Retooling journalists and journalism

Print edition : September 20, 2013

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurates the National Media Centre in New Delhi on August 24 along with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari. Also present are Bimal Julka, Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and Neelam Kapur, Principal Director General (M&C), PIB. Photo: PTI

WE do not really know what he meant, but he assures us that he meant well. Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari’s rather vague suggestion that would-be journalists should undergo a common examination and obtain a licence to practice the profession may have been meant as a trial balloon, but tends to sound more like casing the joint before a bid to rob the fourth estate of some of its freedoms. To begin with, the sheer gumption of the idea sets it apart from normal democratic discourse. We would not, for example, be re-examining whether universal suffrage should continue to be the given in our form of representative government, although, if you put it up for discussion in the public sphere, there would be those who forcefully argue that an educational pre-qualification to exercise the ballot would make for a better democracy in a country with mass illiteracy like ours. The faith in every citizen as an eligible voter is a leap of democratic faith. So too, one would have hoped by now, is that in the principle of the freedom of the press.

It does not help that the inspiration for this gratuitous move to raise the standard of the press comes from the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, who has set up a committee to go into whether or what minimum qualifications might be set for a journalist. It does not help that the objective conditions, globally, in which journalism now operates allow the dominance of the intrusive surveillance state; that the super state which boasts a constitution guaranteeing unabridged freedom of the press goes after whistle-blowers who put the media wise to its astounding violations—of the privacy of its own citizens, its allies and other countries; of human rights in Iraq and other American theatres of war or conflict—with a vengeance. All it takes, as we see in the case of Edward Snowden, is to arbitrarily dub the whistle-blower a “fugitive” to make it legit to hunt him down.

What is worse, it now emerges from a new instalment of the Snowden revelations that the giant media corporations, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook, which had appeared unwilling but helpless before the secretive legal requirement—imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the United States—to share their data about their customers with the National Security Agency (NSA), actually received millions of dollars from the intelligence outfit as recompense. They were no doubt making a monetary virtue of a security necessity. Some of these companies play a quasi-journalistic role—Google as news aggregator and Facebook as a social media complement of news—and make journalism to that extent vulnerable.

Another media conglomerate, Amazon, has not been mentioned in the redacted Snowden documents published thus far, but there has been some speculation of its involvement, partly fuelled by the tax breaks it is seen as getting in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and by Amazon Web Services’ bid to provide cloud computing services to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, taking over The Washington Post from the Graham family seems symptomatic of another kind of takeover—of the traditional publisher by the modern corporation.

The nexus

We have our own variant of this trend in Reliance Industries, a corporate house widely seen as getting sweetheart deals from the government, making equity forays into TV18 and Eenadu groups. There are no doubt considerations of technological convergence and resultant vertical integration of business behind such acquisitions. But the nexus between the firm and the state is what makes the journalism in the business queasy. And yet it has been possible for many to see Bezos as a godsend because his deep pockets may help insulate journalism at The Post from the immediate pressures of the market and foster more breathing and thinking space for journalists, making for better breadth and depth of coverage and analysis. The visible influence of Reliance on TV18, on the other hand, has been in terms of ruthless corporate and market efficiency, including a clinical reappraisal of its workforce requirement and retrenchment of hundreds of employees, including journalists. Indeed the media sector in the country seems to be moving into a parodic version of jobless growth, the joblessness accruing largely to the journalism part, which once drove the business but is increasingly becoming an also-ran in the scramble for profit.

So it is bad enough for journalism as it is without Messrs Katju and Tewari lending a helping hand to suppress the independent, freewheeling, uncontainable spirit that distinguishes this calling and seeking to convert it into some standardised and homogenised equivalent of a white collar workforce meeting the expectations or requirements of what Manish Tewari calls “stakeholders” (the government, he promised, while floating his exam-plus-licence idea, “will not do anything that is not acceptable to stakeholders”). Because journalism, at its finest, is about and for those who may not be stakeholders in the market sense of the term, but have, at the same time, a lot at stake.

In the debates in the Constituent Assembly leading to the enshrining of freedom of speech and expression as a Fundamental Right in the Constitution, when the issue of stipulating specific separate rights for the press (as the First Amendment does in the U.S. Constitution) came up, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar held that the freedom of the press was implicit in the freedom of speech and expression as envisaged in Article 19(1)(a). The burden of his argument was that a separate coding of press rights would be a limitation on, rather than an elaboration of, the full entitlements of freedom of expression as guaranteed to every citizen of India. Courts in the country have also construed freedom of the press as inhering in the larger freedom of speech. The occupational freedom and right of expression of the journalist, then, is coequal with that of any citizen.

“Reasonable restrictions”

A disconcerting aspect of the recent readings of this fundamental right and freedom the press enjoys and shares with every citizen has been the repeated and undue emphasis placed on the “reasonable restrictions” mentioned in Article 19(2), almost to the extent that the limitation proviso seems to get precedence over the empowerment clause. Apart from the grudging mindset it reveals, there is a spin on the clause (of reasonable restrictions) that makes it appear as some kind of a safeguard provided in the Constitution for the people against their press, whereas the burden of proof of reasonableness is, in fact, on those invoking the restrictions to hedge or restrict the freedom and right to speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a). The Constitution specifies seven grounds for restrictions, namely, the interests of the sovereignty and the integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation and incitement to offence. It is the restrictions, the Constitution tells us, that must be reasonable, and not, as is sought to be commonly conveyed, that we, the people and the press, should be pre-emptively reasonably restrained in the exercise of our constitutional and fundamental freedom of expression. There is a difference between the two.

The experience and legacy of journalism in India sets it clearly apart from the medical or the legal profession to which it has of late been compared to buttress the case for introduction of a course of study or an exam or a licensing norm. Manish Tewari recognises the heterogeneous nature of this vocation when he observes that economists and experts in international relations are today among the ranks of the journalists. Those who led the struggle for Indian independence were lawyers or journalists, and often both. Gandhiji’s vast journalistic output—including in his Satyagraha, Indian Opinion, Young India, Navajivan and Harijan—seemed partly in the nature of testing his own evolving political philosophy. As he says in his autobiography, “ Indian Opinion in those days, like Young India and Navajivan today, was a mirror of part of my life. Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns, and expounded the principles and practice of Satyagraha as I understood it…. Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion.” In this sense his journalism was constitutive, not the product or byproduct of his political thinking.

The journalistic field needs to be kept open and open-ended. It does not matter that it is uneven. It must remain a site for contestation and questioning. With the formal news media segueing into the social media, the field opens up into a larger public sphere and Gandhiji’s mirror metaphor becomes all the more relevant. Journalism becomes less arcane, more quotidian and of and by the people. We already see blogs of the local populace becoming a valuable source of first information and news where access for the formal media is limited or cut off, as in contexts of civil conflict or war (Iraq earlier, Syria or Egypt now) or natural disasters. We are seeing the categories of print, television, radio and online journalism merge into a common stream and new demands being made on the journalist, in terms of the craft, to be multimedia savvy, to multitask.

Suspect agenda

Journalism education may be a desirable but not a necessary precondition for a practitioner in the field—just as a film institute may be helpful but not necessary for a film-maker, a course in a school of art for a painter or one in a design school for a graphic artist or designer, or a music school for someone taking to composing popular music or singing for films for a living. The parallels, if at all, must be drawn from these allied fields of communication rather than endogenous disciplines such as medicine or law.

In any case, it is curious that what was a debate about internal versus external regulation in the news media has suddenly somewhere flipped into a discussion on prescriptions about the norms of eligibility for a journalist. That all this comes at a time when mainstream journalism, despite its many drawbacks, shortcomings and excesses, is pounding away at the establishment, exposing, almost on a daily basis, scam after sleaze after scam, makes the agenda being subtly pushed in the name of reforming journalism rather suspect.

Official pronouncements, though, continue to profess a hands-off policy on the press. At the recent inauguration of the National Media Centre in New Delhi, the Prime Minister pointed out that the impact of changes in the media post-liberalisation had not been studied and cautioned: “A spirit of inquiry must not morph into a campaign of calumny. A witch-hunt is no substitute for investigative journalism. And personal prejudices must not replace public good.” But he seemed to put these aberrations down to the “tussle between bottom lines and headlines” and said the government was committed to a “free, pluralistic and independent media”.

He characterised the impact of liberalisation on the media as a “virtuous cycle” with the wider reach of the media creating newer markets to benefit both producers and consumers. But the virtuous cycle that made a difference for a good section of the news media, particularly private television channels, seems to have been stock-market-boom-centric, as larger-than-real brands were quickly built up to raise money in the larger-than-real stock market. And when the market collapsed, and recession set in to boot, the cycle turned vicious with operating losses toting up and offsetting and undermining the bubble bonanza.

It is small wonder that the channels cannot subscribe to the advertising time limit of 12 minutes an hour set (in the interest of the viewer) by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and have sought the Information and Broadcasting Minister’s intercession to defer the implementation of the norm. So the viewer may, for some time yet, find it difficult to make out whether she is taking an advertising break from programming, or a programming break from advertising.

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