WHEN l was studying in a journalism school abroad, l was told by my professor that a news story should be like a skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be attractive. Over the years, the story has assumed the shape of pontification and inevitably padded. When senior journalists are kicking the bucket, the question that stares at us is what kind of journalism will be there in future. Of course this is not confined to India. All countries, whether in the West or the East – barring the totalitarian regimes – are asking the same question: which is the Lakshman Rekha that journalists should not cross? Or should there be any Lakshman Rekha at all?
Individuals are increasingly posing the question why journalists are prying into their private affairs. Journalists in turn defend themselves on the grounds that if they were not to probe, skeletons would not come out of closet. The government has a standard reply: some things cannot be disclosed in public interest. In this way even big scandals are covered up.
I recall that when l wrote against the suppression of three Supreme Court judges, Hegde, Grover and Shalat, l was criticized by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who argued that journalism did not mean preaching about the “commitment” of judges. She did not elaborate what that “commitment” was. I can understand the judges having commitment to the constitution, but not to a person however high he or she might be.
What Mrs Indira Gandhi was demanding from the judges was a commitment to follow her way of thinking. That is the reason she appointed Justice Ray, a junior judge in Supreme Court, as Chief Justice, ignoring seniority of three others. She did not show even courtesy of informing them before hand. They heard news on All India Radio.
This kind of political manipulation runs contrary to the transparency that a democratic system cherishes. Indeed the structure of democracy stands on the pillars of both the division and limitation of power. For example, the army does not interfere in the affairs of government because it is a force under the civil administration. Some countries like Pakistan have gone under because the military, although it has recently gone back to the barracks, is still very much there. The same is true of Bangladesh, although in that country some journalists do dare to criticize the armed forces.
Democracy expects all its wings to function independently but still in a way that sovereignty stays with the people. It is another matter that rulers themselves become authoritarian and behave like the worst of the Mughal emperors. Those who ensure that democracy functions in the interests of the people are the judges who even have power to go into the pronouncements of the legislature. The debate about whether the judiciary is supreme or executive is an ongoing discussion.
If there is criticism of what judges do, or even the manner in which the legislature functions, that comes from journalists. It is the duty of journalists to do so. If they are afraid of carrying out what is expected from them, it is unfortunate for the system. I have experienced how during the Emergency, which completed forty one years this week on June, 26, the entire Press caved in. Initially, there were protests and a large number of journalists – including editors – assembled at the Press Club in Delhi to pass a resolution that Press censorship, an integral part of the Emergency, was not acceptable to them. Yet, as days went by, fear engripped them and they became part of the system, even accepting the orders of Mrs Gandhis’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, an extra constitutional authority.
I recall that as a member of the Press Council of India, I went to its then chairman, Justice Iyer, to urge him to summon a meeting of the Press Council, an apex body. I did not know by then that fear had also made him subservient. He told me there was no use of summoning a meeting of the Press Council because there would be no publicity about its proceedings. My argument was that if there were no protests then many years later, when the archives would be opened of this shameful chapter, there wouldn’t be any record about any protest by the Press Council, the journalists’. After hearing me, he reluctantly convened a meeting of local Press Council members. To my horror I saw in the white paper issued after the lifting of the Emergency that he had written to the then information minister, V.C. Shukla, explaining how he (Justice Iyer) was able to stall the effort by Kuldip Nayar to convene a meeting of the Press Council.
The same question about the independence of journalists comes before us again and again in different situations. And I find that increasingly we the journalists are failing in the standards required from us. None of this has been helped by the new digital technology that promotes very short stories or sound bites. In fact things have deteriorated to such an extent today that news columns can be bought. It is an open secret that several stories are nothing more than paid news. Some leading newspapers feel no shame in selling the space to whoever wants to buy it. For them it is purely a question of revenue.
How low have we sunk from the heights that we once enjoyed? There was a time when we were able to bring before public such scandals as Mundhra insurance scam during time of Finance Minister TT Krishnachari. Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister, forced him to resign from cabinet. But even when I subsequently met TTK, he did not seem to realize harm he had done to the polity.
India is oblivious to the privations of individuals. In contrast the UK media has in the past been prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of innocent victims from different walks of life. For example, the Sunday Times, for which I was a stringer, is still remembered with affection and gratitude for the work it did on behalf of those parents whose children were born handicapped because of the Thalidomide drug prescribed to the patient. Public pressure eventually forced the drug manufacturing company to pay out the needed compensation. Can we emulate those examples today when our very integrity as journalists is being questioned, not to speak of the high standards we once followed?
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.