Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju wants the media to employ only candidates with a diploma or degree in journalism from a recognised school or college, to raise media standards. I think he has made a good point. The role of journalism has changed almost beyond recognition in the last three decades and if one might say so, specialisation has become the need of the hour. Time was in the thirties and forties of the 20th century when the field was open to anybody with a flair for writing.
It would amuse Mr. Katju to know that in the thirties onwards those seeking the job of a reporter had to be competent in two physical assets, short hand and typing. Few sought media jobs which allegedly did not command high social standing. The first offer I had for a reporter’s job way back in 1941 carried a ‘salary’ of Rs.16 p.m. which I had regretfully to decline. But then I knew nothing about journalism and many may be shocked to learn that by training I was a pharmaceutical chemist having risen to the status of an assistant factory manager of a medium-sized pharmaceutical company at the end of some five years of service.
That I still got a job as a reporter and, in turn became a special correspondent in Delhi, editor of an evening paper, a PTI correspondent at the United Nations, later still editor of a prestigious Sunday paper to move on to become its European correspondent for seven long years, still later to serve the same paper as its Washington correspondent for nine years to be recalled to be editor of the prestigious The Illustrated Weekly of India is another story.
One may ask: what journalism schools the likes of a Ramanand Chatterjee, Kasturi Srinivasan, M. Chalapathi Rao, Pothan Joseph, Khasa Subba Rao, Durga Das, V.K. Narasimhan, not to speak of A.F.S. Talyarkhan attend? But then, it may be argued, they were different times. Focus then was largely on domestic politics, the struggle for independence and, in a way, on sports. No expertise was called for on Foreign Affairs, international relations, capital formation, industrial development and allied subjects. Eyes were on Dalal Street and what was known as the Share Market which was normally allotted one page. How times have changed!
Presently we require expertise in practically every field and this is where Justice Katju’s point for the need of class journalism schools comes into the picture. There are, according to one count, some 303 journalism ‘schools’ of which, probably not more than a dozen merit attention. It may surprise one to know that journalism training, for what it was, actually began in the twenties, if Annie Besant’s Adyar attempts are to be a milestone. Around 1952-53, a school of journalism was started in Nagpur but Hislop College literally faded into history. Some top newspapers subsequently started providing in-house training facilities, but their scope was limited.
The Indian Institute of Mass Communication for long was reportedly meant to provide in-house training facilities for I&B personnel, but presently schools of journalism have multiplied, presumably to meet the industry’s needs.
It is one thing to ‘break news’ or be – ridiculous as it may sound, a ‘citizen journalist’ – and quite another to write a thoughtful piece on current trends in industrial development, let alone contribute a piece for ‘Economic Times’, ‘Business Line’ or ‘Business Standard’. Again, it may be argued to be an academician, writing, say for ‘Economic & Political Weekly’ and quite another to do a 200-word report on some current event that anybody with some common-sense can tackle with no academic pretensions.
Justice Katju’s desire to see that journalists acquire professional standards as are expected of doctors and lawyers is sound in principle but of doubtful relevance in practice. It may be argued that the High Courts of the country, let alone the Supreme Court should be reported strictly by professional lawyers who know their job and can’t possibly err in their reportage. In effect it means that law courts should be covered strictly by those who have a law degree. That is going to the extreme.
Justice Katju’s concerns are admirable. Poor reporting cannot be condoned on any account. One gets the impression that he feels that there are too many mediocre journalists around giving the profession a bad name. He should remember that in their respective fields there also are mediocre lawyers and doctors not to speak of judges as well, the country can do without. Getting a degree or a diploma in a particular field is no doubt a sound proposition to be fully taken into account in the larger interests of the profession and section 13 of the Press Council Act does clearly state that it is the duty of the Press Council of India to maintain and improve the standards of journalism.
Justice Katju automatically presumes that this broad power would include supervision and regulation of institutes and departments of journalism currently in operation. One understands that Justice Katju has set up a qualification committee to “supervise and regulate” the functioning of existing journalism institutes all over India. The move understandably has drawn sharp criticism from media circles with some dubbing Justice Katju’s move as an effort to muzzling the press.
The trouble with Justice Katju is that he does not know how to present his case; every time he opens his mouth he sounds offensive, but a wise media itself should look into the points raised by the learned judge with an open mind. In the end what should matter most is not the interest of the editor/publisher but the credibility of the printed word and the reputation of the profession at large. And surely, that cannot be a matter for argument?