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'Who guards the guardian?'

By Vatsala Vedantam, dec 6, 2012,

Journalism can be a tricky career. It gives unbridled power without responsibility.

The latest scandal to rock Indian television should be a wake up call to journalists and the media for which they work - whether it be print or electronic. Belonging to a profession that is said to be a watchdog of society - a profession “that provides an essential check on all aspects of public life” – it is all the more important that they keep a constant check on how they conduct themselves professionally.

It is a profession wrought with dangers. It gives unlimited powers to the reporter who conveys news, to the writer/anchor who can influence minds, to the medium itself that can shape events. It not only defines our thoughts and perceptions, but it also shapes our opinions on many matters. It carries a tremendous amount of responsibility and its manipulation, which makes a mockery of the freedom of the press, can lead to disastrous results.

Although it must be said that honesty and strict adherence to the truth can sometimes be dangerous to the life or safety of the writer. We all know what happened to Daniel Pearl. On the other hand, dishonesty and deviation from the truth can ruin reputations and completely change peoples’ lives. Sometimes, they could even lead to tragic deaths.


Lurid sensationalism

The world has seen the insatiable appetite of newspapers and newsmakers for lurid sensationalism that drove a future queen of England to a sad end in France. It has also seen a dedicated editor’s search for the truth that saved future lives even if it cost him his career. Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times was a courageous investigative reporter who took on powerful drug manufacturers in a relentless battle to win compensation for millions of children born with defective limbs due to the administration of the deadly drug, thalidomide.

Nearer home, we have journalists who have exposed the nefarious acts of powerful politicians and brought down bad governments. We also have journalists who have damaged people’s standing in society and ruined careers through their irresponsible reporting. The pen is a powerful tool which can make or mar reputations. Used judiciously, it can be a powerful weapon against social misdeeds. When misused, it can wreak havoc and lose credibility as well. I recall the agony and mental torture suffered by a controller of examinations in one of our state universities who was accused of leaking question papers to favour students. The story broke in all newspapers to the shame of his family as well. When he was finally proved innocent of the charges in a court of law many years later, his standing as an academician was already in shreds.

On the other hand, false reputations have also been built through careful manipulation of news. In newspaper jargon, this is called ‘paid news’ where costly gifts and money can purchase a good but ill-deserved coverage. We, journalists have to guard against politicians, industrialists, mega corporates and many other professionals like artists, doctors and school managements, to name a few, who crave publicity and a good press. At the same time, they are the people with whom one has to interact often for news. Journalism can be a tricky career. It gives unbridled power without responsibility. It also means walking on a razor’s edge to hunt for true stories, interact with strangers and face situations that could jeopardise one’s own reputation and safety.

Added to this, the lure to sensationalise one’s reporting can result in grave consequences.  More so in television channels which thrive on a constant supply of excitement to whet the appetites of their viewers. The mass exodus of families from the north eastern parts of India from several other states recently which almost fractured the country's unity itself is a case in point. Such blatant misuse of power can only result in damaging one’s credibility, not to mention that of the media itself. The concept of freedom of the press is more abused than treasured in such instances. It goes to show that the very purpose of the media is grossly misunderstood.

In the light of all this, the latest verdict of Justice Leveson passed on British newspapers for their “outrageous and reckless” reporting comes as a whiff of fresh air for the media in general. Following a phone-hacking scandal in 2011, Justice Leveson was appointed to chair an enquiry committee to examine the practices and ethics of the media and make his recommendations.

Accusing newspapers and news channels of “putting sensationalism above public interest,” he has recommended an independent regulatory body to prevent media misuse. He has rightly pointed out that the press must show respect to the rights of others also even as it claims its own rights for freedom of expression. Even though his comments are aimed at the British press, they could very well be interpreted in the Indian context as well. Especially when he asks: At the heart of this Inquiry may be one simple question: ‘Who guards the guardians?’
 

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