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January 13, 2008
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January 13, 2008




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Home > 2008 Issues > January 13, 2008

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Journalism is a clean profession

By M.V. Kamath

Indian Journalism: Keeping it Clean, Alok Mehta, Rupa and Co., pp 152, Rs 395.00

Alok Mehta is editor of Outlook Saptahik and currently president of the Editors Guild of India and has won several awards. His work on contemporary journalism, therefore, commands attention. Additionally, the book carries a foreword by Inder Malhotra, himself a distinguished journalist and contributions from Hiranmay Karlekar, a former editor of Hindustan Times, Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of Lok Sabha and Justice G.N.Ray, chairman of Press Council of India.

Alok Mehta could not have found a better trio to support his undoubtedly authoritative and at times provocative work. Malhotra, in his brief foreword, has rightly drawn attention to the general belief that crass commercialisation has eroded the print media?s social commitment and professional values more than considerably, with editors losing ground to market advisers to the point that in some of the largest newspaper chains, the institution of the editor is virtually extinct. Somnath Chatterjee makes his point that ?it is extremely important that the journalist or the editor does not project his/her or the management?s views as news?, when they can be expressed in editorials as well as in signed articles. Well said. Hiranmay Karlekar makes the point, so evident these days, that ?there is an increasing trend towards trivialisation? in the Indian media ?underlined by the attention paid to a strange category called Page Three people? with ?serious coverage? being given the go-by. Karlekar should know. ?Ethics?? he asks, ?where is the place for such a thing in the globalised marketplace celebrating social Darwinism??

Justice Ray his written like a judge, which he was. As he sees it in today?s media, facts are very often distorted to ?suit a particular kind of opinion?, even when he asserts that ?reporting truth is not libel?. Is the Justice in favour of investigative journalism? According to him a reporter has to ?keep in mind the principle of limitation of harm? which means that he needs to give due weight to the negative consequences of all disclosures, creating a practical and ethical dilemma. But in this matter one sees the learned judge walking on the razor?s edge. According to him ?this kind of journalism verges on risking ethical standards as the work involves undercover journalism or the use of whistleblowers.? One expects a clearer stand from so distinguished a personality. This kind of undercover investigation that Tehelka has indulged in can only be dismissed as unethical. This is a question of ends and means. One cannot use ignoble means to achieve noble ends and there can be no compromise in this regard.

There can be no compromise either in the matter of what is known as ?chequebook journalism?. Shri Mehta seems to think that this is okay ?when important issues of the general good are involved?. He concedes that chequebook journalism ?amounts to paying wages for vice?, but shockingly adds that ?the reporter should resort to this only if no other way of getting news is available?. Who is to decide that? The reporter himself? Mehta is also for collecting news or information by taking photographs ?stealthily?, using audio aids or taping personal phone conversations, but only ?when it is fair and essential for the general good and no other method is in sight?, a most questionable stand.

We are in the gray area where caution is abundantly needed. The Press Council of India is fairly clear on this point. According to the Council, the private life of a person, even a public figure, is his own and the disclosure or impingement of any person?s privacy or individual seclusion is not allowed unless there is direct evidence of the fact that his actions are closely related to his public position of power in the matter under consideration and that they negatively impact the public good. And who is to decide what affects public good? It is not clear. But there are many features in this book that would immensely benefit not only new entrants to the profession but old-timers as well.

Mehta draws special attention to the behaviour ?sometimes? of ?senior and so-called ideologue editors and correspondents lobbying with politicians, government officials and business magnates on behalf of their newspaper?s owner?. Mehta rightly points out that this ?harms the credibility of media?. As he puts it, ?the reputation of a journalist or a publication builds up over the years but just a slip or two can destroy it for ever?, a point that needs to be stressed again and again.

In more ways then one, this is an excellent text book for aspiring journalists who should know their rights and responsibilities, especially the latter. There are problems, however, that cannot be expected to be resolved overnight. The days of proprietors setting up newspapers to fight for a worthy cause or an ideal are long over. Mehta says that in the circumstances, ? the problems, concerns and interests of the vast non-elite section of the society are not only ignored but side-tracked and suppressed?. Too bad but what else does the author expect of proprietors?

But is Mehta himself fair? He devotes seventeen pages to the findings of a Editors Guild Fact-Finding Mission in the matter of the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. In all fairness he should have included another seventeen pages to the findings of another Mission in the matter of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. If Mehta wants journalism to be fair, the example he has set is not a good one. But that said, note must be taken of the range of subjects covered by Mehta that include crime reporting, uncultured journalism, choice of news, press conference coverage, election reporting, Hindi in print and Right to Information, among other issues, not all of them extensively discussed, but remain relevant, for the journalism student, as for the reader of newspapers at large. Hopefully, it will attain its object of cleansing the media.

(Rupa & Co., 7/16, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110 002.)




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