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June 13, 2000

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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

A sturdy pillar or a decrepit column?

The time seems to have come for Indian journalists to go back to school... To learn moral science! It is time for them to intone that subject's fundamental prayer seeking god's help in never offending his holy law in thought, word or deed.

If there ever was doubt in anyone's mind about the immorality in Indian journalism, it was demolished by the landmark article penned by one of its own fraternity -- by Saisuresh Sivaswamy posted on rediff.com on June 6, 2000.

That immorality is not of sudden, recent birth. As a PR man in the late Sixties, this columnist recalls uninvited journalists gatecrashing at a press conference, getting tipsy, asking inane questions and imploring for a second or third extra gift.

In the early Seventies, there was that party of journalists taken, all found, to see the burgeoning industrial scene in Maharashtra's Nashik District, asking for taxi fare to home on return to Bombay airport. Work-wise, giving readymade copy to a journalist was part of a PR man's line of duty those days.

The internecine jealousy in the vocation was best reflected in a reporter's comment about a rival who wrote for a prestigious paper as its `Shipping Correspondent'. "Next time he meets you," I was advised, "ask him to explain the plimsoll line." And as for the general professionalism those days, that kind of advice didn't need to be tested --- the outcome was known!

On the whole though, they were a jolly good lot, mild-mannered, fairly easily obliging with favourable copy and quick in saying "Sorry" for little devils therein -- theirs or the printer's. That overall meekness came through crystal clear during the national Emergency imposed in 1975 by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Save a couple or so, all the newspapers simply caved in. As a worthy summed it later, they were merely asked to bend but they chose to crawl. It was the yellow phase of India's journalism.

An almost dramatic change came in the early Eighties with the cement scandal of Maharashtra Chief Minister A R Antulay, that first brought investigative journalism to Indian homes. Arun Shourie, given a free hand by Ramnath Goenka of The Express group, went hammer and tongs after Antulay's shady Trust. Soon afterwards he thundered about Ambani's shenanigans with pre-dated Letters of Credit and unlicensed imports of whole manufacturing plants.

V P Singh's rise to power aided the intrepid trend in our press. The Bofors guns boomed in newsprint. The helicopter and submarine deals were unleashed. His Mandal mission singed our news pages. And soon after Narasimha Rao began his liberalisation process, Sucheta Dalal's expose of Harshad Mehta's manipulation of millions of rupees in the stock market heralded a brilliant peak for our journalism, especially financial journalism.

However, the advent of crass materialism in the wake of economic liberalisation and the BJP's simultaneous strident march to centre stage with its Hindutva agenda would appear to have had a peculiar fallout on the mainstream media, especially its so-called secular intellectuals.

Earlier, specific gift items to journalists had, at the latter's initiative, been replaced by pre-paid gift vouchers of major department stores. Now these vouchers began to be discounted for hard cash from passersby at suburban railway stations; the vouchers themselves tended to be replaced by assured quotas of shares from the spate of public issues by the private sector. The freebies from the government continued: Reserved housing, plots of prime land at concessional rates, patronage of Press Clubs (alias watering holes), quick telephone and LPG connections, free trips of Bharat or world darshan and fixation of salaries not by negotiations with newspaper managements but by sympathetic government-appointed wage boards.

Side by side, it became a fad first, a fashion next and then second nature itself for our leading English language dailies -- along with their minions in the vernacular sector -- to uphold "secularism," to debunk and damn the BJP in or out of power. All of this was rooted in the Ayodhya episode. All of it was done:

*Without going into the mystery of why the Babri Masjid Action Committee did not attend what was to be the last decisive meeting with the temple protagonists who were by then armed with solid proof supporting their contention.

*Without reading the definitive work on Ayodhya by Koenraad Elst, a young Belgian scholar who is credited with having a better grasp of India than most Indians have.

Doing honest, hard work, leave alone being scholarly, is now the exception rather than the rule among our journalists. Some two years or so ago, the financial editor of The Times of India lamented how her staff did not read even their own newspaper's commercial pages. The other day, the cricket editor of the same group misread the visiting card of a clinical psychologist and labelled her as a "clinical pathologist" for a front-page Sunday story on match-fixing. Lethargy is now the leitmotif.

Instead of application and attainment, aggressiveness and arrogance have become the traits. Instances of this nonchalant profile are many, but one should suffice because it represents the conclusive symptom of the affliction.

That clincher came from the winsome lass with long flowing hair who anchors prime time news on Star TV. Discussing an event one cannot quite recall now, she agitatedly alluded to freedom of the press being a Fundamental Right. The gumptious woman didn't know that freedom of the press is not a Fundamental Right in the Indian Constitution; "freedom of expression" is, but subject to limitations.

Another editorial staffer, Amrita Abraham of The Indian Express, began her piece of June 7, 2000, with "There has never been a more immoral, politically biased and economically unsound decision than the one reducing subsidies on food intended for India's 300 million poor people." The woman then went on to churn out another thousand more words shredding the BJP-led government's recent budget enactment.

She had the gall to do that without even once referring to Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's letter of May 16, 2000, of 1,200-odd words to Sonia Gandhi, explaining the position to the leader of the Opposition. One of the points the PM had made in his letter was that when the Congress was in office, the issue price of rice given through the Public Distribution System (PDS) was increased by 30.4 per cent in 1991, by a further 15.9 per cent in 1993, and by another 22.8 per cent the very next year. In respect of wheat supplied under the PDS, the PM had pointed out that the Congress government raised the price in 1994 by 43.6 per cent over its 1991 level.

Conclusion: Like many others of her genre, Abraham probably believes that comparisons are so odious that they ought not to debar journalists from pronouncing historic indictments about unprecedented immorality or political bias et al.

Take the example of Seema Mustafa, the chief political columnist of The Asian Age, who is forever itching to claw the very entrails of the Hindutva BJP while being ignorant that saffron is the colour of her pirs as well. Very recently, she pounced on Yashwant Sinha for "allowing" chosen Foreign Institutional Investors to be exempted from paying capital gains tax through what she labelled as "The Mauritius Connection". The finance minister's daughter-in-law was dragged into the muck Mustafa sought to create with three continuous front-page "exposes". The connivance of the CPI-M and the Congress was also roped in to weave the noose for Sinha, at least if not for Vajpayee too.

Soon enough, the PM's Office issued a clarification on the inviolability of the old treaty with Mauritius and the advantage it had brought to our country; it also gave a clean chit to Sinha vis--vis his bahu. Bingo... Mustafa dumped her defused detonator without publishing the PMO's clarification, leave alone tendering an apology.

Two more horror stories and the case against journalists will rest. Both happened when a group of them was invited by the Indian Army last year to gauge the Kashmir scenario. That was a little before Kargil occurred. The stories themselves are such that the press would probably never again have been hosted by our Army but for the Kargil war itself.

A conspicuous feature of that pre-Kargil invitation to the press was several editors responded by deputing their crime reporters for the assignment. Yes, crime reporters for assessing the Kashmir situation! Further, many journalists in the group kept on pressing the liasing Major General to show them an encounter with the terrorists! It was only the screening of one rare videotape of such an "encounter" (shot by BBC by chance) that enabled the Army to silence by fright that demand of those nave journalists.

Another demand on that visit was that the journalists be taken to Srinagar for sightseeing around the Dal Lake before returning home. When the Major General repeatedly declined on the ground that civilian security in Srinagar was the responsibility of the State Police and not of the Indian Army, one of those journalists threatened the Major General with a phone call to Defence Minister George Fernandes. That call, so went the threat, would end up kicking the Major General back to Bihar.

It is a well-kept secret that the Major General's response was to drag the journalist concerned by his collar to a nearby telephone and dare him to dial, not the Defence Minister, but the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces who sits in Rashtrapati Bhavan. He also told the pressman that if orders were at all received to include Srinagar in the last lap, he would do so only after getting an indemnity bond exonerating the Army from any responsibility for any untoward harm befalling the journalists. Ergo, no phone call was made to anyone. Significantly -- and tellingly -- only one newspaper is reported to have carried coverage of that conducted press visit to Jammu and Kashmir.

Hence it is that one part of India's journalistic scenario is such as was summed up by Seema Sirohi in an article of May 30, 2000, in The Telegraph of Calcutta. Its crux is that (a) "A certain chalta hai attitude and cynicism have begun to grip the media not only about the subjects they cover but about their own conduct. There seem to be few or no rules about what favours the press will or will not accept from the government and how it will partake of the taxpayers' inadvertent largesse." (b) "It is every journalist's secret dream to be on the Prime Minister's plane with all the frills and special service... with the reporters using the free international calling facilities to call a whole battery of relatives and then some."

Sirohi's account is, of course, only one part of the story. The other part is about the yuppies and the pseudo-intellectuals, the Abrahams, the Mustafas and the Nayars. And also about a Delhi editor who wrote a whole article the other day about how the government is partisan in granting patronage to the press and how, probably because of three "Diary" items of hers about Rashtrapati Bhavan, she was not invited to accompany the President on his recent visit to China.

Hence the grave doubts. Is India's fourth estate merely the rogue estate? Is the one sturdy pillar of democracy merely a decrepit column in our land?

Tailpiece: Addressing thousands of journalists in the Vatican City on June 4, 2000, Pope John Paul II observed that "ethics could not be separated from journalism" and that journalism should be considered a "sacred" task. If only our "secular" journos took those words to heart, it would surely lead to one mass conversion even the rabid Hindus would not oppose.

Arvind Lavakare

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