‘Presstitutes’ and Arnab Goswami return to haunt PM and people in power

So, who are ‘Presstitutes’? Those who milk a terror attack to win elections and improve TRP? #Arnabgate has an uncanny similarity to the novel ‘The Almighty’ by Irving Wallace, writes Sujata Anandan

‘Presstitutes’ and Arnab Goswami return to haunt PM and people in power

Sujata Anandan

When I started on my journalism, my editors gave me some valuable lessons that have stayed with me. The first of these was that a journalist should be read and not seen. By that my editor meant a journalist should never become his or her own story.

Whenever my editor was invited to preside at events, he never published those reports, except as a small single column item buried deep in the inside pages sometimes. Organisers soon learnt if they wanted major splashes in the newspaper, they had to refrain from trying to get the editor into attending the event.

Now how many times in past months have we had a certain TV anchor become his own story, indeed dedicate show after show on his TV channel to himself? Journalism has come a long way from the days of my first editor who steadfastly refused to have his picture published in his own newspaper.

Pictures. Ah, that was another enduring lesson. Like good, well brought up children who should only be seen and never be heard, my editor insisted the best journalists should never be seen or heard at all but only read. So, decades later when my first column appeared in my newspaper, my then editor wondered why my mug shot was so grainy until he learnt it had been drawn from a group photograph because I had refused to sit for a portrait shot, feeling queasy about my picture splashed in the paper.

That anonymity had served me well at a previous job when I wrote a piece on Bal Thackeray, describing him as a “Tamasha artiste’ rather than a serious politician, accompanied by a caricature that made him look more like Woody Allen than the Sena tiger. That morning hundreds of Shiv Sainiks barged into my office to protest and even as they demanded to meet me, I told them I had gone out of town and would be back only a few days later. They left quietly, disappointed they could not rough up the reporter. But I could get away with that subterfuge only because no one knew what I looked like and now I was loathe to lose that relative anonymity with my own picture in the papers.

While I was persuaded by the editor to eventually get over that hang-up, I notice so many journalists today are so fond of exercising their own vocal cords, not content with already glamourous images necessitated by the explosion of television journalism and indeed become the centre of their own journalism.

My third most enduring lesson was that a journalist's ultimate commitment is to his or her readers and among these readers – who may not be readers at all because they may not even know how to read – are those oppressed people of the country, who do not have access to power and thus are condemned to live deprived lives forever. It is their stories that must be brought to light and the authorities pressurised by your writing into doing something for them, I was told.

But today I find much the reverse happening in Indian journalism. It is the access to power for their own interests and not that of the common man that is beginning to take precedence and this is happening so frequently that even in the most benign of situations - like when a particular motor company provides defective buses to a municipal Corporation and the municipal commissioner complains on record – editors are still afraid to take on the rich and powerful, even if it means denying the poor and helpless.

In certain cases, this journalism of access has gone too far as clearly seen from the series of WhatsApp messages of a TV anchor that were leaked by the Bombay police. I begin to think that journalists and the ruling dispensation are getting together not just to spread fake news but virtually create news that should never have been news in the first place.

It brings to life a fictional novel I had read years ago. It was titled 'The Almighty' written by Irving Wallace. It was a book recommended to me by one of my editors as a fine example of the perils of journalism and what must be avoided. It detailed how two fine young reporters always found themselves two steps behind the news – late for the scoops in their own newspapers. They always missed out the bomb blasts, terrorist attacks, bridge or building collapses, plane crashes etc., until they began to suspect something fishy afoot. They then began to investigate the stories they failed to break and made a sinister discovery – the new owner of their newspaper was setting up those tragedies, so that he could get them on the front page of his paper ahead of everybody else - he knew about them before anyone got wind because he was the perpetrator. All in the interest of newspaper circulation and advertising revenues, never mind all the innocent lives lost in those tragedies.

I do not know how many have read that book by Irving Wallace but it seems to have been brought to life in India and if what is gleaned from those leaked WhatsApp messages is even half true, then it is far more sinister than Irving Wallace could ever have imagined. For here everything points at the political dispensation setting up the tragedies and the journalists scooping up those tragedies even before they have happened.

If there is even a grain of truth in those leaks, then I am truly ashamed at what my profession has been reduced to these days. Journalism was known as a mission and not merely a career choice even during my early days as a rookie. Sadly, it has today become a self-serving, traitorous activity and it is no wonder that the media is so hated today.

Years ago, former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan, at a press conference in Bombay castigated a particular editor for running an unsavoury story about his widowed sister who was a private citizen and should not have been written about at all. "Your paper is worth no more use than a rag. I would not use it to even wipe my bottom!" he told this editor in a real rage.

Today, there are other forms of journalism but public sentiment about the media by and large remain the same. And I hang my head in shame.

(Views expressed are author's own)

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