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NOTHING IS FOR FREE

It was a great relief to hear that journalists will not be onboard the prime minister’s airplane on his visits overseas. Over the years, such ‘trips’ have been nothing more than free junkets which ‘journos’ availed themselves of. They felt chuffed to meet rulers and policy makers in an intimate, enclosed space at 30,000 feet in the air, and believed they had built strong relationships with people belonging to the highest echelons. Leaders and administrators used this to their advantage: half-baked facts and half truths, much like gossip, were fed to the Indian media. The people of India were thus given unverified information disguised as facts, via newspapers, magazines and television. A lot of this information was disjointed and could not be put together to make any sense, but were nevertheless touted to be ‘authentic news’ gathered from ‘undisclosed sources.’

The practice of allowing naive, excited scribes a ‘secret’ peek into a few pages of a mysterious file had become the norm. The stories that were filed as a result of these ‘leaks’ were often wildly speculative and destroyed many reputations without reason. Perceptions, instead of facts, were passed off as the absolute truth. Clever leaders had silently begun to use the fourth estate to their advantage. Thus, scores of media houses and their journalists came across as being subservient to that class of rulers, people who lived in sprawling bungalows, equipped with free amenities and cars with red beacons. To the people, the unscrupulous leaders and the media appeared to be hand in glove.

Plug the leak

At present, politicians who were defeated in the general elections are bemoaning the loss of free accommodation and amenities, while scribes are depressed about having to pay their own air fares and living costs if they want to go overseas to report news. Freebies such as these were provided to journalists to buy their blind support. Stopping this practice will have a positive impact on the voters, whom politicians and their babus have exploited for decades.

People are whining about there being ‘no real news’ in the papers or on television. The reason for this is obvious — bureaucrats have been ordered to keep mum and ensure that ‘leaked news’ flooding the public domain is blocked. Lazy journalists, used to working off handouts and leaks, are now feeling seriously impaired. They will now have to do some actual work: ferret out information, follow a lead, find the empirical backup, double check facts and then write the story.

The egos of editors trying to please their benefactors need to be punctured if journalism as a profession is to grow and become more inclusive and exciting in terms of ideas, learning and entertainment. Journalism in India has been reduced to frivolous reports of launch events and dinner parties. Even these could have been crafted in a satirical manner to reflect some truths about the social scene, but that has not happened. The reporting is dull and has no nuances.

India is still short on competent art, music and dance reviewers whose work can hold its own against the kind of writing produced on the same subjects elsewhere in the world. News stories are bland, and solid investigative reporting is virtually non-existent in mainline journalism. The excuse given for the absence of such stories is that there is no market for them. This cannot be true, because no one will know what the readers want till they are given something substantial to read.

There is a churning taking place in the media in India, coinciding with the presence of a new government at the Centre. This change can be investigated, but only after the new government has settled down.