Recently, I had an embarrassing and peculiar experience. I was coming out of the North Block, the seat of Finance Ministry and the Home Ministry, when I saw a senior bureaucrat entering the building. I greeted him, introduced myself and took out my visiting card. I was about to hand him my card, but he gave me no time and said he doesn’t like interacting with journos, and simply left. He did not cite any specific reasons though.
This has happened for the first time in my life. I did not feel humiliated, but let me confess, I was a little disturbed. Not by his behavior but by the way we journalists are losing our respect and credibility.
Over the years as a journalist, I remember enjoying full faith of the government and its machinery in me because I was a media professional. I do remember how one would roam around the corridors of different ministries without being questioned, without any hiccups or unnecessary checks. I also remember how I used to command the respect of bureaucrats, officials and ministers. No mike-throwing, no dodging of questions.
I miss those days. We journalists no longer command that much respect, clout, trust, or faith any more. Rather, we are being looked down upon now. We have lost trust of the people including government officials, ministers, corporates and above all the trust of the common man/woman. We are now perceived as hostile, as if we were some sort of a threat to all of the above mentioned sections of the society. When we meet people they think we are looking for a scoop, or probably even doing a sting on them.
I would like to give some examples of when and how the government machinery lost confidence in the fourth estate.
During the NDA government, the local administration got a gallery constructed just after the entry point of 7, RCR, the official residence of the Prime Minister. Any journalist could get an entry after showing his or her press I-Card. An organization I-Card was alone enough to satisfy the SPG guards. Those were the times when no one asked for Press Information Bureau i.e. PIB cards. Every office of the government was open and accessible for all journalists. Journalists of any organization were allowed to go inside the 7 RCR upto the gallery which was an almost a seating point for mediapersons. But with the UPA coming to power this access was denied. Now no one could enter that space. All journalists had to wait outside RCR and that too on the road. One can’t even talk to any minister coming out of the 7 RCR unless that particular minister himself is keen to talk to the media.
Gone are the days when one would get into any minister’s room without any appointment or intimation. Only a visiting card was enough to get an appointment back in those days.
Now, the question arises as to why have things changed so fast and so much? Why has media lost its sheen and respect that it had earned in the last so many decades? To get an answer, we need to dig into our past and also look critically at our performance which has led to this situation.
There are many big reasons, but before getting into it we need to share some small examples, because of which we have lost the respect of common masses also.
We must look at the incidents that tarnished the image of the media and provided the government an opportunity to clamp down on the media in the name of security.
1. When the UPA came into power, the government may have wanted to settle scores with the media. The same media which had predicted through many surveys in papers and on television that the NDA would return to power after the 2004 elections. The NDA did not come to power, but media came under the direct firing line of the UPA Government.
2. Then, a black Hyundai Sonata car broke the first layer of SPG security and got inside the area of PM’s residence. There were three people in the car. All of them were drunk and gave flying kisses to the media persons who were standing in the gallery. It took everyone by surprise and of course they were arrested. Delhi Police found, after initial investigation, that the ladies were air-hostesses in one of the domestic airlines and they had breached security as they wanted to do something adventurous. Nobody knows what happened to that case but one thing is clear, since then media was denied entry into 7 RCR.
3. An Agra based family had complained that despite several promises it was not being allotted a petrol pump. The family was sneaked in by a journalist who was looking to get a “Breaking News” for the channel. The family tried self-immolation when Petroleum Minister Murli Deora was addressing his press conference. After a lot of intervention the family was saved. The government launched an investigation as to how this family got inside. Only journalists are allowed in that particular area. The committee found out that one journalist was responsible. Though it is a different matter that the journalist who was named was not responsible, someone else was. I can say this because I know the journalist (the real culprit). A family was saved but freedom of the media was curtailed since then. No one would believe that these events had prepared the ground for the present unfavourable circumstances, bitter but true.
4. Before 2009 elections, when P Chidambaram was the home minister, a very senior journalist of a newspaper had hurled a shoe on Chidambaram. Reason- he was totally disappointed by the way 1984 Sikh Riots probe had taken place. It will not be a misplaced argument to say that he was invited as a journalist, not as a representative of a particular community. So he should have understood it and restrained himself. This incident also reduced the access of journalists in the corridors of power.
There are so many examples like these. But I don’t want to fill this with examples only.
Proliferation of channels has played an important role in it. Newspapers have played a much smaller role in creating this distrust than TV channels. Largely, in the last 10 years due to liberal policy of government many channels have set up shop. This has resulted in a big demand for journalists and that is where untrained and under-trained journalists have come into the profession. During old days there were checks and balances for new entrants. After getting into this profession, there was a rigourous process for them to get trained over a period of time. That too always happened under the guidance of capable, experienced and intelligent colleagues. Also too much competition has led to complete disarray. Barring few big channels, other players are not bothered about what is being aired and whether the news is authentic or half-baked.
This has really created a situation where this profession is being seen with some element of doubt.
In this regard the growing intolerance within the government cannot be ignored. In the course of time, the sense of fear has somehow evaporated from public life. This has made all the bureaucrats and politicians thick-skinned.
On the one hand sting operations have established the growing maturity of the media in this country, but on the other many sting operation have also made it clear that sometimes these are done with malice.
With liberalization, the concept of easy money making has earned social prestige in the society. Journalists sometimes drop stories in lieu of money. Stringers are particularly susceptible.
The thought that everything is news has led to a very peculiar circumstance over a period of time. Many years back leaders, ministers, bureaucrats and other officials used to have off-camera briefing, they still do but the atmosphere is totally different. The purpose was not to get it published but to make detail the issue for better understanding. Some new facts, new aspects always came out of such briefings. These were always not news but views. The person briefing knew that nobody is going to quote him. And there was an unsaid rule that the secrecy was maintained. This aspect of news gathering and sharing has vanished now. Now, nobody wants to share anything, and if at all they do, he or she knows that it will make the headlines. The sense of trust has gone.
There is no denying the fact that Journalism as a profession is on a down-slide. It is not easy being a modern day journalist with pressures of every kind imaginable. Our deadlines are getting shorter, our sources are getting murkier, our salaries are stagnant and our skills outdated. Some of us still rant about ethics and feel the profession is due for a renaissance. But I am no renaissance man, most of us are not. For most old-schools, we did not choose the profession, the profession chose us. It is no more the same.
Journalism schools are mushrooming everywhere churning out half-baked professionals who barely understand the gamut of responsibility that they are expected to carry on their young shoulders when they join a newspaper or a TV channel. We cannot deny the fact that when supply increases demand, the quality of product suffers if profitability is the sole motive. Probably this is what has happened to us as well. As a profession, we are now a lot who are everywhere, all the time, looking for news, scoops and exclusives. This has killed our quality and probably the respect we deserve or should command.