Things to do about the Press

Submitted by lakshmi on

The Premise of democratic governance is that the people will decide. But what will be the character of the decisions they will take when instead of being informed, inspired, when necessary enraged to act on issues, they are distracted and merely entertained?
The notion that journalists must merely be “good professionals” is only a little less pernicious. Albert Speer was a good professional. An assassin is no poorer a professional in his marksmanship than a soldier. The new skills, the new technology, unless permeated by a sense of public purpose will end up enticing us away from the issues which we in any case do not want to face. They will therefore make us even less able to improve our condition.
This ideology of professionalism undermines all a sense of proportion, of all sense of purpose beyond that of getting the applause of one’s peers and the audience. On this criterion purveying gossip about film stars well is as laudable as purveying facts about the North-east well. The consequences are immediate and disastrous, not the least for the professional himself.
Professionalism — specially good professionalism — puffs up the professional. He begins to insist that as he is such a good professional he is entitled to more than the ordinary citizen, and that he is entitled to special privileges merely because he is such a good professional — privileged access for one, the right to be taciturn about his assertions, for another — and he is entitled to them even though he is neglecting the duties that are his as an ordinary citizen. Similarly, professionalism - specially among the ones who come to excel at their job — gives the successful an exaggerated importance of their job, of continuing to be successful at it. Thus, for instance, even the best journalists muffle what they have to say on the rationalization that they must preserve their access to the forum at all costs. This is one danger — commercialism, consumerism, the philosophy of being merely “good professionals”.
The other danger is even more serious. It is opportunism. It is, of course, true that in journalism as in other professions we have long had opportunists. But in the last few years two things have converted opportunism into a grave danger.
First, in the press as in other spheres of life the tentacles of the State — in practice this means the tentacles of those who are occupying the offices of State from time to time - have spread far and deep.
Journalists are being offered and are lapping up all sorts of favours — trips, plots at concessional rates and much else. Many a politician has converted this purchase into an art. The result is that our papers are full of stories planted by these politicians. Naturally, politicians are not the only ones who practice the art. Business companies, foreign governments do just as much and as effectively. Among governments, for instance, communist countries have been in the business long, they have a veritable stable of journalists and magazines who will put out what they suggest or what they need to have put out. Business companies do the same. Among journalists they are known by the gifts that can be expected from them.
The consequences are before us. It isn’t just that the press does not take up issues of vital interest to the public weal — for instance, the way Dhirubai Ambani prostituted institution after institution, was taken up by hardly any paper other than the Indian Express.
A Code
In the past whenever a politician has proposed a code of conduct for the press, my reaction, like that of so many others in the press, has been; “Why don’t the politicians formulate and enforce a code for themselves?” I had the apprehension that the code would become another stick in the hand of the politician. The moment there was a code, I felt — even a one line code, “You shall report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” — pressmen would be put to proving to somebody else’s satisfaction that they were abiding by the code. The politicians would find it easier to manipulate that somebody — or those few bodies — that to manipulate a numerous and varied press. The only result, I feared, would be that the press would be put even more on the defensive.
So, there is much to improve and improve the press we must. First, India is one of the few societies in which free expression and discussion have the opportunity to make a difference. There is scarcely a country outside North America and Western Europe that affords the pressman the freedom that we enjoy in India. We often make much noise about this restriction or that, about this “pressure” from the Government or that but it is only when we encounter evidence of, say, psychiatric hospitals in the Soviet Union or when we read Jacob Tiberman’s account of the conditions that an honest pressman has to contend with in Argentina that we get a glimpse of what real restrictions and real pressure mean. In India by the contrast “restrictions” mean laws that are in fact helpfully worded, that are in any case not enforced; “pressure” means a telephone call from a more or less fraternal official. 
Moreover, the record shows that there are many points of strength in the press on which one can build. Over the last few years on one issue after another the press has been associated with reform in our public life. If blindings are not state policy today, if the murder of citizens in “encounters” has fallen in Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, if a momentary victory has been won here and there against malfeasance, the press has had a hand in the outcome. It isn’t just that there are these nodes of strength but that their being in the press is particularly helpful. The press is an infectious trade, it is more of a public profession than most, so that if a few journalists in one paper conduct themselves in an exemplary way others have to follow suit, in a little measure may be, but at least in that vital little measure. Hence the possibilities of improvement.
Finally, it isn’t just that the press can be improved, a code of conduct can be one good device for improving it. Again, there are negative as well as positive reasons for this. Victims of the press are seldom in a position to fight back. As the relationship of a pressman to his victim is often of potential blackmail, as the latter is able to engineer to have the last word, as given their procedures it is so enormously difficult to bring them to book through courts there is much to be said for putting the relationship between the two a bit more at par.
Hence a code. As in so many matters, there scarcely is a better guide for preparing such a code than Gandhiji. Reflecting on the counsel he explicitly set out for newspapers and pressmen from time to time, reflecting even more on what he himself did with the publications he supervised, I set out a code for pressmen which addresses itself to the lacunae listed above:
The Code
I affirm that an open society is imperative for India, not so much for the rich as for the poor and for all who work for transforming our society in the interest of the poor. I therefore subscribe to and I shall fight for the institutions of an open society.
I believe that a free press is an essential instrument for maintaining our society as an open one and also for reforming it, for to reform society we must first inform the people.
I affirm that I shall be a citizen first and last and not a mere professional; in particular I shall not claim for myself any more than I would urge for the ordinary citizen; but simultaneously being a citizen, I shall wholeheartedly and relentlessly devote myself to the public weal.
As in a society where the overwhelming millions are mute, the access to a forum that reaches large numbers is a privilege; as the use of the forum can have considerable consequence - both for good and ill - I shall view my work as a trust to be exercised on behalf of the people.
In particular: I shall not use my access to the forum for personal gain nor shall I let personal enmity distort what I write.
I shall use the forum for the good of the people at large and not to advance any sectional interests - including in the latter the interests of the press or any part thereof.
The basis in Gandhi
The code sketched above is Gandhian in several senses. First it aims at two eminently Gandhian objectives. The first objective is that of subserving mere professionalism to a larger purpose — recall Gandhiji’s severe strictures against lawyers in the Hind Swaraj — of urging a sense of responsibility as citizens. Next, given the good fortune that one has in having access to platforms which have such a wide reach in a country where millions cannot read and write, where millions are mute, given the fact that the relationship of a pressman to his subject can always be of potential blackmail, the second objective is to put pressmen and their victims a bit more at par than they are at the present moment.
Moreover, the Code rests on four premises which, too, are Gandhian. First, it was Gandhiji’s view that, apart from the fact that it is everyone’s duty to work for the general good of the community, even from the parochial point of view of a specific institution, say the press, service to the community is the best way for the institution to safeguard itself against assault: the best way for the press to safeguard its freedom is to take up issues which are of concern to the people so that when it is attacked the people feel that an instrument vital to their wellbeing is being undermined.
Constraints Within: Next, he taught that an institution, a movement grows not by the demands it makes on others but by the demands it makes on itself, on its members. This is specially true in the case of the press in India today because the operative constraints on it arise not from external sources but from within.
The third Gandhian premise on which the Code rests is that the formulation of rules of conduct, of norms should not be diluted because of some supposed notions of what is practical and what is not. If norms are thus diluted the battle will be lost even before it is begun. Euclid’s point without breadth or length, Gandhiji used to recall, is not realizable in practice and yet, he would say again and again, an entire geometry had been founded with it as a postulate; and what seems utopian today, he would say, comes to pass tomorrow.
Fourth, Gandhiji’s operational premise as well as his experience was that if a few abide by the ideal others are likely to follow suit. This is more likely to the case in a trade which is as much a public affair as the press. But while this was Gandhiji’s operational premise as well as his experience he would caution that one’s adherence to an ideal should not be governed by this possibility, by this prospect of results. Ideals are worth pursuing in themselves for their pursuit alone endows our work with meaning.
Finally, the Code is Gandhian in that almost each specific element of the Code is derived not just from reflecting upon the current state of the press but directly from Gandhiji’s writings on the press and related matters — in particular, from his writings during the Rowlatt agitation. The reader will perhaps have his favorite incident or passage from Gandhiji’s life and writings to which the elements can be directly traced. Thus, the watchword for pressmen must be introspection. The watchwords for readers must be skepticism. And for those who are working to transform our society the watchword must be the counsel that Gandhiji gave in his article about the Lokmanya ruling our hearts without pen and speech.
Article appeared in Public Union of Civil Liberties, Bulletin August, 1990