BETWEEN THE LINES – Quality of journalism

Jul 1 2016 - When l was studying in a journalism school abroad, l was told by my professor that a news story should be like a skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be attractive. Over the years, the story has assumed the shape of pontification and inevitably padded.

When senior journalists are kicking the bucket, the question that stares at us is what kind of journalism will be there in future. Of course, this is not confined only to India. All countries, whether in the West or the East – barring the totalitarian regimes – are asking the same question: which is the lakshman rekha (boundary) that journalists should not cross? Or should there be any lakshman rekha at all?

Individuals are increasingly posing the question about why journalists pry into their private affairs. Journalists in turn defend themselves on the grounds that if they didn’t probe, the skeletons would not come out of the closet. The government has a standard reply: some things cannot be disclosed in public interest. In this way, even big scandals are covered up.

I recall that when l wrote against the supersession of three Supreme Court judges, K.S. Hegde, A.N. Grover and J.M. Shelat, l was criticised by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who argued that journalism did not mean preaching about the “commitment” of judges. She did not elaborate what that “commitment” was. I can understand the judges’ commitment to the Constitution, but not to a person, however high their position might be.

What Mrs. Indira Gandhi was demanding from the judges was a commitment to follow her way of thinking. That is the reason she appointed Justice Ray, a junior judge in the Supreme Court, as the Chief Justice, ignoring the seniority of three others. She did not even inform them regarding this development beforehand. They heard the news on All India Radio.

This kind of political manipulation runs contrary to the transparency that a democratic system cherishes. Indeed the structure of democracy stands on the pillars of both the division and limitation of power. For example, the army does not interfere in the affairs of the government because it is a force under the civil administration. Some countries like Pakistan have gone under because the military, although it has recently gone back to the barracks, is still very active in the political proceedings.

Democracy expects all its wings to function independently, but in a way that allows sovereignty to stay with the people. It is another matter that rulers themselves become authoritarian and behave like the worst of the Mughal emperors. Those who ensure that democracy functions in the interest of the people are the judges who have the power to go into the pronouncements of the legislature. The debate about whether the judiciary or the executive is supreme is an ongoing discussion.

If there is criticism of what judges do, or even the manner in which the legislature functions, that comes from journalists. It is the duty of journalists to do so. If they are afraid of carrying out what is expected from them, it is unfortunate for the system.  I have experienced how during the Emergency – June 26 this year will be its 41st anniversary – the entire press industry caved in. Initially, there were protests and a large number of journalists – including editors – assembled at the Press Club in Delhi to pass a resolution that Press censorship, an integral part of the Emergency, was not acceptable to them. Yet, as days went by, fear gripped them and they became part of the system, even accepting the orders of Mrs. Gandhis’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, an extra constitutional authority.

I recall that as a member of the Press Council of India, I went to its then chairman, Justice Iyer, to urge him to summon a meeting of the Press Council, an apex body. I did not know by then that fear had also made him subservient. He told me there was no use of summoning a meeting of the Press Council because there would be no publicity about its proceedings. My argument was that if there were no protests then many years later, when the archives would be opened of this shameful chapter, there wouldn’t be any record about any protest by the Press Council, the journalists. He then reluctantly convened a meeting of the local Press Council members. To my horror, I saw in the white paper issued after the lifting of the Emergency that he had written to then Information Minister, V.C. Shukla, explaining how he (Justice Iyer) was able to stall the efforts by Kuldip Nayar to convene a meeting of the Press Council!

The same question about the independence of journalists comes before us again and again in different situations. And I find that increasingly, we, the journalists, are failing in the standards required from us. None of this has been helped by the new digital technology that promotes very short stories or sound bites. In fact, things have deteriorated to such an extent today that news columns can be bought. It is an open secret that several stories are nothing more than paid news. Some leading newspapers feel no shame in selling the space to whoever wants to buy it. For them, it is purely a question of revenue.

How low have we sunk from the heights that we once enjoyed? There was a time when we were able to bring before the public scandals, such as the Mundhra insurance scam during the time of Finance Minister T.T. Krishnachari. Jawaharlal Nehru, then the prime minister, forced him to resign from the cabinet. But even when I subsequently met TTK, he did not seem to realise the harm he had done to the polity.

India is oblivious to the privations of individuals. In contrast, the UK media has in the past been prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of innocent victims from different walks of life. For example, the Sunday Times, for which I was a stringer, is still remembered with affection and gratitude for the work it did on behalf of those parents whose children were born handicapped because of the Thalidomide drug prescribed to the patient. Public pressure eventually forced the drug manufacturing company to pay out the needed compensation. Can we emulate those examples today when our very integrity as journalists is being questioned, not to speak of the high standards we once followed?

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.  

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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