You do not become a journalist because you like money or power. Nor do you opt for this metier on the wings of narcissism. You become a journalist because somewhere deep down, you want to serve the underdog, people who have been left behind by the system, any system, all political parties. Society, economics, politics – you want to get under the machinery and beyond. There’s a twist, though. People you think you are defending may not share your view. They may think you are a clown, even a traitor. The right to be heard/read etc. has to be earned every day.
People whose concerns and issues we write about are our final arbiters. That one requirement alone makes it difficult to remain on the straight and narrow every day asking ourselves the question why are we here, what are we doing, are we helping or hindering. In a democracy, peoples’ rights are paramount, now amplified by the social media. If perception is important for a politician, it has become even more critical for the media. The edgy, demanding and largely responsible social media has changed the dynamics of the game.
This post is written against the backdrop of the Arnab Goswami and Barkha Dutt conversation. Goswami and Dutt are not the last word on Indian journalism - nor will these lines nor I be. Thank god for that. Dutt has every right to be piqued by Goswami’s recent comments even if he did not mention her or any other journalist by name. Turning the generic to the personal is a matter of individual appreciation. The call to deal sternly with pro-Pakistan elements and anti-nationals in Indian society came first from panellist John Dayal in the much-viewed and commented “Newshour” earlier this week – arraign, prosecute and jail were his terms. To this, Goswami added, if the said group includes some sections of the media, they must not be spared. There is also a stout invitation to the viewers to judge work of journalists and exercise their wisdom or lack of it.
Somewhere in this melee and personal egos, two issues are fighting for survival. One is good journalism itself and the other is trickier. The latter asks if it is okay for good journalists to be anti-national and if so, who decides, for whom and with what effect? Do journalists denounce their colleagues by name or is that the state’s duty. States will always snoop around for information.
I cannot write this piece impersonally or even unemotionally, so yes, I have views on all those issues and more. Let me begin with corruption, an issue I hold dear. The News Minute has zero tolerance for corruption. Money corruption leads to intellectual corruption, unethical and unprincipled journalistic practices. It vitiates newsrooms, it swallows the news.
In my view – and I believe my colleagues at TNM share this - good journalists must, per-force be anti-establishment and keep the tough questions coming and taxpayers’ money shining. You can also be anti-establishment and anti-national – that’s a choice too. You can be anti-establishment, anti-national and corrupt – intellectually and financially. There’s place for everyone out there. Only, don’t expect the final arbiter – people – to not ask questions. Today that question is just 140 characters away.
Responsibility and accountability are precursors to building trust in a democracy. On Thursday, the influential left-leaning French newspaper Le Monde announced it would not publish photographs of terrorists. It was a gesture of solidarity in a country that has been brought to its knees by terrorism. This did not mean the French press was gagged – it was a choice the newspaper made. The critical word is choice – the luxury and responsibility of choice. Personally, I welcome this choice and I am allowed to criticise you if you don’t see my point. That does not make me a guru and you a martyr. It just makes for two points of view – if you are seen as more rational or significant, your voice will find echo, also by choice, in the social media.
When I am stuck, and all good reporters have to make choices every instant, I ask of myself the five questions the late British politician Tony Benn asked:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?
He asked these of his political colleagues but I have asked these often of my colleagues in the media and repeat regularly. In the final analysis, what power do we have or do we? Can it be that the egos of a few people including in the media is being foisted on a nation as national interest or do journalists believe they are the doorkeepers of Indian journalism because of a certain political hue? Nothing can be more laughable.
Our fight should not be about who is pro-BJP, pro-Congress or pro-Trump. At stake is the holy grail of journalism – credibility. The government is veering towards seeing anti-establishment and anti-national in the same light. In this dangerous game, an already weakened journalist fraternity is being sucked into sophistry with large egos serving as springing boards.
Good and bad journalism is about daily choices and these choices are not about wearing a blue sock or a pink one – these are moral and ethical decisions reporters have to make every day, every minute and often under very difficult circumstances. Let us not pretend we are shocked at where we are today as a profession or why people have a low opinion of the media. We have allowed the vile and the venal, the corrupt, the stenographer, the unethical, the lobbyists, the unprincipled, the unverified and the greedy into our newsrooms. They have come to inhabit our homes and our social places in a continuum of sloth. In this world of lotus-eaters, access and accountability are one and the same – like ego and entry tickets.
The results are there for all to see. Journalism schools in India are largely marketing and public relations’ establishments where every now and then a star journalist holds a masterclass. Most students cannot tell a story from a staircase if it fell on them. There are no standards because we have failed to build a process beyond personalities. Lawyers, journalists, politicians and civil society – all are part of this incestuous system where talent is weak and proximity to power is primed. How can you have standards when you are frightened of them? Rather, why would you cut the branch you are sitting on?
Gag the media? Please let us not make fools of ourselves - people are watching. When we started The News Minute, we knew we did not want egocentric newsrooms that sucked air, spewed venom and killed talent. We are very much a reporters’ initiative. To all the stars out there feeling the unbearable burden of carrying good journalism on their shoulders we have a message – try some yoga.