Journalism in India is being turned upside down. The turmoil is the most on news television. Norms on reporting, fact-checking and analysis are being tossed out of the window. Anchors twist news, give the government a free ride but target the Opposition, play up prejudices, harangue their guests and claim exclusives where there are none. They build up an environment of fear and anger. So much so that in one instance, the Union government special representative to Kashmir was compelled to ask the Union home minister to demand greater caution on the part of television channels on how they report news on Kashmir.

In this mayhem – and mayhem is the only word to use – those at the receiving end find their own forms of protection. The individuals who are reported on refuse at times to speak to television channels, the more knowledgeable commentators refuse to appear on panels, and interviewees lash out at reporters.

All these are symptoms of a deeper malaise, they are not the causes. To fix this, we need to repair television journalism in India; there is no point in dissecting the symptoms of the malaise.

Over the past 10 days, we have seen a lot of anger flying around social media about the rights and wrongs of Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani effectively asking a reporter from Republic TV to leave a media event in Chennai, and the rest of the reporting corps refusing to cover the event. (Some say it was not a press conference but we can leave that aside.)

Without a context and without any background, one would say, no, Mevani – or for that matter any public personality – should not choose who can and who should be in a press conference. But there is a context and background here. It is one where professional media practices as we know them no longer exist. Mevani has been hounded by Republic TV, his views misreported, his actions caricatured, and he has been blamed on television for events he had nothing to do with. This is not journalism, it is slander.

Picking on an easy target?

You can say that a public figure has to take all this in his stride. Public criticism yes, but falsification?

So let us not be surprised if in this free for all organised by the most widely-watched news channels, individuals find their own devices to protect themselves, even if these mechanisms do not fit into what we consider acceptable professional practices.

It would be a big step forward if working journalists could stand together to protect their working conditions and also press their employers not to degrade journalism in the search for TRPs or readership. Journalism associations/unions are, however, not strong. Over the years, managements have divided journalists by offering different groups different sets of terms of employment (high-paying contracts versus low-paying permanent jobs).

The decision by the journalists to leave Mevani’s event rather than report on the event is being seen by some as a mark of journalist solidarity, demonstrating that they can stand up for professional practices. If only it were so. In this case, the journalists (however few and large they may have been in number) could pick on an easy target. When it comes to important personalities or senior government functionaries, the experience is that journalists have routinely gone along with the terms of the media interaction decided for them. As others have pointed out, whether in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, chief ministers and party chiefs have done what they have wanted to do and the media has acquiesced.

We cannot blame journalists for not being more assertive about the ongoing subversion of journalism. The younger reporters and those working in small outlets are often paid a pittance and placed on contract. They are just beginning their careers. To expect them to ask their editors and employers to repair journalism is a bit too much. It is their seniors and editors who have to work to end this, and no sign of that anywhere. (The new aggression is so powerful that young journalists quickly fall victim and embrace their editors’ views, as in this well-known case.)

For editors and journalists to say that Jignesh Mevani cannot define the terms of engagement for a press conference is an argument of convenience. Important public functionaries routinely give background briefings to select journalists. I have never heard of a boycott in such cases; journalists are compelled to play by the rules whether or not the briefings are off or on the record.

There is the argument that journalists are only doing their jobs. If the nature of work is being turned upside down and no longer conforms to healthy, independent and professional journalism, are the “consumers and creators of news” expected to take what is given and not interfere with this “doing of jobs”?

How to make a real difference

It is better that we pay attention to fixing journalism in India – in print, online and broadcast – than react to how people like Mevani selectively decide how to interact with the press. The symptoms are easy to hold forth on, the underlying malaise is more difficult to tackle.

There has been advice aplenty for Mevani, so let me add mine. It is not easy to do so, but ignore the fake media outlets. They are going to harass you whether you ask them to remove their microphones from press meets or not. So do not give them more of an opportunity to make some noise. A symbolic gesture of asking them to leave a media interaction has no symbolic value either.

Just ignore these media outlets if they thrust their mikes in your face.

A different kind of boycott is called for by us readers and viewers. Maybe if we stay away from publications and television channels that do not even pretend to be independent, honest and professional, it could just about begin to make a difference. That would be a boycott to endorse.

Disclosure: The author contributed to the crowd source 2017 election campaign of Jignesh Mevani.

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