Expunging ill-feeling : 'Soul search' a must for media
"School master cannot be a good journalist"

Nirendra Dev *

Commencing October as we mark the onset of autumn, India enters into festival season. The period involves Durga Puja, Diwali and ultimately Christmas and Happy New Year. Ideally, this should be the time when ill-feeling and rancour ought to be expunged from the soul. Well, as human beings it is not possible. This festive season I thought of some soul-searching --- gazing in my own heart.

Journalism in India - if one trusts V S Naipaul - has been a clerical pursuit. Sometimes this clerical approach is done with precision. Reporters in big bureaux and big cities fight it over 'beats'. I often say, we journalists often behave like beat constables.

For instance, a Chief Minister dies in a road accident and you are an eye witness; should you leave it for the beat 'constable' aka reporter to report ? More 'average' stuff the guy is intellectually, the more strictly religious he/she would be about these fuss. So a hardworking and 'over sincere' journo would be advised even to curb "your enthusiasm".

In Mumbai sports journalism, a senior colleague once lamented, "throughout the year you slog like a donkey, but the moment Olympic or World Cup cricket is around, you will find the big donkey in the office has decided to send a huge donkey to cover it". This is related to junkets and foreign trips. This is a very delicate area in Indian journalism.

No friendship, no sincerity and being passionate about the job helps. Delhi's well-known 'Jugad' helps. It is worse in small cities and regional newspapers. You will find the newspaper owner (once it was a Guwahati episode) or the owner's son traveling abroad with the Prime Minister or someone like that!

Half the journalists are displeased with PM Narendra Modi as he has kickstarted a totally new phenomenon and there is no free lunch, drinks and junkets now. There are a few northeast experts in Delhi. Their knowledge about the region would leave people in shock. " .... the entire north east India is matriarchal...," one expert would say!

Move over, once I met one such 'news agency' guy who said -- "I also know the north east very well, I have been to that region". As an ill-informed idiot from the region, I asked innocuously, "where did you go?". Then came the Delhi-variety of response - "I have been to Kishanganj ''. Foolishly, I said, that's in Bihar!

If you or your family is in Delhi for a long, chances are that the kid may pick up the Delhi-style. The response from the 'self-styled northeast expert' was --- "All trains to northeast go via Kishanganj ''. There is another more fundamental thing about Indian English journalism. It may be called 'Indllsh'.

Of course, there are opportunities when 'liberty' is taken with headlines. And on this, I am always with the Sub-Editor or senior fellows on the desk. Some lovely headlines have come in Journalism -- because people took liberty for the pun. L K Advani's visit to Pakistan in 2005 and his comments on Jinnah was reflected well in 'The Asian Age' headline -- 'Jinnah Partitions BJP'.

In the 1980s and 1980s, Late J N Chatterjee worked with 'The Nagaland Times'. A typical old school gentleman, once he shouted at a friend (who tried to be over smart with his Wren and Martin Grammar book knowledge).

"Every school master in the town cannot be a good journalist". Some of us enthusiastically told him(1993) - "Sir, you deserve Plaza noodles or Apna Hotel Samosa". But Indlish is also a 'disease'. The Articles 'A, An and The' never did justice to Indians or vice versa.

There's also a problem with words like 'Noted'. Often we use it liberally for 'said' -- which is not correct English.

"Note as a synonym for Said, where do they get this conviction from," wrote Jyoti Sanyal for 'The Statesman' on April 23, 2000. Interestingly, I was with PTI those days and even the so-called 'book reviews' by the premier agency used to be written - the book 'said', the author 'noted', he 'added' style !

On the use of 'noted' wrongly -- 'The Statesman' article had said -- "That absurd....can only leave the reader wondering whether the speaker (VIP in his speech) had choked when he was speaking; so that the reporter recorded the only bits he heard with 'said' and 'noted'." There can be another instance of a phrase -- "both parties did not have a moral right to raise the issue".

Sanyal in 'The Statesman' piece had observed -- "Since few journalists in India's English-language papers have a better acquaintance with English than the average lower-division clerk, it would be too much to expect them to expect to understand the absurdity in 'both parties did not have'.".

"Journalists -- are we keep.....?"

The writing style definitely makes a difference. Perhaps the line 'Continuing violence in the city left 12 more people dead' may be avoided. Perhaps the better line with 'more info' for readers would be - 'Violence sparked off by the murder of a 65-year-old pensioner raged for a second day, leaving 12 more people dead'.

In the film 'The Kashmir Files', the protagonist journalist tells a former top cop : "You were given Padma Shri, so that you remain silent". In turn, the retired police officer - frustrated - says, "When we police have to arrest a well known terrorist or a criminal, first we try to find who is the keep or mistress (the Hindi word used is Rakhel) of that criminal. Do you know who these people are, these media people".

I was in an Old Delhi cinema hall watching the movie with my teenage daughter. She laughed out loud. That was fictional but that's one crucial face of Indian journalism as well. It is fashionable to ridicule the government authorities or security forces.

Corruption has been a way of life in insurgency-hit Nagaland and writing about the fungus of corruption. M J Akbar had once written - "In Nagaland, government payment is made for works done (about contractors) in heaven (meaning previous life)".

Akbar had his own style. "Bengal is famous for the magic of its women and the sweet tooth of its men . The Bihari tooth is different," wrote Akbar himself a Bihari - in one of his best selling non-fictions 'Blood Brothers A Family Saga'.

Among the celebrity editors, Khushwant Singh had a fan following in Nagaland as well. Once S C Jamir as the Chief Minister made him a special guest. I had interviewed Khushwant Singh for the PTI Golden Jubilee of Souvenir in 1998 wherein he had said, "The Sahitya Akademi should be abolished".

He had said, "The Sahitya Akademi really does not serve anything purposeful ...Those writers who don't find publishers let them die". The old school in media always believed journalism is in 'reporter's or the editor's blood'. Training does not help.

Ideology also becomes an issue. Kuldip Nayar and Nikhil Chakravarty were eminent journalists clearly believing in the pro-Leftist ideology. M V Kamath, another top journalist, was well known for his right leaning. Kamath also called spade a spade.

In the book, 'Reporter at Large' he wrote: "There are three main charges against the western news agencies. One, they do not tell the whole truth, two, they deliberately mislead. And three, they do not report news of interest and significance to developing countries". Some of these vices apply to Indian journalists as well. But there are no Gods in journalism.

So the golden rule is journalists should not get overawed by anyone including most popular public leaders and even the Editor in the office. Anyone can tell a falsehood or commit mistakes. Sources are certainly 'human' and that includes Uncle Google. There is a need to cross check and ignorance is never a bliss.

Once a Mumbai journalist mistook 'Sanjay Dutt', a politician, for the actor and reported that the Congress party will field him. In 'Arushi murder case', Delhi and Noida journos and TV channels went ethically wrong when the 'minor' was identified. By law, one should not identify a rape victim and even the police cannot disclose her real identity.

During the Kargil conflict, one famous woman TV journalist screamed, "The Indian army will attack Tiger Hill tomorrow". That was an act of treason, but authorities forgot and forgave; but have we media persons learned anything ?

Reporting 'deaths' is the most difficult thing. Seven bodies taken away from a spot to a hospital does not mean - all are dead. One person might have been senseless for a while!

* Nirendra Dev wrote this article for
The writer is based at New Delhi and can be reached at nirendev1(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on November 09, 2022.

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