Every year, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the apex vigilance institution of India, observes the week in which the birthday of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel falls as Vigilance Awareness Week. The Commission had chosen “Integrity – a way of life” as this year’s theme.

Let us start this wonderful topic with an anecdote. An Emperor had commissioned a project to a group of artisans. He had ordered for an intricately designed place of worship. The grandeur, attention to detail and planning would be awe-inspiring. The imposing façade with the sanctum sanctorum would boast of delicate architecture, aesthetically designed porches, winding staircases, beautiful arches, frescoed walls and ornate murals.

While an aged artisan was engrossed in chiselling out the intricate designs at the top of an ornately designed column, far above the human eye could discern, a fellow sculptor cast an incredulous look and hollered, “Why bother to be so meticulous at such places where the Emperor and the people will never look? Let us do these areas without much seriousness. Rather, let us focus on areas where the Emperor will discern and for which we will be paid handsomely.” The wise old sculptor nodded disapprovingly and said, “It’s what you do and how you do that defines you. It doesn’t matter if there is no one to find your misdeeds later. You will paint a very bad picture of yourself in front of yourself. So, let us work without cutting corners”.

The message – virtue is its own reward – had its desired effect. Both craftsmen were soon seen chiselling sedulously at heights far above any pair of eyes would ever discern. That succinctly explains the essence of this theme – Integrity – a way of life – and what it means to me. The quality of being impeccably honest in the way we conduct ourselves in day-to-day dealings, come what may, is integrity. It is not just another word picked from the lexicon. It has immense profundity and can be appreciated only if we lead such a righteous path ourselves.

Otherwise, it will be lost on us. If we step back for a moment and try to assess the world we are inhabiting today, it would be absolutely disquieting to find that we have lost our moorings. We are struggling in the milieu of people, shuffling through, trying to make sense of a meaningful life. A meaningful life can be enjoyed only if it is driven along the path of integrity – if that becomes a way of life for us, i.e. it becomes our second nature. Sports finds wide appeal among people primarily because it provides entertainment and secondly, as it clearly establishes a winner and a loser.

In early years, a sport was played for fun. However, with the march of time, business interests have commodified sport and have sold it to the masses. The revenue streams generated by sports or individual matches is mind-numbing. Each stakeholder understands the winner generates further revenue. The primordial desire to be at centre stage has nudged many athletes to adopt unfair means. Failed dope tests and match-fixing have sullied sports. The FIFA scandal of 2015 had rocked the soccer world to its foundations. The Sandpapergate (infamous ball-tampering scandal by Australia where senior players – captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were accused of abetting and indulging in altering the texture of the ball to make it swing more, in the Third Test Match against South Africa in Cape Town) opened fresh lesions that could have sounded the death knell to three promising Australian cricketers.

Certain sporting cultures encourage players to win at any cost – in a bid to motivate athletes to perform their best. But it may be counterproductive. Scarred by such psychological attacks, players try to win at any cost. That defies the spirit of the game. We should realize that “the means are as important as the ends. The end does not justify the means”. Closer home, and beyond, we have seen athletes failing dope tests. These acts of turpitude call for certain measures – changing the sporting culture from a win-at-any-cost to healthy participation, skill development and character building; though it might seem quite challenging, it is certainly doable. Furthering integrity in sport should be targeted at the grassroot level.

Right from school or local clubs, students and athletes must be sensitized to the importance of honesty and the character-building role of sports. The role of integrity in education and research cannot be overstated. Education is a lifelong process that makes the learner a humble, responsible and more evolved individual. Knowledge is a virtue but deviants game the system to suit their needs. Science is a study based on empirical evidence. It helps take rational technical and managerial decisions. Relevant works are cited in subsequent research works as points of reference.

However, a recent study highlighted that about 90 per cent of past research work in a particular area of medical study could not be quoted as reference. Part of it was attributed to poor quality of work that had been undertaken earlier. The majority, however, quite surprisingly, was found to be deliberate misrepresentation of facts and figures to suit the researcher’s needs. Plagiarism is another scourge that has ravaged the trust people had in academia. There are instances where the findings of science and conservation theories are in direct conflict with vested economic interests. The integrity of those in power, whose interests are on the razor’s edge, is often severely compromised. The powers that be obfuscate or prevent the publication of such scientific findings. These people have no scruples about the deleterious effects their actions might have.

A case in point is the findings of a research team of a rare plant species that was last found in 1823. Instead of according the research team the media coverage it was entitled to, the findings were brushed under the carpet until a railway contract was awarded over the same patch of land where the plant species were found. We are living in an age of information (misinformation?). We have got accustomed to instant information from varied sources – the Internet, print media or others.

However, a big casualty of the tremendous surge of advances in technology is the authenticity and integrity of the news and those who generate such news. Advances in technology allow for the seamless manipulation of audio-visual content, while social media enables such doctored /false/fake/sensational news to be amplified to many of the gullible and receptive audiences. The gold standards of journalism are on the wane. The traditional media power houses (which relied mainly on advertising in the print media for their revenue) are increasingly facing challenges from digital content. What with sliding circulations, free online content and plummeting revenue collection from traditional channels, the newsroom faces an existential crisis – the baleful look of the investors, sponsors and advertisers further compounds the commercial pressures. As reports of “fake news” have been creating ripples around the world, editors of leading global publications wrapped their heads around the problem at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers – (Wan Infra), India Conference. The problems of integrity in the media industry, drying up of revenues and freedom of the press are symptomatic of a global malaise.

Warren Fernandez, the Editor-n-Chief of The Straits Times confessed, “Without a viable plan to sustain their newsrooms into the future, fervent debates on media freedoms will be academic discussions.” Clearly, these are worrying signs. Starved of editorial resources, print media gradually gravitates towards sensationalized information (a la yellow journalism) bordering on blasphemy. Disturbing as it may sound, it has indeed become increasingly difficult to identify genuine news from fake. Journalists, state and non-state actors will have no scruples about dropping the ethical and time-tested canons of journalism to further their cause of anarchy and misunderstanding.

Malicious gossip and lies will be peddled with such monstrous ferocity that the line between truth and falsehood will be obliterated. If things indeed come to such a pass, the quintessential essence of the Press and media as the Fourth Estate will be lost. Raising a banner of hope, Juan Senor, President of Innovative Media Consulting, contended at a symposium in May, “Fake news will save journalism. Declines in trust amid the welter of fake content will drive audiences to seek out credible voices for reliable content they can count on”.

To foster a healthy ecosystem in a democratic set-up, the role of the free and ethically sound press and media cannot be overstated. Governments must rise above the differences with the Opposition Benches and strive for the highest standards of the press. Without being partisan, the Government can establish incubators, encouraging local or promising publishers to come up with fearless journalism. Offering tax reliefs or other waivers may help media organizations tide over the difficult situation.

(The writer was formerly with TCS and now works for a major bank. The views expressed are personal.)