Shoot me, the messenger
By Shekhar Gupta
The late Edward S. Behr (Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? besides much else), a delightfully versatile journalist-writer, used to tell us, fellow travellers in conflict zones, a story from his days as a captain in the Indian Army’s Garhwal regiment. Apparently, a jawan of his battalion fired and killed two men leading a peaceful anti-Partition procession in Peshawar in 1947. The jawan had fired apparently without provocation, and he had fired to kill, rather than shoot at the legs as the instructions in those angry days were.
At the court martial, the jawan’s defence was very simple. These two guys were leading the procession. The moment they saw us, they unbuttoned their shirts, turned their bare chests at us, and started shouting, chhaati mein goli maaro (shoot me in the chest), chhaati mein goli maaro. So, the earnest Garhwali shot them in the chest.
We do not know what view the court martial took of this defence. But we do know for sure that the two protesters with bared chests died on the spot. Why, then, are we in the Indian media now walking around like those two unfortunate Pathans? For several months now, we are ourselves holding discussions, debates, seminars, even inviting politicians, high officials, eminent regulators and the sort, to discuss the idea of media regulation. At all these, we acknowledge that we have a problem. We also, naam ke vaaste, keep on repeating that a state-mandated or -controlled regulator is not what we want. Yet, we call politicians and retired judges to seek their views. They hold forth on how much they respect and value the freedom of the press, but how they also share “our” view that the time has come for some kind of regulation, some institutional mechanism to ensure “accountability”. Of course, at a time when everybody, from politicians to the judiciary, is being confronted with new instruments of accountability, how can the media, now so powerful, be left out? And the permanent footnote: but, of course, we (the political-bureaucratic class) should do nothing about it. Irrespective of who is speaking, the Congress or the BJP, this is always spoken with that Gotcha! smirk.
So why are we Indian journalists, among the most independent and powerful in the world, walking around with chests bared, asking the political class to shoot?
THE argument is, baba, we must do this, we must engage the politicians, the state, the judiciary. If we don’t do anything ourselves, they will move in and we will have nowhere to hide. Truth is, we flatter the establishment. This is undoubtedly the weakest full-term government in our history ever. This is also our most non-functional parliament. It cannot pass the simplest of populist legislation. This establishment has made two attempts to challenge the media, and in each case the retreat has been immediate. The group of ministers on the media, of which nobody has fully understood the purpose, was constituted with some enthusiasm, but has hardly ever met. Then we saw that meticulously drafted private member’s bill to regulate the media, from the Congress party’s once-rising young star Meenakshi Natarajan, and it was dumped at once. In fact, the only damage it should end up causing is to her own political career, unless, indeed, it was some kind of a command performance. In short, this is not an establishment that can challenge our freedoms, or even threaten to “regulate” the news media in any manner whatsoever. If their idea of striking terror in our hearts was the appointment of Justice Markandey Katju as the new chairman of the Press Council, it has only underlined the utter toothlessness of the Press Council of India, and just as well.
We will never submit to a regulatory body mandated, financed and run by the government. Justice Katju mostly just talks, and for heaven’s sake, he is not a bore, or a pinko revolutionary, or both. We have seen some like that at the head of the PCI as well, including — and notably — Justice P.B. Sawant whose main bugbear was not our indiscretions, but who owned our newspapers. He wasted most of his tenure promoting hare-brained ideas like newspapers run by journalist cooperatives. I did try to ask him at the odd seminar if he had seen us journalists run even a housing cooperative, as I was a member of one, and it was such a bloody mess. It still is.
Then what is it that we want? And do we really need something to regulate ourselves, to hold us accountable? Why are we journalists — having come out in the open, and discovered the unprecedented, unchallenged expanse of our freedoms — behaving as if we are suddenly struck with stage-fright? Or, could it just be that we are carrying a bad conscience, which is making us talk of regulation of some sort, as if to seek anticipatory bail, if not a full plea bargain.
THE fact is, we do have a problem. While there is a lot of praise for the great work the media has done in busting corruption, fighting social evils and improving transparency and accountability, our arrogance has grown into hubris. No medium can claim to be holier than the other. Paid news is the greatest crime in the history of the Indian media, it still goes on, is mostly monopolised by print. Sponsored pages, advertorials and product placements are published by many without even a hint of disclosure. People are not stupid. They notice and they are angry. There is no point then saying that, oh, this is a terrible thing, I know, but what can I do, at least I never do this. But people do not make such distinctions between good and bad guys. They think that we, by and large, have become dishonest and greedy. People also know the growing new phenomenon in Indian media, where several owners have acquired interests in businesses much more lucrative than the media, but where their newspapers and channels can be force-multipliers. Think of mining, property, power plants, all kinds of new money-printing areas where governments retain great discretionary powers. Fourth estate to real estate (and also vice versa) is the new ticket to riches in the media. You travel around the country, particularly the Hindi heartland, and ordinary people will let you know they are not missing any of this.
On the electronic side, many TV anchors and reporters have now graduated from being mere inquisitors to judge-executioners. They wag their fingers at their powerful quarry, and the question is always some variation on the same theme: why aren’t you admitting on this channel, now, that you are corrupt? Corrupt they might be, but aren’t they entitled to some usual journalistic courtesies? Like the right to reply? God knows, Suresh Kalmadi may have given you — and the CBI — a hundred reasons to suspect that he is corrupt. But who has given us the right to call him “congenitally corrupt”? People watch this too and, while they are angry with the political classes, they are getting fed up with our arrogance too.
In India, we do not have any specific laws guaranteeing media freedoms. Our freedoms, essentially, are drawn from a post-Emergency social contract between us and the people of India who decided they will never let their press be gagged. These freedoms have been reinforced and expanded by the Supreme Court. Today both are irritated with us. The Supreme Court is examining guidelines for us to cover judicial proceedings. People, by and large, are taking note of our corruption — mainly paid news — and our arrogance.
Our lifeline, that social contract with the people of India, is, therefore, under strain. It’s not just a contract, it’s the foundation of our democracy, the guarantor of the people’s right to know. Regulation will have the chilling power of prior restraint, often considered the worst form of censorship, where you gag yourself, where you don’t publish because you don’t know how the regulator — government, judicial, expert, call it whatever — will react. Any regulator will, by its very existence, need to define who a journalist is — for him or her to be regulated. In other words, not just the newsroom’s freedoms but everyone’s freedom of expression will be put to test. The answers lie with us. We have to introspect, clean up our act, bring back the old-fashioned editorial intermediation to our newsrooms. Of course, we will only be held accountable to our own audiences, and we have to go back to them with some humility. At the same time, we have to keep the establishment out of this debate. They may never like our message but we cannot invite them to shoot us, the messenger.