New Delhi: The television news channel Times Now is getting a lot of flak on social media for running a programme suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is a part-time Congress party president on the grounds that he went to see the Star Wars movie soon after the Gujarat elections results were out. The programme has been denounced, and many have questioned if this is journalism at all.
The question as to what real journalism is has been a complicated one to address in India in recent years, owing to the fraught relationship between the media, politicians and the public. The media has come to reflect polarities in society. Journalists are considered to be as partisan as the rest and people subject the media to uncivil tirades. Organised trolling, rape and death threats and various forms of hate speech directed at journalists is the new normal. There were even some who unapologetically celebrated the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in September. That the public could not unanimously condemn the assassination of an independent, respected editor suggests that many no longer instinctively grasp what the media is for and what journalists do for democracy. If it helps, here below a broad explainer on the tribe.
First, a clarification. There are all kinds of journalists. There are powerful television anchors whose programming is not complete without vilifying Muslims, Pakistan or Kashmiris. Some journalists compensate for their mediocrity or untreated cultural angst by perfecting the art of access journalism, sidling up to political leaders and eventually becoming so embedded in establishment circles that they barely bother disguising their affiliation.
We are not talking of this set. Lankesh was not one of them. Many independent journalists like her are different, they approach politics and public culture from a different vantage point and aim to adhere to the classical values of journalism. This is what they do: Journalists interrogate those in power – and in doing so daily they inadvertently reaffirm the equality of all citizens. One way of understanding this is to grasp the fact that governments are, in some ways, fundamentally distinct from the rest of society. What is a government after all, on a simplified plane? It is essentially one group of human beings attempting to control another, in other words a small number of people – politicians and officials – ruling over the vast majority of citizens because the former hold office and have the power to make laws, interpret them and devise regulations that choreograph our lives. By the theory of social contract, citizens confer authority on elected leaders and bureaucrats; people hand over the country’s wealth – which is socially produced – to this smaller set of office holders and expect freedoms and services in return.
This is a necessary bargain since governments are needed to govern mass societies – but those in office tend to wield a lot of power, way more than citizens usually comprehend or signed up for. A small political elite thus has the power to send us to war, queue up in lines, get scanned and tracked as if we were farm animals; they get to decide what we read, see and eat and so on. Journalists seek to question how the power citizens endow on them is being handled. They try to uncover the relationships and the ideas that create, sustain and abuse power, and through their regular inquiry about its use, journalists are essentially putting into practice daily the principle that no one is beyond questioning – we are all equal in a democracy.
Journalists are important because they are in a unique position to perform the function of challenging authority when other institutions are unable to. Consider how the notion of checks and the balances works in India across the three spheres of government, the executive, parliament and the courts. In theory, parliament is supposed to scrutinise the executive but in practice it is unable to do so. The opposition is weak, it tends to have skeletons to hide and doesn’t want to be open to the charge of hypocrisy. Opposition parties do not have the numbers on their side to push through legislation. Their deliberative contribution is also erratic because parliament meets only at certain times and governments are now anyway adept at stonewalling or deflecting troublesome discussions. The courts, meanwhile, are overburdened and they are often not able to respond as quickly to public concerns as some might hope. The executive, in turn, cultivates the media to promote its views but does not want to be probed by it. Ministers do not grant one-on-one interviews to tough, independent journalists anymore – they tend to hover in a scrutiny-free space beyond the reach of the media.
Amid this culture of silence, some journalists still try to raise issues of public interest, discover the roots, debates and values in the shaping of policies, they follow their implementation and their philosophical and substantive impact on communities. They are trying to pry open state institutions that have a logic and tradition of secrecy, so that the public is informed on matters that affect them. At a time when the space for academics, artists and a range of thinkers has significantly shrunk, the media, across all platforms, for all its faults, is the one institution that is still feistily contesting cheery, self-serving narratives of those in power.
Journalists also have a huge representational role. In a mass society, there is always a crisis of representation as countries tend to be too big to hoover up all opinions as feedback for establishments. Political leaders cannot speak for all interests and concerns; they have to, by necessity, pander to some and ignore others. And even if they do, their impact is linked to political stature rather than the rightness of their cause. Journalists, on the contrary, try and course through society and make contact with as many constituencies as possible and relate the views of the ignored to the wider public. It is in part through the work of the media that we hear of agrarian distress, the impact on development projects on (displaced) Adivasi communities, excessive use of force in Kashmir, the effect of changed rules for cattle slaughter on livelihoods in north India, the impact of demonetisation on the informal economy, the changes in textbooks in Rajasthan, the perceptions in south India about the imposition of Hindi, how women in India feel about being told how to live their lives and so on.
The media has flaws like any human institution. Journalists have biases, blind spots, prejudices, delusions of self-importance and, in many cases, they work for institutions that have complex motivations that constrain them. But they also work in a competitive climate where the fear of being challenged by peers has the overall effect of elevating reporting standards, which in turn helps readers to separate the great from the good and the avoidable. Unlike some sectors, the media has some self-correcting conventions which it is able to implement in real time.
The industry has its blemishes, but they should not detract from the fact that it is an institution which is critical for democracy. Journalists try and keep a track of how a society is evolving and how it talks to itself. They attempt to keep a watch on power, its practices, deceptions and effects and are expected to be attentive to the tribulations of the weak. The media are the society’s eyes and ears. They speak to people’s concerns more often than political leaders are willing or able to. Two conclusions follow from this: Journalists should mainly be judged by how they try and practice these principles. Second, governments have a vested interest in taming the media to cover up their failings and excesses. Citizens must be constantly aware that intimidating journalists is part of an attempt to silence all.