Two lesser-known quotes of the legendary C P Scott who gave the dictum about facts in news reportage being sacred include how “it is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair,” and more importantly, how although the business side of a newspaper must be competent, if it becomes dominant the paper will face “distressing consequences”.
The revelations emanating from the ongoing episode exposing an array of shadiness at NDTV documented meticulously by S Gurumurthy in The New Indian Express and elsewhere simply shows how prophetically accurate Scott was.
There’s just no other way to say it: The journey of NDTV from being one of the pioneers of Indian TV journalism to its current descent into all-round collapse should ideally ring twin warning bells to the entire media fraternity—of recovering the foundational ideals of news and a call for introspection.
Indeed, Gurumurthy’s expose makes for shocking reading. Equally, if not more shocking are the copious details of NDTV’s doings documented in the devastating December 2015 cover story of The Caravan. These, coupled with a four-part series exposing NDTV’s complex money trail in Europe published in the Sunday Guardian in 2011 complete the picture. The revelations are far too numerous and spread over nearly a decade if not more.
Revelations of financial irregularities aside, NDTV as a media house has shown itself to be less than credible on at least two occasions. The first concerns its coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots, where in the words of the aforementioned Caravan article: “... after the violence broke out, channels largely refrained from identifying the community to which most victims belonged—a practice inherited from print journalism. NDTV… took the decision to state that the victims were Muslims.”
The second is the now infamous Radia Tapes which also included one of NDTV’s celebrity journalists as a willing participant. It was truly a watershed moment in Indian journalism, one after which NDTV’s credibility was almost wholly eroded.
And so, the channel’s complaint today that the CBI raids are political vendetta and an attack on free speech rings hollow. In fact, if recent history is a guide, it’s clear that in the run up to the 2014 elections, apart from the pervasive, nationwide fury against the UPA’s corrupt rule, substantial anger was also directed at the notorious “Lutyens English media.”
So how did things come to such a pass? The history of almost every nation shows that any ideology or political establishment dominating for extended periods creates an ecosystem of elites around itself. The political class rewards the ecosystem which in turn sustains its rule. The post-Independence history of India ruled largely by a single dynasty did the same.
Indeed, it is astonishing how much has changed in a relatively short span of 70 years. Before and just a few years after we attained freedom, the image, ideals, and self-perception of editors and journalists was one of people who performed national service through their papers; indeed, several among them were active freedom fighters. How that tradition transmogrified with journalists turning into the cohorts of the ruling political class and getting dubbed “news traders” can form the subject of an academic study.
Even today, with the ongoing massive churning occurring in the way news and reportage are done as well as the rapid shift in the business side of media, it still appears that news is largely Delhi-centric. Among others, this is one of the prime reasons for the disparaging usage of “Lutyens media,” which is political party-agnostic in many ways. As past record shows, this Delhi-centric media is both elite and establishment rolled into one. And it’s the reason why when action is taken against wrongdoing by one of its own, it’s painted as an attack against free speech itself!
As happens with any elite settled comfortably over a prolonged period, it loses touch with reality. It is this phenomenon that blinded these elites to the victories of Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, and stunned them when Brexit occurred.
Which brings us back to the note on the foundational ideals of news. Or more accurately, is news merely another business product or is it a public good as envisioned by past stalwarts? Should media houses speak in the national interest or should they invite terror sympathisers and malcontents to get their “perspective” in the name of “balanced” debate?
One can turn to the sage counsel of the late D V Gundappa, a freedom fighter, statesman, and journalist for about six decades. Writing in Vruttapatrike (Newspaper) about the qualities of a journalist and a newspaper, he says: “The greatest danger that confronts a journalist is the opportunities his profession affords for playacting … perhaps no other profession provides the opportunity … for putting on a show of one’s ignorance as profound knowledge … on any topic that he writes, there will be at least one or two readers who are more knowledgeable ... He must ask himself what they would think about his writing … (this) yields an attitude of healthy trepidation, which is the root of responsibility.
The greater this trepidation, the greater this sense of responsibility, and the greater it motivates the journalist to read widely, deeply, and examine anything from as many perspectives as possible. Ultimately, this results in a greater benefit to the reader. This is how the paper earns the respect of people and society… the primary and basic qualification for a journalist is to develop a character of culture and refinement.”
Old-fashioned advice perhaps, in an age of gizmos and microsecond attention-spans and a steady death of deep reading. Yet, it’s timeless advice for but a simple reason: following it would avoid a NDTV-kind of decay of a truly noble calling.
Author, independent scholar of history and culture, and commentator on current affairs