There are journalists who will not accept a box of chocolates during Christmas, there are others who will accept houses as gifts.

Voices Thursday, June 05, 2014 - 05:30
By Chitra Subramaniam Tony Benn (Labour Party, United Kingdom) died this week at the age of 88. Those who may not know about him and what he represented can read his obituary here. Read- Veteran leftwing Labour politician who went from being 'the most dangerous man in Britain' to a national radical treasure. Benn asked powerful people five questions. 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 was speaking about politics, but I think those of us who work as journalists in India and bring some experience to this field have the dual responsibility of securing what we have collectively achieved and clearing new space for the next generation. “Only democracy gives us that right. That’s why no one with power likes democracy and that’s why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it, including you and me, here and now.” Benn said. Journalism is a public good, like public health. You can work in a private hospital or a publicly funded news organization, but your standards cannot differ, rather, they must not. That should be the ambition, the bottom-line. Just like a butcher knows where the meat is bad, a journalist knows when a line has been crossed. It’s as simple as that. A journalist knows when restraint has to be exercised just like a public health professional knows the dangers of raising false alarms. A rule of thumb – people who spread panic and fear are rarely the ones who face the consequences of their actions. Those who have seen battle don’t rabble-rouse. Democracy is an acquired-taste where the acquiring is as important as the tasting and preserving. Politicians don’t like too much democracy and they constantly work to cut corners. It is our job to call them out, every time, all the time. As India votes, journalism and journalists are under severe scrutiny in the country. Their role in nation and institution building is on the radar as never before. For me, this is a blessing as I see it as a moment to take stock, course-correct and pull back. We have erred heavily not on the side of caution but on the side of carelessness at the very least and connivance at its worst and political interests and lobbies have hemmed us in as it their wont. Yes, there are journalists in India today who crossed that line that destroys the standard – our standard. Once you commit a small professional indiscretion, the next and bigger ones are par for the course. There are journalists who will not accept a box of chocolates during Christmas, there are others who will accept houses as gifts, stock-options as personal incentives and foreign education for their children at the queen’s expense. It’s a slippery slope from there to smearing the editorial room and the entire professions with false and speculative fears and imaginary enemies till people can no longer tell the difference between hospitality and hospitals, service and servility, news and advertising. Politicians are expected to be economical with the truth. That is their job. And it is the job of journalists to ask Benn’s five questions everyday of themselves and those they question. Democracy is not a given and history, recent history, is replete with examples of how fragile liberties we take for granted can be. History is also full of where journalists failed individually and together to secure what we value most – freedom. Defeated and retreating armies, not journalists, slash and burn everything as they head home. Our primary job is a public service – to report with honesty and integrity to the best of our knowledge and ability, without fear or favour. Journalists in India who say all newspapers crawled during the state of Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi are dishonest. The Indian Express of Ramnath Goenka, The Statesman, Tughlaq and many smaller publications can nail that lie. And that was before internet. Journalists who fan fears of an impending Emergency-like situation must answer Ben’s five questions beginning with asking themselves whose interests they serve by propagating falsehoods? Where did they get their power from, to whom are they accountable and if they allowed their ship of standards to sail to several shores, what right do they have to smear all of us with the same brush? In today’s India if we, journalists hold together and protect our space, neither Modi nor Kejriwal can seriously meddle with journalism and journalists.. After threatening to throw us in jail, amnesia struck Kejriwal and he withdrew his ludicrous comment. That nobody speaks about Rahul Gandhi, whose grandmother threw journalists in jail and whose father Rajiv Gandhi tried to gag the press in 1989 at the height of the Bofors investigations, speaks volumes about vested fears and speculative interests of those who say Modi or Kejriwal will hem the press in. India has the wherewithal to fight back and I speak from personal experience. Journalism is a skill. You hone it as you go along. You can never tell in the beginning if the story you are working on is going to bring down a government or change a policy, but if you begin at the other end of the stick, you are in the wrong job. Understanding the potential and more importantly, the probability that you may be working on something important requires patience, skill, rigour and humility with a sprinkling of a nez. It’s not just cooking that requires a nose – journalism, public health, banking, for example respect intuition. In his book “The Return of Depression Economics” (and the crisis of 2008), Nobel laureate and economist Paul Krugman tells a story which holds an interesting lessons for us, journalists. Modern banking he says is believed to have originated with goldsmiths who primary job was to make jewelry but who developed a profitable side business of keeping other people’s coins in their safes. At some point, few of them discovered they could make their side business as keepers of coins lending the coins in their care for an interest. They could get into serious trouble if all the owners of the coins asked for their pieces on the same day at the same time. But what the goldsmiths realized, says Krugman, is that the law of averages made that probability very unlikely. The chapter where this is discussed is called Banking in the Shadows and Krugman says a large part of modern banking is de facto. Shadow journalism will not stand up to scrutiny. Journalism will. We, the journalists, have got here all by ourselves, with our eyes wide open. If we can get here, we can find our way back, like adults, without tempers and tantrums. Remember, primary sources are critical, at least two independent sources per story, never assume anything, fact-check, not cheque… 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.
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