I am not surprised that some of the readers of Scroll.in had the same response that I did to the article by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan on Rahul Gandhi’s remark about a journalist he called “pliable”. They wrote in to say the “reaction of the journalist fraternity is strange”. I reacted similarly and wondered why journalists were so outraged by what was at best an ill-advised and casual comment by someone who ought to be more careful about what he says about the media, given the history of hostility he has faced from them.
Gandhi used that adjective while referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first television interview in 2019, with ANI editor Smita Prakash. In his five years in office, interviews by Modi have been extremely rare events.
Since 2014, Indian journalists have been at the receiving end of far worse adjectives than “pliable” by members of the ruling party, including the prime minister, such as “presstitute”, “dalals [traders]” and “bazaaru [easily bought]”. I do not recall organisations like the Editors’ Guild issuing statements of protest when such comments were made, as they did for Gandhi’s remark. It is intriguing why this time they felt so compelled as did several other Delhi-based organisations like the Indian Women’s Press Corps and the National Union of Journalists.
Politicians vs media
Is our functioning as journalists or our credibility really affected by what politicians say about us? We know full well that politicians attack the media only when they are at the receiving end of negative coverage. Yet, the same politicians have no compunction about buying editorial space in media houses willing to sell it, to guarantee positive coverage. “Paid news” of this kind is now an old story.
Also, it goes without saying that media exposure is the oxygen on which politicians depend. So, irrespective of the party to which they belong, they find ways to cultivate the media and only choose friendly media outlets for exclusives.
No politician wants to be grilled. Gandhi was one exception when he agreed to be interviewed by Arnab Goswami for the Times Now channel in January 2014. He was either very brave or extremely foolhardy, depending on what you make of the interview. On the other hand, Narendra Modi, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, learned his lesson after he walked out of an interview with Karan Thapar in 2007, when Thapar surprised him with a question about the Gujarat carnage of 2002. Since then, his interviews are rare, interviewers carefully chosen, and the questions approved in advance. There is no room for unexpected follow up questions, as was evident in his most recent interview, which was telecast on January 1.
As a result, in India we do not see on our television channels the kind of combative and tough questioning of politicians that is so common in private channels in other democratic countries. The exceptional television journalist who has shown the willingness and the ability to conduct such interviews is never chosen by leading politicians as their interviewer of choice.
Allure of power and money
Also, apart from politicians, how many critical interviews of leaders of the corporate world have we seen in the Indian media? Given the controversy over Rafale, has any journalist or media house succeeded in getting an interview with Anil Ambani whose company is partnering with Rafale’s French manufacturer? Or with the owners of Sterlite that was at the centre of the clashes in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu last year over pollution from its copper smelter? Such interviews are granted to journalists with certain conditions, including no-go areas. So only the pliable, those willing to bend, to be accommodating, will get such exclusives.
While journalists can be asked to be respectful towards people holding high office, surely obsequiousness is not required. Unfortunately, in India obsequiousness is the principal quality called upon to show respect. The concept of politely but firmly asking tough questions of people in power is rarely seen. We are a hierarchical society and this is reflected in the media. So even if Gandhi should have refrained from singling out a particular journalist and accusing her of being “pliable”, the adjective does apply to large sections of the media who are willing to yield to the demands not just of any given political party but also to people with power and money.
The good news is that there are many exceptions whose work is seen every day in sections of the media including on this platform. Journalists can choose to be independent minded. It is not always easy. Many corporatised media houses do not like such journalists and demand conformism. In fact, being pliable is a guarantee for upward mobility while asking questions is seen as a negative quality.
In my opinion, instead of issuing statements of protest against politicians, and urging them to respect us, journalists would be better served by their associations if they protested against the completely unjustified incarceration under the National Security Act of Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem because he made a critical comment about Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh on social media.
We should also be protesting about the way women journalists were attacked and prevented from doing their professional duties while covering the Sabarimala standoff in Kerala, starting October. The latest such incident is particularly outrageous: Shajila Ali Fatima, a cameraperson with Kairali TV, was beaten up by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party who were protesting in Thiruvananthapuram last week. Despite being knocked to the ground and in acute pain, this brave young woman picked up her camera and continued filming. She now has to wear a collar because of the injury.
Both these cases should invite outrage. The first because even humour and poking fun at our political class that is eminently qualified for ridicule, is being seen as anti-national. And the second, because members of a political party that claims it believes in a free press see nothing wrong in intimidating and even physically assaulting journalists who are doing their jobs. If this pattern of intimidation continues, our work as journalists will become far more difficult than if Rahul Gandhi or any other politician makes a nasty jibe against the media.
On a slightly different point, an issue that has often been debated amongst journalists is whether we would be failing in our professional duties if we get involved in the stories that we are covering. This question arises particularly when covering conflict, a communal riot, an atrocity against marginalised people, or a natural calamity. Can we just do our jobs of reporting, and believe that is enough? Or should we as citizens, as empathetic human beings, also extend a hand of help? Many of us who covered the 1992-’93 communal riots in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, found ourselves faced with this dilemma. We could not remain indifferent bystanders simply recording the carnage.
I commend the Backstory series that Scroll.in published at the end of 2018. Of all the stories, I found the one by Aarefa Johri on Maharashtra and TA Ameerudheen on covering the Kerala floods particularly poignant and relevant.