"There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with... The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting (of) an independent press?"
The above quote of John Swinton, former chief of staff and columnist of The New York Times in the 19th century, is possibly an exaggerated version of the limits to media freedom and independence - or even Swinton's own views. But few journalists today - in India or elsewhere - will fail to recognise some elements of the truth in the statement, some 145 years after Swinton is reported to have made it.
One quotes Swinton here because there has been a hullabaloo over Minister of State for External Affairs, VK Singh's tweets about "presstitutes" in the media. Swinton would probably have agreed with that term in applying it to at least sections of the media. Recently, Singh appears to have taken on Arnab Goswami of Times Now, as well as his old bete noire, The Indian Express, which put out a damaging - and questionable - story a couple of years ago on how the UPA establishment was spooked in January 2012 when there were army movements near Delhi when Gen Singh was Army Chief. Just as the Express invoked the "C" word (coup) to damage Gen Singh when he was fighting with the government over his retirement date, the latter invoked the "P" word against Express and Goswami.
While there is no gainsaying the fact that the ex-general need not have waged verbal war that could only have dented his own reputation and that of his government - which anyway faces a hostile or distrustful English media - the fact is the only people who should really protest against the word "presstitute" are commercial sex workers. They have been trying to put the pejorative term "prostitute" behind them before Singh borrowed the word "presstitute" from western usage to describe sections of the media who he considers to be compromised.
That said, the media should grow up. When the media has the right to criticise any public figure and damage his or her reputation in the name of free speech, it should be equally willing to take some criticism - even verbal abuse - from those who are at the receiving end of its unwelcome attentions.
The reality is that the media is not always above board when it comes to fairplay. In many ways its biases are not only not apparent, but seldom disclosed. I am not someone who believes that there can be truly neutral journalism, for media institutions, owners, editors and even journalists come with their own ideological and personal biases and baggage. For example, a third of media houses has political linkages. Others are either owned by corporations (Firstpost publisher Network 18 is owned by the Reliance Group), or are dependent on advertising for survival - which makes them extremely careful about what they say about some big corporates, though this bias may not always be obvious. Over and above this there is editorial orientation and predilection.
Just as in the US there are Right-wing and Left-wing and centrist publications, in India too journalists have to learn to accept the reality that they are not always neutral - however high an individual's personal standards may be. At best they can try and be a bit more balanced - and be humble enough to accept that they may not always be doing what is right. After all, they have jobs to keep, EMIs to pay and families to feed.
Like commercial sex work - where some do it because it is easy money and others because they have no other way to make a living - a significant part of journalism in India (and also abroad) is slanted one way or the other due to economic or personal compulsions. So when we hear accusations of paid media, we have to acknowledge this reality even though a journalist (or his publication) may not actually accept direct bribes in lieu of coverage - or non-coverage.
Then, of course, there are truly larger than life editors who are on their own trip. A certain Goswami comes to mind. Having adopted a populist approach like the Christian right-wing Fox channel, Goswami seems to decide in advance who his target (or victim) for the day should be and goes after them. Is this journalism? Certainly asking tough questions is. But Goswami goes beyond that and is not above name-calling once he has chosen his victim for the day. So VK Singh calling him names is par for the course. Goswami's show is about him, and his style is inquisitional. He would have been a huge asset to the Catholic Church's Spanish Inquisition.
Times Now's superstar anchor seldom asks open-ended questions - or waits for answers he does not want to hear. It's more like: "Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or no?" All answers are self-incriminating, so its best to talk about the weather and watch the fun on his shows. Goswami's "journalism" is a form of vigilantism and voyeurism - and will probably die a slow death once people wise up to it. It should be seen as part of Bollywood entertainment where the hero gets to rail against the injustices of the world. If it is journalism, we have to redefine the term. Whether this makes him eligible for Singh's P-word, of course, is a matter of opinion.
Going beyond Goswami, the point to underscore is that bias and tendentiousness are omnipresent in Indian journalism - as it is in the west. The difference lies is how sophisticated you are in putting out bias without making it seem like one. The gratuitous writing on India's societal problems - patriarchy, caste, gender oppression - by eminent publications like the NYT, WaPo and The Economist can only be read as bias masquerading as concern for the unfortunate. The anti-BJP (or anti-Modi) bias of the west is also obvious when rape, racism and killings are as rampant in the US as in India (Thursday's papers talk of a white US cop killing a black man and an Indian being shot dead by unknown assailants).
This attitude permeates large sections of the English media based in Delhi too. Or why would they tom-tom a petty robbery in a church or a nun's rape as anti-Christian attacks? Once it became clear that the rape of the 72-year-old nun in West Bengal may have Bangladeshi linkages, the media suddenly lost interest in the case because it is now difficult to beat the BJP with it. Is the rape now less of a crime since the perpetrator is not your designated villain? Media bias lies not only in how it reports, but what it chooses not to report - which was part of Singh's grouse too.
The Broadcast Editors Association has blasted Singh's "presstitute" statement as beyond "normal behavioural decency". It should chill. While it is true Singh should mind his language, it is equally important for the media to grow up and learn to take harsh language in its stride. It should not play crybaby when its targets pay it back in the same coin.
Shorn of its pejorative and patriarchal connotation, "presstitute" is just a harsher word for "paid media" - a term Indian journalists themselves accept as a real issue hampering journalism.
Those who feel entitled to dish it out should be equally willing to take it in the chin.
(Note: I had wrongly presumed that the word "presstitute" was a Singh coinage. This version corrects this mistake).
Updated Date: Apr 10, 2015 16:24 PM