A media manifesto for a wounded civilization

TARUN J. TEJPAL

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Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.

Tom Stoppard

INDIAN media is by all accounts a formidable institution, but every now and then it drops its pants and shows the world its bum. Delhi, the country’s capital, the pulsing centre of India’s political and media power, was recently witness to this unedifying spectacle as two newspaper giants shed their clothes and shame, and bared themselves. They were both focused on the old male obsession – size. They forgot – as men do no matter how many times women try and educate them – that it is quality that really matters. Larger is larger, not necessarily better. And of course giant bums are a far more repellent sight than small ones – and given the circumstances it was hardly the time to be announcing to the world that beneath the clothes we, of the media, today have no more to declare for ourselves than everyone else.

It may not be as popular as cricket, but media-bashing is fast becoming the preferred sport of most Indians. Even as we ingest more and more of media with every passing day we also discover what a wonderful receptacle of our frustrations it is. The nice thing is you can play this game with two people, or twenty; in your house or office, bus-stop or bar. The nicer thing is the game requires neither strength nor stamina – you play it reclining in a chair, and you can never lose. The nicest thing is it makes you feel intelligent and involved, a good citizen at work, unlike cards and golf. We are surrounded by bad news, and it is easy to assume that the carrier of bad news is bad news itself.

Everyone feels entitled to upbraid us, and lecture us. That’s fair, for we too appropriate the entitlement to sermonize anyone and anything that blips across our screen.

But more than at any time in the last twenty years, there are many among us who are also trying to think hard about where we are, where we are headed, and what are the tools, the rules of the game, we need to nail into place to remain legitimate players in the arena. Among those who think about these things there is a gathering concern that Indian media is about to face – or rather is already facing – its most challenging hour. As cultural and civilizational faultlines are discovered and expanded, as old tolerances begin to collapse, as pieties of constitutional propriety, elevated public conduct, democratic traditions, and political fair-play are set aside – as Indian public life deteriorates even as India progresses, Indian media is being steadily and surely steered into the examination chair for its greatest test ever.

 

 

Of course there was the Emergency, and we did not – but for a few exceptions – cover ourselves in glory. But then we were also not who we are now. We were then a battalion of tanks, capable of inflicting fatal damage but on a limited scale. But today we are a squadron of state-of-the-art Stealths, with an ability to carpet-bomb everything in sight, and create impact on a gigantic scale. It means a few things. It means we can do great work, and influence the course of things for the better. It also means we can behave badly, and dramatically hasten the decline. But what we are most likely to do, as a many-headed, many-limbed beast, is a bit of both – some good and some bad, some damage and some deliverance.

Unfortunately, given the current mandate, that may not be enough.

As a rule Indian media in the last fifty years of independence has managed to stay with the lofty principles enunciated by the founding fathers. There is a splendid moral high ground that has hardly ever been abandoned by at least the mainline press. The fundamental stones of a democratic edifice – freedoms of expression and livelihood, secularism, pluralism, human rights, the defence of the under-dog and the minorities, the rule of law – have been protected whenever under attack.

From Nellie 1983 to Delhi 1984, to Babri Masjid 1992 to Gujarat 2002, journalism’s storm-troopers have airdropped aggressively to ward off dangerous assaults on the edifice. But slapdash teams of defenders, cobbled together at a time of crisis, may not be able to swing it anymore. The crisis no longer comes and goes: it is with us all the time. Whatever other defenders of democracy – judiciary, NGOs, citizenry, perhaps even police and bureaucracy – do or don’t, journalism certainly needs to dig deep trenches around the democratic pillars, around the building, and hunker down for a long battle. Even, perhaps, given the state of degeneration of public life, a sustained war.

 

 

The problem here of course is that the assault is not just from without. There is also a subversive siege within. It began in the 1970s, appeared to retreat in the early eighties, but has since acquired a frightening momentum. The unnerving truth is that the edifice has to be protected not just from those charging it from the outside, but also from the saboteurs busy hollowing it out from the inside.

As raj dharma – the divine duty of the ruler to practice right conduct – rapidly erodes, the Indian journalist, and perhaps every right-thinking Indian, needs to look elsewhere to find a touchstone for correct action and behaviour. We can no longer turn to a higher authority, to a more moral body, for repair and redemption. As it was a hundred years ago, we have to once again turn to the individual conscience for both answers and succour.

It is almost tedious to list the collapse of public life. In five decades we have gone from a sublime and visionary political leadership to a completely venal and avaricious one. It is argued that adverse and difficult times, as the freedom movement, bring out the best in people, the steel, the nobility, the higher virtues – whereas in ordinary times people sink back into their ordinary base selves.

If that is the argument, we would do well, particularly in journalism, to recognise that as a country we are going through difficult and extraordinary times. Remember Auden’s Musee D’Beaux Arts, where Icarus drowns even as the ship sails indifferently by and life on the shore carries on as calmly as ever. We must not let the veneer of the normal – the TV channels buzzing, the newspapers on the doorstep, the elections taking place, the celebrities being arrested, the salaries arriving, the software industry booming, the film mahurats taking place, the judgments being delivered, the parties being celebrated, the public debates being heard – we must not let the veneer of the normal lead us to believe the abnormal has not arrived in our midst. That Icarus is not on the verge of drowning, just because the tiller is ploughing his field without a care in the world.

 

 

Normalcy is one of the great delusions of mankind. Another one is the eventual triumph of the morally right. Galileo Galeli – who died – would differ. As would the citizens of Nazi Germany who woke from a normal life one morning to find themselves plunged into a devastating war that would scar their home and their psyche forever. And these are far from the only examples. The financial analyst and mother-of-two who ascended to the 102nd floor on World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, was simply going through the paces of a most normal day. There was a beast afoot she had no knowledge of, nor did those she lived, ate and worked with, and nor did those she paid taxes to. It is no different to those who boarded a train that halted at Godhra, or those who stayed on at their homes in Naroda Patiya; they imagined the beast did not exist because they could not see it outside their door.

But of course ignorance is no protection, and as I said earlier if we can cut through the smoke and dust and our own complacence we may recognize that we are at war, that there are beasts afoot. They are many, their tongues are forked, and their masks shadowy. In contrast, the white colonial was easy meat. It is time for some of that steel and nobility that adversity supposedly engenders to display itself. Adroitness is often a virtue; and Indian media has practised it through the 1990s with great flair – and profit. Now I reckon it is time for doggedness, for some good old-fashioned Gandhian cussedness.

The time to dodge the beasts is gone; now you have to face up to them. Before you find yourselves in their belly.

 

 

Look at the state of our political class. In fifty swift years we have gone from leaders who cemented cracks to leaders who briskly create them; from leaders who stood up to terror to leaders who foment it; from leaders who decried the politics of caste and community to leaders who triumphantly ride it; from leaders who hid from any association with crime, to leaders whose only calling card it is.

It is gratuitous to name names but each of us knows dozens of current leaders – many of them in power – who would fill each of the above categories. Transparency and accountability – the two key mantras of a democracy, have been completely discarded; and journalism’s greatest problem today is that it cannot seem to, no matter what it does, shame the Indian politician anymore. It is a crisis not just for journalists, but for all Indians. For journalists it makes their task only that much more difficult: it demands of them new degrees of courage, resourcefulness and innovation. And of course – and always – some good old-fashioned Gandhian cussedness.

Thanks to the strange and surreal eighteen months I have lived through, I can say I have some personal readings on political power. I am convinced that Franz Kafka was right, that all power is essentially malign, and at some level its workings are unknowable. It taints the best of men, and it is a rare individual who can stay morally undiminished by it – it explains why the moral giants among political leaders, from Gandhi to JP to Martin Luther King Jr., have never ever held public office nor exercised formal power.

I think it is true of power across cultures and across millennia – in varying degrees it is always at loggerheads with individual rights and individual freedoms. The problem is the 19th, 20th, and now 21st century is an age of precisely individual rights and freedoms, of the collective will of peoples, of the accountability of rulers. In this, the people’s greatest weapon is essentially a 200 year-old-invention, bolstered by printing presses and television tubes: the media. It is no surprise then that power has an uneasy and dodgy relationship with it. Ideally the unease and conflict should grow as the democracies of the world multiply, and journalists become the people’s warriors.

 

 

Given the fact that in a democracy, particularly a poor one like India, the media is the people’s biggest mace against the misuse of power by the state, it becomes incumbent upon journalists to have no ambiguity about their role. The core duty of journalism – the rest of the fun, flair and trivia is the popcorn, not the actual film – the core duty is to work at keeping a leash on power. It is no mean responsibility. The cavalier abuse of power is easily the greatest threat to the human spirit, and everything that is fine about it. It is easily the greatest threat to India, with its teeming riches and its teeming problems. Its great disparities, and its great injustices.

 

 

Journalism is different from public relations, advertising, and entertainment, and it is critical journalists understand this difference and respect it. Much hangs by this self-knowledge. Increasingly I believe the other functions of journalism – including the dissemination of information – will become less and less important. Technology – symbolized by the amoebic internet – has already made information cheap. It is accessible to everyone, and will be even more so with every passing day, at the click of a key.

You will not need journalists to provide it to you. You will need journalists for other, far more significant, things. For information may be easy and cheap – and then cheaper and cheaper – but integrity, courage, values will always remain tough calls. Not available off the shelf, not accessible through the internet. And these are the attributes that will be demanded of journalists, as they cast themselves in the singular – and crucial – role of opposing the misuse of power.

Ideally good journalism in the future – in India and elsewhere – ought to remain perpetually adversarial to all power. Questioning it, checking it, staying locked in continual conflict with it. It is not a battle that will ever be won; but it must never be lost. Journalism must contest every inch that power would seize from the individual; journalism must fight power’s every excess.

Before knowledge, before language, before degrees, the journalist must have a moral centre. In the modern world, in the 21st century, if journalism as an institution is to cover itself with glory and fulfil its mandate, it will have to refine and harden its core. It can surround itself with fluff, but its kernel should be pure and true and unyielding. And its face, even if pretty, should glow with an evangelical fervour.

 

 

Of course all of this is easier said than done. It discounts that journalists too are individuals, imbued with fears and insecurities, vulnerable to the enchantments of money and power. In India we have seen enough of it all in the last few years. Journalists have become members of Parliament, journalists have become ministers, journalists have got sinecures; journalists have also received government patronage – in the form of television shows on Doordarshan – that tot up to many crores. For publications there is the state advertising, again running into crores; and then the more tawdry temptations of trips and parties. So much for the seduction.

There has also been the terror. Journalists and media organizations have felt the iron-tipped boot of the state. Sometimes as a soft tap on the feet, sometimes as a sharp jab on the shin, and sometimes as a resounding kick in the gut. Amid its ham-handed behaviour, that is the subtlety of power – it learns quickly to administer the precise antidote. It will not tame with a whip what it can with a wag of the finger. Outlook, Tehelka, Star News, Indian Express – even I am told the Times of India – and perhaps many language journals have felt the intimations of terror, some gently, some not so.

The boot of the state often also shows up in the form of vicious propaganda, a web of lies that can trap a journalist and sap all his energies. How often have you seen a journalist in print or television desperately defending a courageous and honest piece of work, as the state reels out its lies. The sheer din of media is also what power will rely upon to escape accountability. The noise is the public office bearer’s insulation – he will add to it shrilly, confident in the knowledge that in the mounting cacophony all will be eventually drowned, including his many misdemeanours.

There will be a still more subtle form of propaganda unleashed on us. Power, of all shades and hues, will try and embarrass us on all kinds of counts. Some of us will be embarrassed for our education, some for our backgrounds, others for their religion, or their caste, or their beliefs, or for their wealth, or the lack of it. There will be attempts to embarrass us for what we write, what we stand for, and what we say.

 

 

It is already happening, as journalists embark on elaborate polemics to justify their stories – no matter how courageous and honest – as they are attacked for their positions, their motives, their provenance. The journalism will be lost in the irrelevant peripherals. The messenger will be engaged; the message will be set aside. Soon the messenger will be looking so hard at himself, and over his own shoulder, that he will forget to deliver the message.

In the coming years all this will only mount. The hydra of seduction, terror, embarrassment, din and propaganda will track the media relentlessly; and the only recourse for the honest journalist will be to walk the minefield like a Cyclops, with a single unwavering eye, focused firmly on the dictates of the individual conscience.

But for all us in media there is another great guide. Outside of us, more tangible, and yet as potent and noble as the individual conscience. It is a slim tract called The Constitution of India. As the machinations and propaganda of power make us uncertain, unsure of what is right – is India’s secularism truly pseudo? is liberalism an overrated virtue? what is the real nature of fundamental rights in an era of terrorism? is freedom of expression an unnecessary luxury? – as we are forced to re-examine old verities, Indian journalists only need turn to the Constitution.

 

 

It is one of the grand public documents of the world, a soaring covenant between the citizens of a country, distilling, and inspiring, the finest of the human spirit. It establishes the primacy, and inviolability, of the fundamental freedoms of the human condition – freedoms that must not be sacrificed at the expeditious altar of anything – be it economic progress or national security. It is stirringly visionary, humane, and I would go as far as to say, sacred.

It tells us all that we could wish to know: who we are, what we want to be, and what is the honourable way to get there. At every moment of deep doubt, it gives Indian journalists a Gita to turn to. If Indian journalists will have an evangelical fervour, then this is their holy book.

In the face of this manifesto, there will be thrown a hundred practical considerations. And they have to be negotiated. Will the big boys of Indian media, owners with so many different business interests and never-ending avarice, allow a tough, adversarial journalism to flourish? Will the trend of editor-owners mean softer editors or more combative owners? Will journalism sell out and become a seamless part of the Indian gravy train? Journalism is neither the police, nor the executive, nor the judiciary: how can it become the chief combatant against the rot?

There are half-answers and some wish-lists. The finest thing would be if the vast landscape of Indian media spawned some animals that had both teeth and legs. Interrogative teeth, and financial legs. Unfortunately those that have legs don’t seem to be able to bite; and those that bite seem to have no legs to stay in the game. A few mediasaurs, like T-Rex, with big strong legs and big menacing teeth, would do wonders. People in public life would speed down the autobahns of corruption and venality with far greater caution.

But fortunately, in the absence of the mediasaur, there is still the individual journalist. The finest exemplars are peculiar creatures – young people become journalists out of a queer mix of a social conscience, a heightened sense of morality, and a hunger for context. In the final count this slightly dysfunctional nature is the journalist’s greatest virtue. It keeps him from being seduced and bought easily. It also keeps him from getting terrorized by power or money. Interestingly this dysfunctional nature is also at its strongest and most recalcitrant when the journalist is young. Somewhere then, Indian democracy and Indian journalism will have to bank upon the dysfunctional, maverick young journalist – beyond blandishments and fear – to strike the telling blows. I think there are many of them around, and we need to only give them space to come up through the cracks, and an umbrella under which to operate.

I think in the next three years Indian journalism will either cover itself in glory and mark its contributions as historic, or it will sell itself down the line, and along with it many of the things we take for given in this country will go down the tube. Knowing Indian journalism and Indian journalists I would wager, we will dig in our heels and outdo ourselves. I think.

I hope.

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