Op-Ed: When Does Gift Become ‘Graft’?

The flurry of gift-dispensing activity seen across Odisha on the occasion of Diwali revives the age old question: when does a ‘gift’ stop being a gift and become ‘illegal gratification’? This question, in turn, spawns a host of other related questions. What determines the nature of a gift – the price of the article, the identity of the giver/recipient or something else? Does a ‘gift’ always involve a quid pro quo? Can we dub anyone who accepts a gift – even something as innocuous as a box of sweets – as a ‘bribe-taker’?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. I, for one, have pondered over these questions for nearly as long as I have been in journalism and am yet to find answers to them. [Journalists, after all, are at the receiving end of ‘gifts’ more often than others!] The dilemma began even before I had made the transition from the desk to reporting at the beginning of the 1990s. For reasons that I can’t remember now, I was deputed on behalf of the newspaper I worked for at the time (‘Sun Times’) to attend a New Year eve bash at INS Chilika where we were treated to the best of wine and cuisine by our generous hosts. The hosts had also sent a car to pick me and a colleague up from Bhubaneswar and drop us back after the event. I must confess I was too elated at this rare ‘honour’ for a mere desk man being at an event normally reserved for the elite breed called ‘reporters’ to bother myself with such loaded questions on journalistic ethics. I enjoyed the hospitality to the hilt and, as they say, had a ‘whale of time’. But once the effect of alcohol wore off on return, a sense of guilt started gnawing the mind.

At the very first press conference I attended as a newbie reporter, I, like others in the presser, was given a nice little writing pad, a pen and a folder with the press release. There was the customary ‘high tea’ at the end of the presser. “Why are these people giving us writing pads and pens? Are we, as journalists, not supposed to carry them all the time? Don’t the tea and snacks that followed amount to bribe?” I remember wondering, innocent as I was of the ways of ‘field reporters’. In the end, I resolved the issue inside the mind telling myself; “This can’t be termed bribe since the hosts could not have expected that they would buy the loyalty of the reporters with a cup of tea and some snacks.”

But the dilemma only deepened as I spent more time in reporting. One evening, my wife, on her return from office, found a nice, double-spread Bombay Dyeing bed sheet at home and asked me where it came from. “I had gone to a cloth shop with a friend. Just liked this bed sheet and purchased it,” I lied pathetically – and my lie was caught in next to no time. After all, we did not even have a proper double bed at home at the time to justify the buying of a double bed sheet! The bed sheet was actually a ‘gift’ given to reporters at a press conference organized by a fishremen’s collective, of all organizations, earlier in the day. Feeling terribly guilty, I had politely declined to accept the gift, but the hosts would not have any of it. Nor would my fellow reporters, who literally forced me to accept it.

As the years rolled by, I became aware of other forms of ‘bribe giving’: the periodic ‘get-togethers’ organized by corporate houses or political parties/leaders (with or without an occasion), the mithai dabba or a consumer durable sent home as a Diwali gift, the ‘sponsored’, all-expenses-borne trips to an event or a plant site (Korean steel major Posco actually took a dozen and half journalists from Odisha on a trip to the country the company originated from a few years ago) .. you name it.

There are two parties involved in the ‘gift’ business: the giver and the taker. While the giver is rarely overcome by moral pangs, I wonder if they really expect to earn the loyalty of a journalist and to do their bidding for all time to come for a cup of tea, a few pegs of liquor or a sponsored trip to their factory site. I think the idea, at least for the giver, is more to ensure that the journalist does not write anything adverse against the hosts than to see that he writes something in their favour. After all, rare is the journalist, who would accept a gift and still write against the entity that bestowed it on him/her.

As for the recipient, s/he can invent all kinds of excuses to rationalize his acceptance of a gift. “A cup of tea and snacks can hardly be termed bribe.” “No self-respecting journalist would sell his soul so cheap as to dance to the tune of someone for a packet of sweets accepted as gift.” “I did accept the gift, but never shied away from writing against the company when required.” These are some of the excuses they conjure up to explain away their decision to accept a material gift.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, there are those – like this senior of mine – who would refuse to accept even due payment for professional work like taking a class in a journalism school or appearing in a panel discussion. This, I am afraid, is taking things to absurd lengths. After all, a journalist is a professional, not a philanthropist who should refuse to accept payment even for professional work.

Every journalist needs to take a call on where he should draw a line when it comes to accepting gifts. It is for the individual to decide whether s/he should decline to accept any gift – even if it is something as harmless as a cup of tea. The flip side of refusal is: it could be mistaken for arrogance or amount to discourtesy. But even when such a line is drawn, it is not always cast in stone. It keeps shifting as one progresses in career.

And the dilemma continues to linger!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)