We must return journalism to its traditional moorings

The most enduring lesson my mentors taught me was–don’t take sides. If you must, always choose the weaker, for the stronger will always have more means

Farmers protesting against the three contentious farm bills brought by the Moi govt had boycotted the sold out media years ago.
Farmers protesting against the three contentious farm bills brought by the Moi govt had boycotted the sold out media years ago.

Sujata Anandan

I had old-fashioned editors who trained me in journalism and their lessons have been deeply enduring. It is a profession of toil, not one of glamour, they told me although, given the preponderance of television journalism today, that has long blown away with the wind. 

The second lesson was to always think OSD – officers on special duty was the norm in the bureaucracy when I was a rookie. But to us as trainees, that stood for the Oppressed, the Suppressed and the Depressed. Every time you lift your pen, you must strike in their favour, we were told, for they have no one other than you to take their case forward.

Good journalists are only read and never seen, one of my editors told me – so don’t try to get close to celebrities to get your picture in your own paper – often these celebrities will use you for that very purpose, so that they make the news riding piggyback on you. That is another principle that has become alien to journalists of today. 

But the most enduring lesson was – don’t take sides. If you must, always choose the weaker for the stronger would always have more means, including sheer bullying, to get heard.

That last lesson has influenced me the most throughout my career, as a result of which I could never understand why many of my colleagues sided with might over right through the years. But this was particularly agonising over the past nine years when almost every journalist, bar a handful of the exceptional ones, gave in to ‘presstitutism’ imposed upon them by the government.

Presstitutes. Now that is a much-maligned word and highly misrepresented in the Indian context. The actual dictionary meaning of the term is a journalist or media person whose news coverage is inappropriately and disproportionately influenced by business interests, political motives or leanings etc. Or one who tailors the news to fit a particular partisan agenda.

It was a term coined by American trend forecaster and publisher Gerald Celente for journalists who swallowed the bait set out by governments and corporates hook, line and sinker, without asking hard questions of their sources or cross-checking the facts – those we had been describing as ‘press note journalists’ for years.

However, it was first used for an Indian journalist by General VK Singh when, as a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, he attended a Pakistan Day event at the Pak embassy in New Delhi.

Arnab Goswami labelled him a traitor, and in anger, he dismissed that screechy anchor as a presstitute. Though here I do believe Arnab was not being one, he was indeed asking hard questions of the good general.

However, the term was seized upon by the BJP ecosystem who then turned it upon those who would ask questions of the government, giving it quite the opposite meaning of what Celente had intended.

But in its original coinage, it fits who we now refer to as ‘Godi media’ to a T, for these journalists not only swallow the government baits, but their news coverage today depends almost entirely on government feeds. 

If any proof was needed of this, one needs only to go back a little in time when a female journalist with a leading English language channel broke down at Arun Jaitley’s death and asked, “Who will I call now every morning for my story?”

The same journalist had earlier been misled by Jaitley into airing a story that described a particular person as a Pakistani demanding integration of Kashmir into Pakistan. It needed a Kashmiri politician to point out to her that the man was very much Kashmiri and not Pakistani, that the clip she was playing at Jaitley’s behest was at least five years old, and that it had been acted upon by previous governments! 

Obviously, that hook, line and sinker description fit this journalist like a glove – where did the principles of cross check and double check go, I wondered. But it made no difference to this anchor, who was mildly taken aback on her show but was back the next evening as usual.

Now, both the aforementioned journalists are on the list of the INDIA bloc of opposition parties that is now boycotting 12 other such biased journalists and had a meltdown on their shows for being so named and shamed. 

Many are making this boycott out to be a strike against the freedom of the press. I, however, wholeheartedly support it because I believe such a boycott was overdue and not simply because these anchors may have been pro-government or pro-BJP, but because they have actively contributed to hate in the country. 

Evening after evening, their shows have been spewing venom against Muslims in India, and they have wasted no opportunity to misrepresent facts and cases related to the minority community in all its dimensions.

I am not so bothered about the muting, shouting down or lack of time they may have given Opposition spokespersons as I am about their debates that are only about love jihad, shamshan versus kabristan, Eid versus Diwali, Moharram versus Holi, mandir versus masjid, halal versus jhatka, beef eating or cow slaughter or failing all those issues, Marathas versus Mughals. 

The miseries of the vast population of unemployed, even uneducated, poor and hungry and oppressed Hindus were never their priority. It got so bad at one time that my domestic help, who had a Muslim neighbour minding her children while she was at work, once hesitantly asked me with serious concern in her eyes if it was safe to leave the kids with this neighbour – would she one day find them all kidnapped and converted to Islam?

While I could disabuse this one person of any such notion, I wonder how many such innocent minds these television anchors have corrupted in the last few years. So it was high time that the boycott was made a public event.

Anyone who believes Opposition parties should continue to subject themselves to abuse by these anchors should be put into a pit with a bull and see how they feel being mauled by the animal. That might be a very basic way of putting it, but that is what essentially these television shows have become today, and these anchors deserve no better.

There are ample examples of journalists forced out of employment for their questioning ways and propensity of speaking truth to the government who are keeping the flag of a free press flying through other means and sources.

There are many fence sitters too who, I notice, have tried to straddle both stools and are convincing no one. We must pity their lack of courage, but we need shed no tears for those 14 anchors. They had it coming. And I repeat, deserve no better.

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