Unspun recently had a very depressing conversation with a senior Indonesian journalist.
The conversation started when Unspun asked the editor of a large newspaper, let’s call him NK, what it would take to get journalists to dig below the surface in a case that has all the elements of a good story – a rich conglomerate tycoon, abuse of power, abuse of the institutions of State, bribery, corruption.
The story, or parts of it, has been in the news because of a well-publicized case involving a top business executive being caught red handed. All indicators, to anyone with even rudimentary powers of inference, point to a tycoon behind everything.
Yet, the media, even the established ones, aren’t interested in covering the story apart from what’s happening in the surface.
“This is insane,” said Unspun. “Here you have, a businessman so powerful and corrupt that he is using the institutions of State to force the business outcome he wants in his dispute with another group. This is the story of how an individual can hijack the state to do his own bidding. Why is no one interested to dig deeper?”
“Well,” said NK. “You have to understand that the papers these days do not have the manpower to do this.
“They are not doing well financially and cannot hire quality reporters. Also there is no one to do the investigation.”
“No one? How can that be?” asked Unspun incredulously.
“No one he said,” a pained expression crossing his face because he felt strongly about journalism and what it can do too. “First off there is not enough people around. Not enough journalists.
“Secondly, there are very few quality journalists who are able to do any type of investigative journalism. Those who used to do it have moved on and there are very few of them left.
“The result is tha the papers have only the resources to chase the issue for the day or the week. Any older issues get left behind and forgotten. Then when the next issue breaks, they divert all their resources to chasing the new issue,” said NK.
“How has this come to pass?” asked Unspun.
NK explained that the deterioration in quality journalism, what there was of it, began when the conglomerates took over the media. These days most of the papers and TV stations are controlled either by the MNC Group, the Jawa Pos Group, the Gramedia Group, the Lippo Group or other businesses.
“They have no interest in quality journalism,” said NK. “All they want is either to make money from their media or to wield influence by controlling the coverage of their media.”
The only hope, he said, lies with the more reputable papers like Tempo and Kompas. But Tempo’s been experiencing flat revenue growth so does not have much money to spend o hiring and training quality reporters. And Kompas has chosen to be extra careful over everything. So we have nothing.
“If someone or some business feels that they have gotten a raw deal by the courts, the police or any other state institutions they are on their own. They shouldn’t expect the Press to play its role as a watchdog of society,” said NK.
“This is sad and ironic,” he added. “Indonesia has all the freedoms that the Press could want but we are not making use of this freedom.”
Unspun was depressed in the drive home.