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EXPOSURE MATTERS

- It is important that the media exercise the right to ask questions

The stormy note on which 2013 opened reminds me of the adjustment I had to make in defining news when I returned to India after my initiation in journalism in England. A boat disaster in southern Bengal killing a dozen villagers highlighted the contrast. It would have been headline news in Britain. Here, the nameless dead merited a single paragraph without a heading tucked away at the end of a column, a “filler” in newspaper parlance.

Suppose the accident had occurred in the area my first paper, the 40-page provincial weekly Stockport Advertiser, covered. Photographers would have fanned out taking pictures while we reporters squabbled over survivors, friends and relatives. Each of us had to fill three or four pages devoted to particular localities and were desperately possessive about people and events with a connection with those areas. One drowning victim might have had in-laws in my district; another may have spent holidays in a fellow reporter’s area. With each reporter claiming proprietary rights over such stories, a victim with connections in two or more districts plunged us into heated argument that only copious quantities of beer in the local pub could dissolve.

The system had several merits. First, having to fill so many columns meant meticulously scouring our allotted districts and ensuring that nothing, not even a fallen autumn leaf, went unnoticed. Second, since mainly ordinary people — not Stockport’s industrial nobs or the landowning gentry of the surrounding Cheshire countryside — talked to reporters, what we published was emphatically proletarian. Third, dealing with people’s concerns meant constantly asking their questions and ferreting out the answers.

We were not revolutionaries. A knighted tycoon owned the Advertiser. The editor was dyed-in-the-wool Tory. Occasionally, I had to put up with snide or caustic remarks from Labour loyalists. But there was nothing elitist about our news columns. There couldn’t be. Our readers were lower middle- or working-class folk who liked to read about themselves and their concerns. So we reported the institutional activities (church fete, mothers union, youth club) they dabbled in plus whatever we gleaned from postmasters, publicans, parish priests and community busybodies and gossips. In its handling of news, the Stockport Advertiser, like all British papers, was sturdily vox populi, voice of the people.

As the boat tragedy illustrated, India’s English-language press — not just papers boasting a colonial lineage — reflected the hierarchies of Indian life. Who wants to read about drowned peasants? Since upper-class women have little to worry about, the current turmoil over “women’s rights” really means the privilege is being extended to aam admi. So unfamiliar is this concern that even this newspaper seems amusingly confused. Under the headline “Lady beaten” the other day, I read, “A woman was severely beaten…” Then, possibly fearing allegations of disrespect, the report reverted to the heading’s “lady”. It was a real-life rendering of the old joke about the status-conscious Cockney bridegroom admonishing the priest officiating at his wedding, “Don’t say woman, she’s a li’dy!”

I thought our papers were determined to live up to the spirit of Lord Northcliffe’s legendary insistence that his reporters dress well because even if Daily Mail readers didn’t earn £1,000 a year (a fortune in those days), they pretended they did. I also found India had revised the Fleet Street adage about dog biting man not being news while man biting dog was. To be news, the man had to be a politician (preferably a minister) or a tycoon, while a smart kennel club had to attest the dog’s pedigree. Symbols have changed since then. If the dog belongs to Shah Rukh Khan, a national media orgy is guaranteed irrespective of the creature’s breed or the biter’s status. But an aam admi who digs his teeth into a pariah is probably still dismissed as casually as those drowning victims.

The news worthiness of sex abuses was (possibly still is to some extent) similarly judged by the class yardstick. As Francis Williams, the media commentator noted, snobbery might be a vice for some and an art for others, but is the business of the press. Political, polemical and populist factors are beginning to force Indian newspapers to cast their net wider. I must confess that the ease with which public anger can be whipped up might also encourage false accusations and mob lynching but, on balance, more extensive coverage is a good thing. As a police inspector lamented to Robin Jeffrey, author of India’s Newspaper Revolution, villagers no longer fear policemen because “newspapers have made them know that the police are not supposed to beat them”.

Sadly, the police are a mixed blessing. Society needs uniformed peacekeepers and it’s disgraceful that 20 per cent of sanctioned police posts should remain unfilled. But the force’s quality recalls Juvenal’s quis custodiet ipsos custodes… who will guard the guards? The Birbhum village boy who assured me it was safe to cut across the fields because the CRP had gone would regard fewer policemen a blessing. The police can be genuinely protective only if strictly supervised. But the obvious supervisor, the political establishment, is untrustworthy since, at the lower levels at least, it is a beneficiary of police crookedness. In fact, all the instruments of justice have been so thoroughly suborned to facilitate looting (like the 2G scam) that honest policing is of little interest. A Delhi constable complained bitterly to me about being posted in Chanakyapuri where there is little scope for illicit gain. He saw it as discrimination.

There remains the judiciary as India’s last bastion of decency. But for how long? V.V. Rao, judge in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, calculated in 2010 it would take 320 years to clear the backlog of 31.28 million cases in all courts. Meanwhile, the National Crime Records Bureau claims instances of rape went up by 20 per cent between 2007 and 2011. No one knows how many cases are not reported for obvious societal reasons, or are ignored or hushed up even when reported.

None of this may impede India’s march to glory. Victorian England’s imperial might concealed destitution and depravity at home. America’s sex crimes and gun battles show education alone doesn’t ensure social health. Indeed, there is no single cure. But a combination of effective policing, deterrent punishment, brisk disposal of cases and, above all, caring governance can help if people are educated (as distinct from fudged literacy figures) and enjoy recourse to the public tribunal. Exposure matters, and I cannot do better than cite Jeffrey’s own closing words, “Newspapers, a courtier of the English King Charles II lamented, make ‘the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors’. They also make the multitude aware — and this is the constructive side of the consumerism that newspapers bear — that the police are not supposed to beat them and that there are ways of making it hot for them if they do.”

That is what the media are there for. Some TV anchors may sound hysterical, some columns border on sanctimoniousness. There’s a disgusting race to exploit the tragedy for personal fame. Some of the remedies mooted (“chemical castration”, banning tinted windows, a moral code, pepper guns and martial arts training for girls) promise immediate relief without tackling deeply entrenched problems. But the oxygen of publicity was never more necessary.

Salman Khurshid was utterly wrong, therefore, to declare in another context it’s not the media’s “job to ask questions”. It’s always the media’s job to ask questions about every official action. And it’s always authority’s duty to provide satisfactory answers. Unless the media’s right to examine, expose and broadcast is exercised, we would sink into an abyss ruled by tin pot dictators convinced of their own infallibility. That’s a lesson I learnt as a 20-year-old reporter on the Stockport Advertiser.