Temper journalism with respect

“The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it,” says Boris Pasternak in his award-winning novel, ‘Dr Zhivago’. This statement could very well reflect today’s India. Or, any other totalitarian regime. In theory, we are a democracy, just like the United States of America. But sadly, democratic values in both countries have given way to a subtle form of dictatorship where doublespeak is the order of the day, with trigger happy cohorts doing what they think their leaders want them to do.

Charlottesville would not have happened or the Ku Klux Klan would not have revived without Donald Trump’s silent nod. Nor would writers and journalists be targeted in this country without the covert consent of the powers-that-be. 

Having said that, I would add that there is yet another threat. This time, to journalism itself — by journalists. A profession whose practitioners are supposed to be the watchdogs of society has unfortunately become an instrument of fear and intimidation. Today’s journalism targets individuals rather than unstable institutions, beliefs rather than unsound practices. There is a world of difference between the two.

Bad policies can be criticised without slandering the policy-maker, just as wrong judgements can be condemned without casting aspersions on judges. Journalism is a kind of tightrope walk where you do a fine balancing act all the time. You censure the teaching, without maligning the teacher. Critique the performance, but not the singer. Condemn social iniquities without adding insults.

Perhaps, the fault lies with our schools of journalism. They have mushroomed, with little concern for the quality of their courses. They also make it look as though a course in journalism leads to a glamorous career.

Nothing could be more misleading. Young writers and TV anchors discover afterwards that this profession is not simply about muckraking but one that involves long hours of dedicated work to report facts.

Since one of the cardinal virtues of journalism is taking responsibility for one’s statements, they have to be presented accurately. True, a lot of dirt has to be scraped up sometimes, which needs painstaking research. That is not easy. Great journalists have risked their lives to do so.

Would Watergate have been possible, and the most powerful man in the world exposed, but for the perseverance of two intrepid young reporters from the Washington Post? Or, would a thalidomide scandal be unearthed to save millions of unborn babies but for the courage of an editor of the most famous newspaper in the world?

Nearer home, we had great journalists who dared powerful politicians, exposed corruption in high places and even brought down dictatorial regimes with the sheer might of their pens.

But, it becomes a different ball game altogether when journalists have a conflict of interests, such as political or other affiliations. Newspaper stories remain impartial and unbiased only when the writer is truly independent.

Biased narratives

You praise or criticise without bias when you have nothing to gain or lose. The praise becomes unduly lavish and the criticism unnecessarily harsh when there is an underlying bias or intolerance towards the subject.

If only journalists — and that includes writers, artists and cartoonists — learnt to combine humanity with their investigative skills, many tragedies could be prevented.

Salman Rushdie, MF Hussein, Charlie Hebdo were all big names in their respective fields who failed to recognise that people are sensitive about their country, their gods and their beliefs. These cannot be trashed without a backlash.

Rushdie had a fatwa on his head. Hussein was hounded out of his country. The cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo were massacred. While such senseless acts are totally unacceptable, the fact remains that they invited the wrath of those whose religious beliefs — however crazy they may seem to a rational mind -– were ridiculed.

Criticism in the media should be free of malice and also tempered with humanity. Writers, painters, cartoonists, filmmakers can still comment on social ills without hurting sensibilities. They must remember that just as they need freedom of expression, so do their subjects.

One of the best satirical critics in this country ruthlessly exposed unsavoury politics and sleazy politicians with just a few strokes of his pen. His caricatures of social ills were equally candid. Yet, the subjects of his gentle humour could only smile in retaliation. That, I think, is great journalism.

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