs with foreign firms (Hero Honda, Kinetic) those who have done the good deed for them get their rewards in the form of frequent foreign trips. Opportunities present themselves in the form of Formula One racing, car launches, Auto Shows and the like.

There is another little-known section of junkets which journalists are internally famous for. These are the sponsored scholarships, the most notable among tem being the Chevening scholarship. This is a route taken, usually by the big shots in an organisation, to have a 3 or 6 month British vacation under the pretext of "studies". A leading
Delhi-based business newspaper in the past three - four years sent its Regional Editor, Resident Editor, Technology Editor and Corporate Bureau chief abroad for the Chevening scholarships.

You may wonder what is wrong in doing a paid scholarship programme abroad. That's only part of the story. First, whenever opportunities for free holidays arise, eyes light up in the conference room and you can make out from their faces who has cornered what. Usually, the top leadership divides the spoils among themselves or hand down the favour to members of their charmed circle. The leadership usually keeps the best ones for themselves (Las Vegas, Hollywood, Paris, Scandinavia) while the chamchas get the leftovers (Indonesia,Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia..)


In the newspaper mentioned above, immediately after she returned, the Corporate Bureau chief resigned and joined another organisation, leveraging the British certificate. The Technology Editor split with his Editor and quit. The Resident Editor tried to make better use of his time by hooking up with a female colleague from another paper and was rebuffed. The Regional Editor extended his British stay under the pretext of doing an "internship".

Many journalists are shameless enough to periodically remind their bosses that they haven't been "anywhere" for a long time. The bosses, equally shameless, usually reply that "neither have I." The best chamcha gets the cake. Dishing out such favours and grabbing them are fine arts perfected by junketeers. Even the small fry usually get
their share of sponsored trips, be it site visits, factory inspections, product launches in exotic locales and such. If not Paris, Pune will do, feels the junket journo.

Several times, I have felt that the practice of newspapers allowing, and sometimes encouraging their hacks to go on junkets is akin to restaurant waiters collecting tips. It is almost acknowledged and accepted as part of the salary package. Just as waiters in star hotels earn by way of handouts more than the publishers of Dancewithshadows.com do, junketeer journalists in newspaper business extract more out of their corporate sponsors than their newspapers.

You could say that there are some sour grapes involved here, which is true. When I was a young journalist, I happened to come across a CNN programme called CNN Young Enterprising Journalists training or something similar. The newspaper had to recommend your name to CNN who would train you abroad. I was attracted by the tag. By journalistic standards, I was the youngest and the senior most in my department. Their requirement matched my profile. I refused to pull strings and push my case. The recommendation went in favour of a leading chamcha, who was less young and more mediocre. The publisher gladly recommended his name. He proudly displays CNN in his biodata now.

Editors usually are very sympathetic and understanding to the junket requirements of their staffers. They know that junkets are almost food and water for a journalist. Several times, I have heard senior editors remarking, "Let's give this trip to him, he hasn't been anywhere." The editor grew up the same way. Hence the empathy.

The superior mentioned at the beginning of the story is still on his trips. The latest came when an invite landed from a Las Vegas based infotech company. Though he couldn't tell a notepad from a keypad, he jumped in to "cover" the event, shooing away waiting hoardes of infotech correspondents and bureau chiefs. Soon, he was on his way to casino country. We don't know what he covered. Whatever, he brought back chocolates which everyone ate. The infotech correspondents don't have to worry. Their turn will come. If not Paris, Pune.

BY OUR NEWS EDITOR


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