Media On Trial
By Moin Qazi
The Supreme Court’s latest observation on the media has to be viewed in the right spirit by the journalists’ fraternity. A bench of CJI Misra, Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said, “We are sorry to say some journalists think as if they are sitting in the pulpit and can write anything. That is not journalistic independence or culture. They think they can get away with anything. That is not journalists’ right to freedom of speech and expression.”
Much is said about the excesses of the press. Despite media codes and press laws, partisan journalism continues to rule with an untrammeled pen. The press enjoys the widest freedom. Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion.
What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it doesn’t happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. A newspaper gives owner a potent form of soft power and can be a political weapon even if not wielded overtly.
The basic assumption that freedom of press is indispensable to offer to the public all points of view involved in public issues and to give a truthful account of events so that the reader may freely decide from his considered view on each issue is defeated if every newspaper gives a biased or coloured report of news and advocates only one of the solutions, namely, that advocated by the party or group which conducts that newspaper.
There is a tendency for journalists to become preachy. Some editors think they run the country, or at least set the agenda for the country. Walter Lippmann once wrote: “More newspapermen have been ruined by self-importance than liquor”. The most searing disapproval was uttered by a former English Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Talking of British press barons in 1931, he said they exercise ‘power without responsibility–the prerogative of the harlot through the ages’. Some of these remarks are certainly uncharitable especially when the editorial siblings of reporters have many a time roused people by their fiery pen.
Journalists are no longer seen as knights in shining armour fighting evil wherever it may exist. They are seen, with honorable exceptions, as tricksters, fixers, people who can be purchased with flattery combined with a little access and, more worryingly, cash.
However, the twin foci of the media today are the minutiae of party politics and the worship of wealth and celebrity. Billionaires, fashion models, sports stars and film stars occupy a disproportionate amount of space in print and on television. By contrast, health-related issues account for less than 1 per cent of the editorial space in Indian newspapers. This “inequality of articulation and attention”, writes Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Jeane Drèze, “makes an overwhelming disparity in the lives of people both less discussed and correspondingly more resilient and stable”.
The rise of blogs has greatly enlarged and confused the market. The opinion of the blogosphere is having a growing influence over the most serious political, economic, and social processes. A disparager would say that anybody can be a blogger, and anything can be a blog: is this not proof of low standards? And yet, top bloggers include academics and commentators whose work would qualify them as public intellectuals by any traditional measure.
Indeed, it seems fair to say that if you have the quick wit and the pithy turn of phrase traditionally needed to succeed as a public intellectual, then you are one of nature’s bloggers. Bloggers, however, run the risk of appropriating to themselves the right to comment on everything under the sun, to pontificate on matters with which they may have just a cursory relationship. There is no filtering point for blogs, like we have in letters sent to editors and the blogosphere could get cluttered by much casual and non serious stuff which would only obscure the more qualitative and well researched despatches.
In many young journalists whom I meet these days, there’s a certainty about themselves and their work that springs, I am afraid, not from genuine self-confidence but from a false swagger about being in a business that fetches invitations to glamorous events. During my long career as a development practitioner and media manager for my organisation, I found an acute obsession in most journalists for negative stories that had the potential of fetching them impressive bylines. Positive development stories were always hard to deliver.
There was a time when investigative reporting was frowned upon. Even honest reporting was branded yellow journalism. Investigative reporting soon became the highest service a journalist could do to his profession and society. India’s highest judicial body, the Supreme Court handed and several landmark judgments following seriously researched and properly documented reports of injustices at the grassroots level.
All of us from the media–from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers-need to be careful about what we put out into the cloud. Our keyboards have become so powerful now, that our slightest action of irresponsibility can blow us up into a crisis. Can we, members of the media, also not cooperate to stave off negativity from ruling the psychology of our people? Can we not underscore every negative report with a story of heroism and leadership, such that we focus not on the dark side of the human condition, but rather, make that extra effort to draw out what continues to burn as the eternal flame of the indomitable?
This, because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing the common reader?
The baby boomers in the news business certainly did cut our teeth on huge stories that raised powerful emotions, though another generation of journalists is now also in place. It is the older journalists who have defined newsroom values, and for us, these events provided a fertile breeding ground for a low-key, backburner liberalism.
In the pursuit of truth and fairness, no price is too high to pay. Let us make that extra call, take that extra trip, visit that additional source — then do it all over again until you are truly convinced that your story is as accurate, as fair and as thorough as humanly possible.—INFA