The alchemy of desire is often a perversion of sex and power. Soon, the frenzy of l’affaire Tejpal will make way for new scandals. The nature of public outrage is fleeting. The girl who died after the Delhi gang rape is now just an epitaph to a successful media campaign, as will be the woman who was attacked with a machete in Bangalore and the photographer who was raped and assaulted at Bombay Mills—just like Aruna Shanbaug, who—if it were not for her vociferous champion Pinky Virani—would have been left forgotten in the unfathomable twilight of her decades-long coma. Obscured in the frenzy and schadenfreude over yet another media celebrity’s disgrace is the great transmutation that has occurred in the essential nature of professional inquiry—the change in the profile and role of the journalist.
Going unexamined in the media fury over the Tehelka Think Fest abomination is the relationship between scandal and the journalist. The journalist’s bread and butter is scandal. But when the journalist himself or herself becomes the scandal, it shows the rules of the game have changed. It reveals how the role and profile of the journalist have changed since India’s great newspapers passed from colonial censorship to the spirit of free inquiry.
The Indian journalist, then, was an icon of truth, freedom, possessing a shining intellect that could wrestle with great national problems and offer solutions. They were respected as writers and commentators. They were the high priests of public probity. News was based on trust because journalists were seen as impecunious knights who sought the holy grail of truth. Today, any ambitious journalist seeks to go beyond the byline and become a celebrity. He acquires the fatal flaw of hubris that pumps him with invincibility because in the stratosphere where he moves far above the mundane realm inhabited by colleagues and readers, he rubs shoulders with the high and mighty. He gets to exchange scuttlebutt with ministers and politicians at exclusive clubs in big hotels; he gets to call Mukesh Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan by their first names and gets upgraded to first class when flying on an economy ticket. He appears at gala functions with starlets on his arm, gets to quaff champagne with visiting dignitaries and show his face in distant drawing rooms, clawing for more prime time minutes with naked aggression or laughable pomposity. In dotage, many TV-minted editorial celebrities even write autobiographies that receive fatuous reviews by colleagues. What has changed is that journalists today chase fame and social perks rather than real news.
It wasn’t always like this. Old-timers talk about how the powerful paid homage to revered journalists. British Viceroy Lord Linlithgow asked Shankar, the father of Indian political satire, for the original of a cartoon criticising him. Kuldip Nayar would stroll around with Nehru on the lawns of Teen Murti or enter Indira Gandhi’s Safdarjung home unaccosted; policymakers turned to the morning wisdom in the editorials of Pothan Joseph, Frank Moraes or Suman Mulgaonkar for inspiration. Prime ministers trembled at a frown from the indomitable Ramnath Goenka. Today, except for a few editors I have worked with and currently work with, achieving celebrity-hood is the journalist’s ultimate aim, and not sweat-of-the-brow reportage. When a celebrity becomes a notoriety as a collaborator for profit or a sexual predator, one sworn to reveal the truth about others gets caught trying to hide the truth about himself. The biggest casualty is the trust placed on the media by the public.
Journalism is about the simple, unshakeable belief that every reader is decent and is outraged at any violation of decency. The Tehelka episode reminds us about the innocence journalism has lost. Perhaps to regain it, more reputations could be assassinated by the truth. It’s a price worth paying.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)