Fourth Estate Is Now The Last Refuge of Third Rate People

By Sandeep Sahu

The best and the brightest have done it. Among those who have been accused of plagiarism in the recent past are such illustrious names as Farid Zakaria, celebrity host of CNN’s flagship foreign affairs show ‘Farid Zakaria GPS’ and our very own Aroon Purie, the editor-in-chief of the India Today group. So what is the big deal if some little known publication in Odisha lifts a write-up (two actually) already published elsewhere without so much as a ‘With your permission’? None, it would seem, going by the evidence available in the local media.

For the uninitiated, here is the background. While flipping through a magazine at a friend’s office last evening, this columnist was shocked to find one of his blogs published in this space reproduced – comma, full stop and semi colon – in its March issue. Only the headline was different and there was no mention of the author anywhere. A curious search found another blog – again written originally for odishatv.in – reproduced but this time with a couple of lines added at the beginning. The conversation that followed with the fellow journalist was revealing. Large sections of the media in Odisha apparently run on ‘Lift irrigation’ – as a friend put it rather creatively. The friend cited several such cases, including one in which a journalist had merely translated an edit page piece published in The Hindu and got it published under his byline in a leading Odia daily.

In the case mentioned above, the journalist at least took the trouble of translating something from an English newspaper. But the vast majority of those who survive, sustain and thrive on plagiarism do not even bother rewriting or at least doing some tinkering to make it appear something original. They obviously consider such an exercise a waste of time and energy. With the coming of the internet, there is no dearth of material that can be usurped and rebranded for free without the trouble of scouring through scores of publications in print. But what they forget is the same internet that provides them an endless stream of ‘liftable’ material also exposes them to the risk of being caught out sooner or later.

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One of the reasons plagiarism has become a thriving industry is the fact that there are far too many people without the capacity for original thinking or expression who have strayed into the profession for reasons that vary from acquiring clout to pretensions of being an ‘intellectual’ to downright blackmail. And going by available evidence, they are not doing badly.  Many of them are actually flourishing and are living a lifestyle that can be the envy of others while the genuinely capable and talented writers find it tough to get a forum to express their thoughts.

While it is reprehensible, plagiarism is actually the least of the problems that bedevil the media. A much bigger problem is political propagandists, fixers and rank charlatans masquerading as journalists. They fix everything from tenders to transfers/postings, do the bidding of the political party or politician and look after the interests and public relations of business houses – all for a price, of course.

In the early days of his career as a journalist, this columnist had heard a story about a legendary editor-politician that has now become part of media folklore in Odisha. After interviewing a young man for a reporter’s job, the celebrated Editor apparently told him; “You are hired on a monthly salary of Rs 700. You will get Rs 200 from the office every month.” Puzzled, the young aspiring journalist asked; “And what about the rest Rs 500?” Pat came the reply from the Editor; “If you don’t know where to get the rest Rs 500 from, you have no business getting into journalism.”

The story may well be apocryphal. But it certainly gives a fair idea of the state of affairs in the Odisha media. And the worrying part is things have only changed for the worse in the three decades since this writer heard the story. An overwhelming majority of journalists – especially reporters on the ground – get a pittance or nothing at all by way of remuneration, leaving them with little choice but to join the ever expanding band of scribes who earn their living through dubious means. Then there are those who jump headlong into the profession without any love for it and with the express intention of earning a fast buck. There are still others who have tried out other things, including getting a job, and have failed miserably before taking the plunge. The fact that journalism is one of the few professions that do not require a degree or an entrance examination to get in certainly helps. Even if it does, one can always get hold of a moneybag and launch a publication to acquire the identity of a journalist and all the attendant benefits that come with it!

The profession that has got the rather exalted sobriquet ‘Fourth Estate’ has, alas, become the last refuge of third rate people.