'Journalists are expected to ask and keep asking questions. But we don't do that anymore': An interview with Om Thanvi

In an interview with Firstpost, veteran journalist, writer, editor and critic Om Thanvi examines the reasons behind an ailing Indian media, and reflects on Hindi journalism's death

Arshia Dhar February 17, 2020 09:08:49 IST
'Journalists are expected to ask and keep asking questions. But we don't do that anymore': An interview with Om Thanvi
  • Om Thanvi implores journalists in India to rethink their approach towards journalism, stating that the prevailing condition of the Indian media goes agains the basic tenets of journalism.

  • 'Its good days are a thing of the past,' says Om Thanvi on the current state of Hindi journalism.

  • Thanvi emphasises on the need for holistic training and education of journalists in India today.

In his book titled Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argues for the obvious correlation between democracy, free press, and famines, thereby empirically establishing how the advent of a democratic republic can avert calamities:

In illustrating the reach of public reasoning, I might consider one of the well recognised successes of the democratic system, namely, the absence of famines in democratic countries. In fact, the proportion of famine victims in the total population is always comparatively small — very rarely more than 10 per cent. If elections are hard to win after a famine, and if criticisms from newspapers and the other media, and from the opposition parties, are difficult to brush off, the effectiveness of this mechanism lies in the ability of public discussion to make the predicament of famine victims generally understood by the population at large. Indeed, even the knowledge of a relatively small number of starvation deaths, as in say Kalahandi, can immediately generate massive public concern. It is the reach of public reasoning on which the effectiveness of democracy depends, and it is for us to make the reach as wide and extensive as possible.

Or in other words, a free press is the sine qua non for a functional democracy, failing to uphold which could lead to fatal crises such as famines, that were unsurprisingly common in colonial regimes. Thereby Sen, besides a host of other economists and philosophers, has unequivocally emphasised on the 'fourth estate' as a crucial limb of democracy — one that holds immense sway on policy and opinion-making.

At this year's Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, veteran journalist, writer, and founding Vice Chancellor of Haridev Joshi University of Journalism and Mass Communication (Jaipur) Om Thanvi took the stage to autopsy the prevailing state of the Indian media along with fellow journalists Atul Chaurasia, Hitesh Shankar, Anant Vijay, and writer Anu Singh Choudhary. Only hours before his session, Firstpost caught up with Thanvi, as he reflected on what ails Indian journalism in the age of technology and 'contract' culture.

Journalists are expected to ask and keep asking questions But we dont do that anymore An interview with Om Thanvi

Om Thanvi. Photo courtesy Sumer Singh Rathore

Do you think there's a need to rethink one's approach towards journalism in India today, with the credibility of the country's media being constantly questioned by different quarters?

Yes, there is a need today to rethink our approach towards journalism in India. We should rethink on the lines of having forgotten our responsibilities as journalists. The way the media behaves in our country goes against the basics of journalism that we are taught — of being particular about facts, of asking questions, because journalists are expected to ask and keep asking questions. But we don't do that anymore.

You must have also seen one of those viral videos, where a particular politician keeps repeating that he has answered the reporter's question. We should definitely applaud the person who asked those questions, because this is a rare instance during a time when no one dares to ask questions, that too repeatedly.

It was only today morning that I was having a conversation with Ravish Kumar about certain things pertaining to the current political scenario. We both agree that senior leaders have become increasingly irresponsible in their behaviour and conduct. At his session later in the day at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Ravish went on to more elaborately expound on this tendency among the ruling class in the country. He mentioned that the Prime Minister of our country bluntly lied while speaking at the Ram Leela Maidan (in Delhi). It was clearly a lie, when he said that NRC wasn't something he had even discussed earlier, whereas there are previous statements made by him and by the home minister, both inside and outside the parliament, about the NRC following the CAA. Not a single news channel raised questions on the Prime Minister's lies!

So, my point is, the media should ask questions and not remain silent. This is a bizarre situation, which we haven't quite experienced before. Silence was present before, yes; not like journalists in this country raised a lot of difficult questions earlier — but now they are either afraid to speak up, or have been bought off, or, as Ravish says, they've all become a part of "godi media". These are journalists sitting in the lap of the government and politicians.

Different individuals might have different reasons for behaving this way, but if we are talking about the prevailing situation in the country, it should make us introspect on why this is the condition of the press. If we have lost our will to ask questions, then we have essentially forgotten how to be journalists.

With changing times, politics, technology, and corporate culture, how does one maintain the sanctity of journalism, which is based on pursuing and reporting facts objectively, while being mostly owned by corporate entities?

Look, technology has no bearing on whether facts should be reported accurately or not. Technology is just processing what you are expressing, whether through writing or visuals, it supports our profession. But when it comes to the second part of your question, it is true that the media has been largely bought off by corporate entities.

See, businessmen don't really care which political party or ideology is in power, because governments keep changing, and subsequently, so do their loyalties and nexus. However, if this is the situation, what are journalists to do?

At present, the regulations of the wage board in our country have become totally irrelevant and defunct, and the government has done nothing to ensure the implementation of said regulations, or save the wage boards. But it was the government that had actually created the wage board in the first place! There was the Palekar Award, the Manisana Award, Bachawat Award, which were followed by newspapers. If they didn't follow them, the government would have to pressurise the media firms into doing so. When I started working in the '80s, the wage boards were functional. But eventually and slowly, they were done away with, and contract culture replaced it. It was the television industry that was, to a great extent, responsible for the system of contracts, along with bringing in more money into news.

Now, the problem with contracts is that they're tentative. This culture enslaves you, even though you spend most of your waking hours working for your company. If something goes wrong, you're kicked out of your job. It's like a sword of Damocles is hanging over the head of journalists at all times. If the journalist is always worried about saving his job, he will end up doing whatever his employer wants him to do. So the only way a journalist can be saved from this nightmare is when the government decides to do something about it. But then, the government itself has undone what it set out to do through the wage boards. Whatever remains to be settled for these wage boards legally continues to languish in the records of the Supreme Court. The corporatisation of media has only encouraged this 'contract' culture, which in turn has made several journalists cowards.

If the journalist is told that he will be paid only when he obeys the orders of his employers, what autonomy is he left with? Suppose, a reporter has bought a house or a car, or has invested somewhere and has a family to look after — it's obvious that he will automatically want to maintain status quo at his workplace to keep his life from falling apart. So this policy has only aided in the process of keeping the journalist frightened and silenced. Not only has the government not done anything to correct this situation, but it has also destroyed the security provided by the wage board it had set up.

The threat of fake news is quite prevalent. How much, would you say, is it the reader's onus to seek out authentic sources of news? How much does this damage the credibility of the press as a democratic institution, or do we see this as a fallout of indiscriminate use of technology, and not something specific to the business of news?

The advent of fake news has happened with the advent of technology. Also, I have said this repeatedly that social media isn't the same as journalism — it's largely a medium to express personal views. But remember, online journalism is a different thing altogether. Media organisations do use various social media platforms these days, and some of them have teams in place that are responsible for news curation, fact-checking, language and grammar checking. But in most cases, social media only provides a channel for people to rant on. You write whatever is on your mind — there's no one to check your grammar, language, tone, or facts, so consequently, it can't be termed 'journalism'.

In journalism, anyone can't publish anything. There are editors who check facts and language — this balancing act is barely ever done on social media. However, as I mentioned earlier, online journalism is a completely different ballgame, being vastly different from WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. In the latter, there's space for lies too, and that is where fake news mostly comes in.

But now there are organisations like Alt News that busts myths and does fact checks. In the presence of such entities, people are aware and careful of spreading false information, in the fear that they'll be caught doing it. I feel such organisations and individuals should step up and do more work, and I am sure there will be more such platforms in the future.

Having said that, there's that much you can do to stop fake news from circulating. There will be people in society who are going to lie, and you may walk up to them and ask them not to, but they will do so anyway. And in order to prove their falsehood, there should be some people or some machinery in place. Unfortunately, such entities barely exist in our country today, and the ones that do are exceptions. If there are more such organisations, there will be lesser fake news, hopefully.

When it comes to Hindi journalism in particular, how would you say it has evolved over the past two decades, in terms of credibility and quality of reportage?

I feel Hindi media's good days are a thing of the past. There aren't many reporters putting in honest effort and doing credible reportage and research in Hindi journalism. It is almost dead. Small local stories, like some accident or event — information that you find on social media these days anyway — are the ones that you find in Hindi newspapers nowadays. Television does have larger scope at present, but its approach mostly lacks seriousness, and tends towards entertainment.

For example, the instance I mentioned earlier of the Prime Minister lying at the Ram Leela Maidan — at least someone should've gone back, checked records, compared footage from his speeches, and raised questions on his contradictory statements. But nobody is doing this kind of homework, or showing enough courage to ask these questions.

However, I feel language and grammar have suffered the worst injuries in Hindi journalism. Earlier, people would learn good Hindi by reading Hindi newspapers, because news was written in sound grammar and language. But where did these good newspapers go? Show me one reputable Hindi newspaper today that takes language seriously.

I live in Jaipur, and over here, Hindi newspapers spell 'circle' as 'cir-kil'. I pointed this out to several editors and publishers, but they continue to publish an incorrectly-spelled version of the word. I can cite many other similar examples.

Journalists these days don't put in effort to fact check anymore, or even find out the correct spelling of a word. So language has been a major casualty for Hindi journalism after its fall from grace.

Journalists are expected to ask and keep asking questions But we dont do that anymore An interview with Om Thanvi

In times when political discourse is so severely polarised, what role do you see the vernacular and local media play in particular, as an organ of democracy?

I don't see the local and the 'national' media doing different jobs. In case of local organisations, however, they definitely are bound by more restrictions, because governments and capitalist forces heavily control them. They need to survive some way or the other. But in case of large, national-level media organisations that have wide circulation and a lot of money, I believe they can organise themselves better, and defy political forces if and when required. Because at the end of the day, it's the editor who runs a newspaper, right? But where are the editors?

But in case of small, local newspapers, they have to make plenty of compromises in order to survive, and despite that, they are often found taking a stand on some social issues. The greater responsibility, in this regard, falls on the bigger players, and it's these major newspapers who are now making in-roads into the smaller, more remote corners of India. This wasn't the case back in our days, when major newspapers would only operate out of big cities. Now, the same papers have different editions being published at district-levels. This has not only killed the smaller, local newspapers, but has also ensured that news from one district does not reach another district. There's heavy censorship going on, with trivial, local news being circulated within cities, since that is where they get all their advertisement and sponsorships from — from local businessmen and the government.

Therefore, I believe this question of local news outlets making a dent in the current socio-political discourse doesn't hold much relevance. If the big players are unable to make a difference, how can the smaller ones be expected to bring about any change?

India has fallen 10 places to rank 51 on the Global Democracy Index of 2019, which factors in freedom of press and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties. In general, every regime has tried to censor the media in its own ways. How and why do you think the current dispensation is exceptional in this regard, when it comes to the way in which it is handling the press and various independent, intellectual institutions?

The central government has largely failed to deliver on most fronts and commitments that they made in their election manifesto. They started with promises of controlling the economy, nabbing black money circulation, shouted slogans of 'sabka saath, sabka vikas', promised to bring bullet trains and smart cities, among other things, but eventually failed to fulfil most of them. Then, they introduced measures like demonetisation, which proved to be disastrous as well. So in order to distract people from said failures, the government has started devising means of harassment, where they intimidate individuals who don't support them. They either charge them with sedition, or get them arrested, or order an income tax raid on them, while simultaneously carrying out their agenda on Kashmir, surgical strikes, CAA-NRC, or other such issues.

Journalists who dared to speak up were marked out and called different names, or legal charges were brought against them. Some of them lost their jobs, while writers who protested the killings of intellectuals and fellow-writers by returning state-sponsored awards were maligned with terms like 'Award-wapsi gang' or 'Khan Market gang'.

How can journalists, like politicians and other public figures, be made more accountable for their actions and words, especially if they're caught spreading misinformation and fomenting tension between different groups of people? (Considering there have been multiple occasions in the past couple of years when certain journalists have been found doing so.)

The law can keep such things in check. Our judiciary does have a lot of power to do so, but in most instances out of the many that happen, the cases are quite trivial and irrelevant, where one party says something to threaten or blackmail the other. At other times, someone charges someone else with defamation. However, if this issue of accountability has to be dealt with an iron fist, then the law has to be re-examined and reframed for it to be effective.

The law of the land has remained the same since time immemorial, and the common man faces the brunt of it. Whereas the ones who are supposed to be held accountable have means to wriggle out of such situations. But in case of India, I believe that more than the judiciary, or the government — and I believe governments shouldn't have any control over the media, whether for good causes or dishonest ones — agencies of the media like the Editors' Guild of India, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), or even the Press Council of India, should make themselves more effective, in order to stave off such issues of accountability and corruption. If media bodies can't bring about a certain amount of self-discipline, then no one can help them.

For instance, an editor-in-chief of a television news channel, who was caught seeking a bribe of Rs 100 crore, was later put behind bars, but even then you can't do much to change the situation. You can't take his 'stature' or designation away from him, or keep him from being a prime-time anchor. So, a body like the Press Council of India, which was set up by the government itself, does not have these powers simply because the government has formulated laws to that effect.

And the remaining agencies don't have powers of censorship, or any authority to demand the expulsion of such people from journalism. Therefore, there's barely any point in constituting such toothless bodies.

Most Hindi news channels on television are charged with creating 'unwatchable' content, making a mockery of news, and peddling a pro-government narrative. What are your thoughts on that?

They've made a fool of themselves by doing so. What can Modi ji do about it? They could actually ask good questions. For example, since Narendra Modi said people can be identified by their clothes, why not question him on his clothes, and ask him about his expensive suits, since that is what people are supposed to identify him with?

Journalists are expected to ask and keep asking questions But we dont do that anymore An interview with Om Thanvi

Photo courtesy Sumer Singh Rathore

Ravish Kumar, in his session at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, spoke about how Gandhi ji had shed his regular clothes. So will you now identify Gandhi ji from his clothes? Go ahead, do it.

Journalists have the right to ask such questions, but instead they ask, "Aapne aisi fakiri kaha se paai?", "Aap toh sotey hi nahi hai?" What is this but shameless sycophancy? And when they can't find journalists to do their bidding, they get hold of 'lyricists' to do the job. There's a limit to such embarrassing behaviour.

These are people who've put us in trouble by not doing their job honestly, and are only conspiring to distract us from pressing issues by destroying relationships with neighbouring countries, and creating divides between communities within the country. And yet, there are people who refuse to hold them accountable for any of it, and instead, ask them pointless questions.

Finally, during such politically turbulent times, what do you think is the way ahead for the Indian press that's constantly under global scrutiny for failing to uphold the sanctity of the 'fourth estate'?

I feel young journalists in our country lack proper education and training. How many media institutes in India really do this job? The faculty that they hire — what experience do they bring with them? Some news organisations have opened their own training schools, and charge a hefty sum to train people to become journalists. But these aren't very professional bodies encouraging study and research in journalism, where they investigate the various instances when pointless questions were asked to a public figure, or the many times the press failed to do its job properly. Journalism institutes should do quality work and research, but we don't have enough establishments of such calibre in our country.

We don't have places that can teach journalists how to use good language, or help them learn moralities, ethics, responsibilities, gender issues, or even the law, Constitution, governance and policies, among other subjects. When a person goes through such rigorous training, he or she will at least be able to realise that a journalist shouldn't act in a manner that can cause embarrassment. I believe such establishments should be there in every state.

My point is, the state of education and training in journalism in our country is quite abysmal at present.

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