Journalists are not supposed to be the story. The convention is that reporters should eschew the pronoun “I”, as the news they report is much bigger than those providing it. One such lapse and the British press lampooned John Simpson, the much-travelled star of BBC World, so cruelly it wasn’t funny. Simpson’s sin: he claimed, after a short walk into an unresisting Kabul on November 13, 2001, that he and the BBC had “liberated” the Afghan capital. “What a Burka” was the headline of one tabloid.
Yet, every reporter is always eager to tell the story behind the story, how s/he got the story. Acts of derring-do that possibly give journalists a sense of control over the exciting events they cover. After all, others always play the lead role in the dramas they record, sometimes people far less educated, far more unsavoury than they. In their own stories, the purveyors of news are game players too.
In the West there is enough popular interest to have made such tales of journalistic heroism into quite an industry. It began, as with most things in contemporary journalism, with the Watergate exposé. All the President’s Men became a best-selling book and then a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman no less. Reason enough for the continuing epidemic of such books since.
The trend has arrived in India too — at last. Edited by B.G. Verghese, a stalwart of the pre-Emergency Indian press, Breaking the Big Story tells the tale behind nine “great moments in Indian journalism” in the last 25 years. Whether they justify the larger-than-life self-image of journalists is for readers to decide. I would be most surprised if Mani Ratnam finds his next script in any of these stories.
Too far to village India
To most of the media in the Western world (and some in India), Cancun has lived up to its name, which means “snake pit” in the local Mayan language. The New York Times is no different. Nevertheless, America’s leading newspaper is not quite like the other cheerleaders of globalization.
Tuesday’s NYT was the first to carry a report from the village of Lee Kyung Hae, the South Korean farmer who fatally plunged a knife into his heart to bring home to the world the inequities of the WTO regime. Its readers learnt that many see Hae as a “patriot and a hero” whose end was not “just a sideshow”. Maybe they even got a better understanding of what the poor nations were fighting for.
The reaction in Indian newsrooms is predictable: we would do the story too if we had the money. I wonder. Forget sending someone to South Korea, it was months before the press in the rest of India woke up to the suicides so many Andhra farmers were driven to by crop failure. It takes a lot for village India to impinge on the consciousness of our big newspapers and channels.
The mayor of Mumbai was blissfully unaware that the “mayor” of London was visiting his city or his municipal commissioner at the municipal corporation’s headquarters last Thursday — until reporters brought it to his notice.
Predictably enough, the Mumbai mayor blew his top. “I can’t believe they did this to me,” ranted Mahadeo Deole, “This is an insult to me and the people of Mumbai,” etc. etc.
The papers had the headline they wanted: “London mayor gives city mayor the skip”. Only to say “May-err…” the next day, after the British high commission explained that the visiting Alderman Gavyn Arthur was not the mayor but the “lord mayor” of London.
But the fat was already in the fire. “To us he is the London mayor,” the leader of the house said, “and our mayor was insulted, so we will be writing a letter to the chief minister asking for action against the municipal commissioner.” As they say, we get the politicians — and the press — we deserve.