In the last ten years, especially the last five, journalism in India has descended to new depths of irresponsibility.

Voices Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
By Chitra Subramaniam There is not a single government in the world that is not wary of journalists. That is the way it should be – a journalists’ job is to question, challenge and clarify. There are media-friendly and media-averse politicians and bureaucrats everywhere. Officials usually understand the value of cultivating journalists as fellow travelers. Some don’t, but they are the aberration.  There is not a single journalist or media organization in the world that is always happy with the government in place. That is the way it should be – governments are expected to stumble and journalists are expected to write about it. Many journalists can tell a story from a plant. Some cannot and they are aberrations too.  In the last ten years, especially the last five, journalism in India has descended to new depths of irresponsibility. Television has a major role to play in this dumbing-down, so the return back to any type of normalcy in the medium will be strenuous, if not impossible in some cases. Individuals have become more important than stories, and whenever a journalist has done good work, gangs of doubters from the profession have rushed in to destroy not just the story but also the reporter. Talking about a possible gagging of the press itself became a show-stopper, stopping all information from reaching the public. People have a very low opinion of journalism and media persons in India now, second only to politicians in the country. The profession has lost self-respect and looks upon all else with suspicion and fear including fear of being found out. Like almost every sector in India, the media needs to straighten itself out. Some of us in the media got entangled with opinions and views that were scornful and gangs of opinion and thought leaders often behaved like gangsters eager to spoil discussions and debates egged on by reporters and smooth talkers. Self-absorbed and shrill, the media largely missed the Modi story as the man from Gujarat built and developed his own lines of conversation and communication with a people who were interested in listening without being judged and engaged without being derided. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in power for less than two weeks now. His ride to the country’s top job divided the Indian media along many lines, some real and others manufactured.  Here are five things the media has to be aware of in the coming months and years. Modi Will Gag the Media We don’t know. The government has asked ministers not to speak to the press unnecessarily and a system is being set in place through spokespeople either of the ministry or the government. This is a tall order in a political culture where gossip, innuendo and lies ruled the roost and ratings. Accuse today, retract tomorrow is not journalism. Slander for a week and say sorry for a minute is not journalism.  There are also reports that journalists are not allowed to take in their mobile phones, tape-recorders and cameras when they meet officials. There are two aspects to this. One is security – ours is a bloody subcontinent where there have been assassinations and deaths due to remote devices and bombs. It is normal to subject all materials to a check – corporate offices the world over do this. I would be surprised if cameras and tape-recorders which are working tools for journalists are barred. Modi is supposed to have drawn attention to the Bangaru Laxman sting operation that saw a minister receive cash from people posing as journalists. Sex-workers were also used. That episode was a low-point in India journalism, one that seriously smeared the métier for years to come.  If security is one issue, stupidity must be the other. I have sat in on briefings and conferences where ministers and politicians have talked themselves silly on issues as sensitive as national security and economic surveillance. Many journalists have rushed to print or break on prime-time leading to a muddying of responsible discourse and debate.  Intellectuals have raised the bogey of the Emergency, comparing Indira Gandhi silencing the Indian press to what Modi will attempt. This is silly. First, Indira Gandhi was not entirely successful in her onslaught and papers like the Indian Express and The Statesman and some regional newspapers stood their ground. Secondly, in the age of the social media and mobility in a democracy, it will be impossible for any leader to gag the media for any length of time.  I have little doubt that responsible politicians and bureaucrats will find a responsible way to reach out to the media. I remain even more confident that responsible journalists will value, weigh and verify information they receive. For example, a background briefing is a background briefing – if rules are broken, the errant person must be expelled, not the rule. If the new dispensation results in a system of regular briefings and not gossip sessions, a course-correction would have begun. If it leads in any other direction, we have to hold together to do what is right.  The Media Will Gag Itself This is already happening and in my view, self-censorship and auto-censorship is a far greater danger to press freedom and transparency than absent tape recorders and telephones. For the past decade, stories that have been suppressed far outnumber those that were run and libraries of media houses are littered with stories that were never told. India is among a handful of countries where editors have conferred on themselves titles of CEO and COO. In strict terms this means they are liable not just for bad stories but also for bad financial reporting and business practices. A CEO Editor told me he doesn’t care about compliance and has never read a company balance-sheet. The collusion in the media that ensures that some people and subjects are untouchable will have to be challenged from within failing which trust, credibility and confidence will emerge as constant victims of individual caprice and personal greed. A budding reporter who graduated from one of India’s top journalism schools told me she had never been to a press conference and the only instructions she had received was to be on time and take a pencil and a notepad.  There is no discussion in India about the separation of rights and responsibilities of the reporter and the proprietor. There is no respect in media houses for sources and even less curiosity about facts. Most journalists do not leave the new-room in search of stories and tend to repeat each other with television as the primary and secondary source. This is a form of auto-censorship that must be addressed with or without Narendra Modi.  The Office is Important The office of the Prime Minister is not the Prime Minister. It is not normal for spokespersons of political parties to appear on national television and say they are speaking in their personal capacity. For that there are tea parties and dinner parties. Wasting prime time spots to giggle and demean is an aberration of democracy. The Finance Minister cannot speak for the Health Minister or the Home Minister cannot speak for the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister can speak for the entire cabinet. Such is the responsibility of power. Till now there has been little or no discipline. Files disappear or are burnt and facts are few and far between. It is but normal that the introduction of order, any order, in this environment will be viewed with suspicion on all sides.  If a ministry has a spokesperson, it is that person’s job to be perfectly briefed.  Social Media – Friend or Foe?  We have all seen them in action. According to one set of numbers, urban India had 78 million social media users in June 2013 and that rose to 91 million by December 2013. Politicians, bureaucrats have taken to the social media with such zeal it makes the reporter redundant and makes reporting dangerous.  The very same people who criticize journalists for posting pictures of tragedy and death, send it pictures of death, drowning and rapes to news rooms making the job of a journalist rather difficult. In past months, we have seen everything from disaster journalism to ambulance chasing to people even sending selfies standing next to dead bodies.  There is another danger. Frequent tweets from the PM’s office or other ministers, mayors, governors are tweeting gives the impression that a lot of information is out there when actually the opposite can happen. In the past two weeks, there’s been a surfeit of tweets from ministers and mayors announcing a meeting, posting of a picture on facebook or simply going for a walk or a jog. This is not news and the challenge will be to work around this.  As a corollary The only way to beat around the twitter and selfies is to get out of the news room and develop beats. This is the hard part, but news gathering is at its between when footwork and curiosity combine to make the journalist walk that extra mile, read that report, pick up the phone and develop a story. Social media can change the speed with which information is transferred but it is not a substitute for work. Finally Good stories and good reporters will find each other. They always have. In fact the time to span out in India is now. In a 100 days, we should be writing stories about the first steps and slips of the new government, where has it done well, where the failures are coming from, why, when, where and how.  Chitra Subramaniam, The News Minute's Editor-in-chief, is a journalist most known for her reporting on Bofors. She has been a UN correspondent, reported on the Bosnian war, GATT-WTO, Arms Control, among other issues.