Watershed moment


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Nelson Chaney (Welsey Addy): All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.

Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall): We’re not a respectable network. We’re a whorehouse network and we have to take whatever we can get.

Nelson Chaney: Well, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t fancy myself the president of a whorehouse.

Frank Hackett: That’s very commendable of you, Nelson. Now sit down. Your indignation is duly noted; you can always resign tomorrow.

Sidney Lumet’s film, Network, (1976)

IN 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan said, ‘The medium is the message.’ McLuhan made us look at the way we were looking at media. Were we looking for information/ entertainment or simply at a television set? In that he was a prophet and philosopher. In the Tehelka sting operation (March 2001), the medium of the clandestine shoot became the message. You could not think or speak about Operation West End without the undercurrent that the Tehelka journalists had used hidden cameras to catch everyone.

As a metaphor in journalism, what did Tehelka do? They crossed an unwritten line. They proved what could be done. They showed no mercy. They took no prisoners. They trapped their victims, some of who were only living out what they thought was their work. Tehelka created a new paradigm in journalism. They exploded a story that was unreportable by traditional journalistic means. India’s purveyors and receivers of information will never be the same again.

The BJP government, in power at the time of the Tehelka exposé, instantly fell into its own trap in their determined belief that there had to be a conspiracy hatched by the Opposition or an arms dealer with a vested interest. Their monomaniacal corrupt atavism did not leave room for any altruistic motive. They could not believe that journalists would spend that kind of money or take such risks just to get a story. They set out to unearth a treacherous plot and when they didn’t find one, started the spin doctoring. They had no notion of what a conglomerate a journalist is.

Why does any person become a journalist? Tom Stoppard said, ‘I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon.’ I would hazard a guess that there are few in India today that would not want to change the world around them.

The most unsurprising response of anyone caught in any scandal is, ‘the media is the problem’. In other words, if the scandal is not exposed to the public, it remains small. But, should it? Roger Rosenblatt said, ‘The principal reason journalists exist in society is that people have a need to be informed of and comprehend the details of the experience.’ And that is what our TV channels did in Gujarat. They brought the carnage into our living rooms. Should they have? Pressure from the American public on politicians to stop the Vietnam War came only after they saw their young men dying on their television sets.


What motivates these messengers of bad news? Journalists tend to be adventurists and danger junkies. There is the urge to be where the action is, to expose wrongdoing, injustice and suffering, to catalyse change, to be an eyewitness to unfolding of historical events. To make money? Not in India. If you answer that many journalists take money from political parties and business houses to make enough, then so does a doctor who performs unnecessary operations. A good doctor’s motivation stems from wanting to heal people. A serious journalist’s motivation is to get a good story and give it to the people.

Clearly, there was a cloud of envy pervasive in the journalist community after the Tehelka exposé. A caterwauling buzz gushed out in the press about the ethics of sting operations. Looking back, it is astounding that Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel hurtled into the sting without any discussion, planning or introspection. In many ways Operation West End carried a whiff of a cowboy adventure.

While there are journalists who pursue stories for the sake of the story, another revolution of sorts has taken place. Journalism has been turned on its head with the availability to buy editorial space. Arun Shourie expressed shock that editorial space was being sold and the average reader did not grasp that it was not news but a promotion. He added, ‘I regard Samir Jain as a good person, but I regard his approach as completely, but completely, destructive of public discourse and of journalism in India. This whole emphasis on lifestyle journalism, this whole business of a newspaper as a product like soap, this whole business of deliberately slapping the editors down, sometimes there are response managers, sometimes papers are without editors, this business of having two editorials on the same subject as if it’s just a high school debate, treating the great aspect of political life of India, the five-yearly elections, as just a comic show going on. This is destructive of journalism and it is fatal to political discourse in India.’


Meanwhile, The Times of India is laughing all the way to expansion, joint ventures and multi interconnected products, the proprietor having reportedly said that for him The Times of India is like selling soap. But the average readers are not aware that what they are reading is soap.

The survival of good journalism is in danger from many fronts. Ironically, we have done it to ourselves. Journalists themselves or the proprietors of news organisations have perpetrated most of it. In the hunger for readers or viewers, all norms of old journalism and ethics have been put at threat. The very nature of journalism is that it asks a reader or viewer to suspend interpretation, unlike a book of fiction or poetry. He must see it as it is shown. Yet today, we know that suspension of interpretation has disappeared. We are forced to evaluate, interpret and then come to our own conclusions. Often, when we read or see a story the first question one must ask: Who planted that story? That, of course, is the real story. We have to constantly look at ourselves looking at a story.

With the boom of consumerism, the old journalistic approach of doing a story for which there is merit has been buried. It is the advertisers in the newspapers who, by deciding who their market audience is, command space. Not by their advertisements alone, but by copy being created that matches the advertisements. The advertisers own the news we read. The Times of India was the most creative in launching a city edition for the major cities, called Delhi Times or Mumbai Times. It was responsible for inventing the Page 3 phenomenon, which became the first page you turned to and was the most talked about. Ever ready to make a buck, it then began to sell space to people who wanted their parties covered. The earlier one hundred regulars then found it passé to show up on Page 3. Reportedly, the practice of selling editorial space then began to encroach into the paper’s main edition. There was uproar in the press and a controversy broke out, with news organizations taking different sides.


It can be said, then, that journalism in India is markedly divided in two cities. Charles Dickens’s opening in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) could well apply to Indian journalism today: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.’

India is a country of juxtapositions. While dishonest judges are sent off to jail, the honest judiciary has taken on the role of activism through implementation orders. While senior police officers in Mumbai are arrested for corruption, officers like Kiran Bedi continue to stand as a role model for the honest police officer. While there are lawyers who idealistically gave their time free to Tehelka, other lawyers are willing to go anywhere for a price, even to bribe judges.

The juxtaposition is apparent in every field in India. So it is only natural for the same to coexist in journalism. While there are journalists like Seema Mustafa, who wrote a scathing editorial in The Asian Age (Fourth Mistake, 4 December 2004) about the damage being done to journalism by self-seeking editors and proprietors, there are others who will write anything for as little as social access.


What are the main functions of the press? Gandhiji wrote, ‘One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another to arouse in people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.’ The Indian press played a tremendous role in national awakening during the freedom struggle and was part of the nation building process. Today, we have become obsessed watchdogs in ‘exposing defects’, which of course must be done, but often without a thought for nation building. Here we come to the crucial question: Who watches the watchdog? Does the media criticize itself in as relentless a manner as it does everybody else?

Today’s journalism appears light years away from the way it was 30 years ago. Over the last decade, it could be likened to the Big Bang of journalism. It is not just the exposés, but that the exposers have become Stars. It could be called the Vanity Press. There are three kinds within that. There is the jholawala press that goes out to villages, earthquakes, floods, and gives a voice to people who would never be heard. Not much happens and they move on to the next story. Then there is the muckraking press that catches politicians with the foot and mouth disease as well as the greasy hands disease. What happens afterwards? The reporter is usually hounded out of his job, becomes a star amongst his peers and the general public, but the politician continues with the greasy stuff.

Third, and most important of all, is the access press. This journalist moving with the Mighty, begins to believe he is Mighty. The Mighty he moves with dislike but humour him for their own safety. He is not above boasting that he can install and topple governments, participate in corporate wars and generally tinker with anyone he chooses to. His Mightiness begins to believe that he is a real friend of the Mighty. The truth is that the Mighty wouldn’t know him from Bhola Nath if he didn’t have the power of the organization that employs him. Access journalism cannot be value free. Can a journalist who gets an exclusive interview as a reward be totally unbiased in his questioning? How many interviews have we seen that are obsequious and never ask the question?


Because of the Big Bang, there are armies of journalists who show utter ignorance of the ethics of the profession. Newspapers and magazines may have orientation programmes where the ethics of the company are spelled out. But, more often, the code of ethics practiced by most news organizations is established by the conduct, decisions and demands of the owner and publisher first, and then the editor.

A proprietor of a business house news organization reportedly justified taking money for editorial space saying, ‘If my editors and reporters are making money by selling space in the paper, why shouldn’t I? So it is better to institutionalise it.’ Right. That is like a senior police officer saying, if my constables are making money, why don’t I establish a procedure for it, so that I too can be on the take.

A junior reporter very quickly learns which business houses and politicians he must never write a negative story about, who he must write glowing reports about, which advertisers to be sensitive to, and the list goes on. In some news organizations, freebie trips and gifts are acceptable. They willingly accept vendetta motivated planted stories whether true or not, hardly ever hold a story back to get both sides, use any means to get a story, are happy to pay sources for a story. As for privacy, who knows the meaning of the word?


Journalism today has become a murky business, bursting with intrigue, blackmail and fixers. As Dileep Padgaonkar, columnist said, ‘So much that passes for investigative journalism is a leak or a plant given by a bureaucrat, politician or businessman in order to spite someone.’ Rarely in the press, do we turn the spotlight on ourselves. The Washington Post columnist, Sydney Schanberg wrote, ‘No newspaper is eager to acknowledge its own deficiencies or even those of its peers (who might return the favour). Everyone has dirty linen.’ We have a history replete with great journalistic exposés by ethical journalists, but today the daal is getting more and more kaala. As Elridge Cleaver said, ‘If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.’ Have we journalists become part of the problem?

Yet, there are journalists who still risk their lives for a story, work in punishing inclement weather, face down terrorists, shrug off threats from politicians, take a ‘no’ for an interview as only an invitation to ask again and are unrelenting in pursuit of a story. There are enough fearless journalists in India who stand up not only to politicians in power but take a stand against their editors and proprietors.

When Eugene Meyer, father of Katherine Graham, bought The Washington Post in 1933, he wrote to a friend, ‘My only interest is to make a contribution to better knowledge and better thinking. If I could not feel the ability to rise above my personal interest, I would not have the slightest pleasure in being a publisher.’ For those who steer the formidable fortunes of The Times of India group, Meyer would be considered an absolute fool. Meyer also said, ‘In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course is necessary for the public good.’ The Washington Post has put this belief into practice for the last three generations.


Any given era invites the end of itself through change. At this point, the print media is anaesthetising us with pablum. Television has become the opium of the masses. As far back as 1958, legendary journalist Ed Murrow said in a speech in Chicago: ‘We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.’ As much as it is important for doctors to heal, it is for journalism to play the role assigned to the raison d’être for the profession.

Murrow said: ‘This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.’ Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, ‘When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard. The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.’


There is a remarkable opportunity for purveyors of news to bring value to the Word and weight to questioning the new norms. We could bring ourselves to the cusp of change.

Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am, wrote Rene Descartes in 1637. What have Indians been thinking? Okay, here’s a quickie pop psychological history. Indians could not be existentialists under 200 years of a colonial power. There was no burden of freedom to haunt the Indian. The Age of Dual Identity followed with Mahatma Gandhi waking up the crowd. We invited the British to leave, but couldn’t bear to let go all that they left behind.

With the post-colonial third generation now adults, there is little British baggage left. This generation takes its pride in being Indian for granted. It is not to be acquired. It is inborn. This generation is defined as one that has been the most influenced by the media. Yes, we are 150 years away from using chapattis to spread a mutiny, as was done in 1857. A mutiny could be a cell phone away now. But who is going to mutiny when there is another cell phone to buy? It is the media that is sculpting the national identity.

In this decade, ‘I am not, until I appear in the media.’ This validation of existence and being has become a basic need. Until you are famous, you do not exist. If we could take more seriously who merits the fame, perhaps we will then scratch the beginning of a new era.