Media and public responsibility

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

It is tragic that it needs public exposure to goad at least some officials into behaving a little less negligently than they usually do, and show some concern for the work they have been entrusted with.

EVERY so often a newspaper or journal features some act of omission or commission by some public authority which is at its best irresponsible and at its worst nothing less than criminal; what has come to be known as `investigative journalism'. Garbage not being moved from parts of a city for weeks rising into large stinking mounds, babies being stolen from hospital wards and sold to childless couples, encroachments on public land by land developers clearly done with the connivance of civic authorities, rotten food served to children in schools under the mid-day meal programme and affected children sent to hospital - the list is pretty long.

In almost every case, the authorities react with some kind of hasty corrective action. Inquiries are instituted, some officials are moved, encroachments are demolished and so on. All of which demonstrates that we do have effective and probing media, both press and electronic, and their exposure of negligence, corruption or sheer apathy of officialdom does result in some action being taken. Which is fine; something about which we can be quite satisfied. But this is not really about the power of the media; it is about what the media exposes.

Whenever I read about one such exposure what seems to be the really tragic aspect of it all is that such misdeeds should occur at all. Let me hasten to say that I am not saying that we can ever have a society where there will be no misdeeds, no negligence and no corruption. All of these exist in all societies to a greater or lesser degree. The media have been carrying stories of the manner in which the corporate giant Enron cooked its books, and that too with the connivance of a firm of financial specialists which used to be universally respected; hard on the heels of that was the exposure of a similar and equally epic fiddling of accounts by Xerox. So such things happen in the private sector and in the U.S., no less; and it obviously happens in other countries and in several fields of public activity. A few days ago, a very senior executive of the Korean corporate Hyundai threw himself out of his office and died; clearly something was wrong somewhere, and he was probably part of that something.

The trouble is that we seem to specialise in action that amounts to negligence and callousness, spiced up in some cases with corruption, to be sure, but the impression left behind by all the exposes is that there is a lack of conscience, and of basic ethical instincts, a kind of mental flabbiness that is dirty and smelly. How else would doctors - if that is what they really are - run a hospital where babies can be stolen, where stray dogs wander through wards, where toilets are so filthy that even going near them is nauseating? They may, and always do, have very smooth explanations for all this, at times tinged with apparently convincing indignation. The simple question one wants to ask them is - why do they stay on in such disgusting institutions, and even lobby to get the top administrative posts in them?

Look at the corporations in most of our cities. If their employees were left alone, they would be very comfortable in their comfortable offices, signing files - an art that Macaulay taught generations that have carefully passed it on to all those who came after them - and going home at the end of a day with the satisfied feeling of having a really hard day's work behind them. But fortunately they are not allowed to exist in this happy state always; some nosy journalist, or a team of journalists, exposes the appalling nature of the civic services and then, of course, there is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, urgent meetings and decisions to do something. And while all this is going on, there is a secret welling up of resentment against the paper or journal the stories of which have made them exert themselves and actually do something.

What makes these human beings, who, presumably, are people like you and me, behave in this conscience-less, unfeeling manner? Do not corporation officials see the filth on the streets, the lack of sanitation in slums and of drinking water, and do they not think they need to do something about it? They need to meet someone like S.R. Rao, who was Municipal Commissioner of Surat, then the dirtiest city in India, where the outbreak of plague started a few years ago. That city was ranked the second cleanest in India not so long ago, and it was mainly because of the work Rao did. So it can be done. And it can be done by people who are no different from us. Take another example, Anil Baijal, now Vice-Chairman of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). A fine, upright officer, who is not going to ingratiate himself with the sort of touts and fixers who used to hang around the DDA. These are people who feel concerned, have a conscience, want to make conditions better, and are able to channelise their concern into well-thought-out, determined action.

There is, of course, a slight catch here. Good officers like Anil Baijal or S.R. Rao need to be left alone and given the support they need to get their work done. This means that the government must, at least to an extent, think on lines not too different from theirs. This is what does not happen in organisations like the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. I imagine it is not very different in some of our other civic bodies, or, indeed, in some of the State governments, and officers like Baijal and Rao would be transferred out to prevent them from coming in the way of the cosy exchange of money and favours that characterise a good deal of governmental dealings throughout the country. Unless, of course, a journal or newspaper gets on to what the power-brokers and wheeler-dealers are doing and exposes them and their deeds.

And that is, of course, the other issue that never ceases to astonish. Why is it that journalists have some kind of moral consciousness and a sense of what is right and wrong and not those who sit in the offices of power? Are they, again, two different kinds of beings? What keeps a sense of right in one, and drives it out of the other? At this point, someone could very rightly say that I am the last person who should talk about this, having been one of those conscience-less, power-obsessed bureaucrats myself. Well, I was a bureaucrat, true, but I do not really think I was that kind of bureaucrat. Though I did see an awful lot of them all around, I think I did act in a manner I thought was best, and I think my sense of right and wrong did not desert me. And because it did not, I can talk about it now, and identify the malaise that affects far too many in the administration, who only seem to shake it off when the press or television exposes what they have done or not done. I have seen fine officers like Anil Baijal and S.R. Rao, and I have seen others I would rather not name who have left their conscience and scruples behind them many years ago.

Perhaps, it is the atmosphere in which they grow within the administration; most are just run-of-the-mill young men and women, and are likely to be awed by the pomp and circumstance of the unscrupulous who always are more attractive to watch than the others. Gradually the desire to emulate them overtakes scruples and beliefs which may at best have been vaguely thought out, and reality becomes the fat wads of money that suddenly transforms the way they live. Whatever it is, it is tragic that it needs public exposure to chivvy at least some officials into behaving a little less negligently than they usually do, show - even if they do not feel - some concern for the work they have been entrusted with. Perhaps, one day they will retain their beliefs in commitment and devotion to their work; till they do, we can only rely on the media to point them out and use shame as a means of getting them to do their jobs.

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