Even as the sight of righteously indignant editors and senior journalists fills our television screens and social media feed, complete with text-based graphics of the clichés they have spouted about coming together against a draconian authority, as angry tweets from righteously indignant anchors and reporters are retweeted and blogs and posts shared, one can’t help but wonder where the righteous indignation is in the newsroom.
As usual, Arun Shourie has been co-opted by the editors to star in the proceedings. As usual, he made excellent points.
But, let us take a look the faces behind him and before him. Let us take a look at him.
Can the media really play the role of opposition to whichever party is in power when so many among the editors and senior journalists are politicians or former politicians or aspiring politicians, the offspring of politicians, the spouses of politicians, or close friends of politicians?
It is typical of journalists, when they reach middle- or late middle-age to pen their memoirs, giving us insights into the lives they have led and the lives they have witnessed, the stories they did not or could not write when the subjects of those were alive or when a different government was in power. None of these has failed to underline how the author rose to a position of prominence and was “respected” by politicians – usually from a particular party. And however critical they may have become of their former friends in later years, one has reason to think the stories they wrote at the time were not quite so “free”.
There are journalists who pride themselves on holding views contrary to those of their politician parents or politician spouses. You may see them interviewing their parents or spouses on prime time shows, carefully addressing them as “sir” or “madam”, in a show of professionalism. It is true, perhaps, that one ought to have a right to be a journalist irrespective of the profession of one’s immediate family members. But it is undeniable that there is a conflict of interest. Can one be truly unbiased while investigating one’s family? Should a journalist be allowed to cover politics when s/he is of political pedigree? Should a politician be interviewed by a family member when there are other options available? It is about as ridiculous as a teacher correcting his offspring’s examination papers.
There are major problems across newsrooms, across media, in the way news is gathered, reported, and perceived.
I have worked in radio, television, online and print media, and I have always found it to be the case that news organisations with big budgets had political allegiances and business interests which they were obliged to humour; and those who did not have such allegiances could not find budgets to fund truly investigative stories. When the resources were limited, the money went into grabbing eyeballs, not exploring human interest issues.
There is not a single national newspaper which can claim to have no bias at either the state or central level across editions.
The fault lies with editors – with editors who believe they are mentors and guides bestowing their wisdom on a younger generation of journalists.
The fault also lies with journalists, most of whom are shamefully lazy even as students. You could ask a journalism class to do a sample interview, and bet that most of the students will return with interviews with street vendors within walking distance of their campuses – provided, of course, they haven’t interviewed the security guards, cleaners, peons, a faculty member, a classmate, or their own relatives.
An example of the laziness that is so pervasive in the institution of the press was in evidence when the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was hospitalised. Over two and a half months, I would read the same stories in four different newspapers – one day, it was a fan who had lost the use of his legs, but had promised to crawl up to the shrine of a hill temple if Jayalalithaa were to recover; another day, it was an MGR lookalike who had shown up in costume. While newspapers have little hesitation in using agency news at any other time, they had all their human resources stationed at the hospital waiting for news that was not being given. Rapes, robberies, and farmer suicides were slotted into little paragraphs between pictures of the lookalikes and the physically challenged fans. Reporters would hint at “sources” revealing a great deal “off the record”.
There is no phrase that annoys me more in a press report. If something is “off the record”, for all practical purposes it did not happen. If a journalist cannot get a person to speak on record, the person has not spoken. Earlier, when someone told you something “off the record”, you had to find the means to confirm it for yourself; it was valuable information, sometimes with a hint at the direction the reporter’s investigation should take to find proof. But, now, I see the phrase used increasingly in the same way school students say they “attempted a question”, and so deserve “grace marks”. It essentially means the journalist tried (not too hard) and failed at his assignment.
And yet, this phrase has begun to appear regularly in news reports – a correspondent’s attempt to convince the readers and bosses that s/he deserves some credit for having been trusted with important, secret information. Well, congratulations. You would make an excellent press secretary/spin doctor for your “source”. In a news report, though, it is as weak an argument as “X did not respond to repeated requests for comments.”
Yet another trend in the press – if a trend can last decades – is the popularity of the “Exclusive” and “Impact” tags.
The fact is that the press has become a business. Good investigative journalism has been replaced by “sting operations”. Analysis has been replaced by shouting matches. The merit of a story lies in whether it “goes viral”.
And when one is popular enough, s/he can get away with promising to help out a lobbyist.
We do need to stand for freedom of speech.
But it is hypocrisy to pretend that the press has upheld it, or even put it to good use.
It is also hypocrisy to pretend a media crackdown is unprecedented – most governments at the state and centre have clamped down on the media at various times, and the press has not done enough to fight it.