A website rang me up yesterday evening asking if I would like to express an opinion on the ongoing "war" between Arnab Goswami and Barkha Dutt on TV and social media. I was tempted, if only because I have a strong opinion on most things and believe silence is not an option in the unethical times we live in. And yet, I pressed the pause button and decided I did not want to speak on the issue and aggravate the controversy.
Maybe, I was influenced by the fact that both Dutt and Goswami have been former colleagues and I have respected their work. Maybe, having been bitten in the past, I did not want to join the viper’s den that platforms like Twitter have been reduced to: 24 X 7 rage machines where every attempt is made to throw darts at public figures, often under the guise of anonymity. Maybe, I just like to see myself as a nice guy who doesn’t wish to see more unpleasantness around him.
But more likely I was influenced by a speech I had heard that morning from the US First Lady Michelle Obama. In a stirring address, easily the best speech at the Democratic conclave, Michelle spoke about the poisonous hatred that the Trump campaign had injected into the political discourse without naming the Republican challenger once.
“The hateful language we hear every day on television from public figures does not represent the true spirit of this country,” she told the audience. "When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. Our motto is: when they go low, we go high."
It was a message that struck home. Michelle Obama was referring to America, but she could just as easily have been talking of this country.
A landmark election
When I wrote my book, 2014: The Election that Changed India, I was often asked whether the title was over the top. After all, could a single electoral verdict change a country with an ancient civilisation? Two years later, we are slowly getting the answer. An election may not have changed our lives dramatically – we still have to deal with red tapism, petty corruption, the Ganga is still polluted, farmers still commit suicide, we face power cuts, rising vegetable prices, potholed roads and traffic jams are a monsoon menace. But an election result can empower those who are on the winning side.
Suddenly, we have cow vigilante groups who feel they can get away with their violent bullying, love jihad mobs who claim to be waging a moral crusade against inter-religious marriages, forcible ghar wapsi campaigns that are gathering momentum, and MPs who will extol the virtues of a Godse over Gandhi.
Oh yes, we also have the crazies on the "other side" too: those who unleash terror against innocent citizens in the name of Islam, clerics who will refuse to reform antiquated laws, imams who engage in fatwa politics. The "crazies" were always there and remain a permanent danger; it’s the rise of the newly minted hate warriors and their influential endorsers who should trouble us now. Hate when aligned to power is a dangerous combination. It signals the move of the fringe to the mainstream, legitimising a new vocabulary of bigotry.
What is just as dangerous is the creeping polarisation has now moved from the street to the studio as reflected in the "us" versus "them" media narrative being pushed by the foot-soldiers of the ruling establishment. You are either a desh bhakt or a pseudo liberal, a nationalist or an anti national depending on your reportage, if not ideology.
If you talk of the pain of two wasted generations of Kashmiri youth living under a draconian law like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts, then you are an anti national, pseudo liberal. If you scream about the agony of Kashmiri Pandits becoming refugees in their own country, then you are a "nationalist" and a patriot. If you speak of both tragedies, then you are, as some of us are lampooned, a "monkey balancer". If you report on the travails of our soldiers facing stones in Kashmir and land mines in Naxal areas, you are a desh bhakt and nationalist; if you expose the human right violations in the valley or tribal India, you are anti national. If you report on both, you are, well, considered a "monkey balancer".
Well, here is my take: journalism is actually often about being a "monkey balancer", of diligently seeking the truth rather than mindlessly scouring for TRPs, of making sense rather than seeking sensation, of informing the viewer rather than titillating him. I don’t wish to be a TRP crusader and posterboy of tabloid journalism who seamlessly becomes a right wing troll by passing judgement and abusing all those who express alternate opinions. Neither do I claim to be standing on the pulpit of self righteousness by asserting moral superiority over anyone else.
I wish to be a journalist who looks for nuance instead of noise, complexity instead of chaos, samvad (dialogue) instead of rhetoric. I do not wish to take sides but will take a stand: a stand that is based on a respect for rule of law and individual liberties, one that respects the state but will retain the right to question its government. If that makes me a dinosaur in the prevailing media eco system or even anti-national in the eyes of flag-waving ‘nation first’ rabble rousers, then so be it.
And yes, like Michelle Obama, I do seek hope instead of despair, hope of a better, more compassionate, less hateful India. Which is why we must as journalists report the good, the bad and the ugly: report on the violence in Kashmir but also on the Kashmiri Muslims who helped perform the last rites of their Pandit neighbour despite a curfew; report on Dalits who were beaten for skinning a dead cow but also on the Dalits who had the guts to throw a cow carcass in front of a collector’s office in protest.
The silent majority
As I said at the outset, this blog is not about celebrity anchors and our bloated egos: we make the noise, but actually it’s hundreds of hardworking reporters who make the news by telling stories from across India without fuss or fanfare. The salvation of our tattered profession lies in their courage and commitment to the news and their desire not to be swept away by the toxic surround sound. It’s a bit like our country: remember those who shout and rage on social media and in TV studios only seek to divide us, it’s the silent majority of Indians who keep us united. Thank god for that!
Post-script: After reading my blog, an academic friend whose opinion I value greatly had this to say: for once i disagree with you. It is not an Arnab-Barkha war. it is not even about TRPs and low journalism. It is about an anchor who lies, who sets vigilante mobs on people, surely it is the job of journalism to call this out. Yes aim high, don’t stoop low. Not naming an evil for what it is is to avoid the issue.
My response to him was: I don’t wish to fight noise with more noise, but noise with truth. And the truth is, Goswami was a colleague. Decency doesn’t allow me to say more, but I will say this: by calling for media gags and seeking vigilante justice against dissenting voices, Goswami has let down the Indian media and chipped away at its freedoms. That he has done this with no hint of self doubt is both tragic and diabolical. But as an optimist, I remain hopeful that the dark storms will pass and the sunshine of good sense will break through. India and the Indian media is much bigger than any individual’s hate-filled hubris.
This article first appeared on Rajdeep Sardesai's website. It has been lightly edited.