JAB BEHIND THE EAR - What it means not to be an embedded journalist

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray sunandadr@yahoo.co.in
  • Published 12.12.09
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The inscribed photograph of C. Rajagopalachari in the Centre of South Asian Studies in Cambridge reminds us that “embedded journalism”, which the West formalized while invading Iraq, has long been the norm in India. It is also a poignant coincidence that Rajaji’s inscription is dated “12.12.47”, 62 years ago today as his grandson packs his bags to relinquish the job his grandfather held.

The photographer’s identity holds additional meaning for me. Ian Stephens, the most colourful and controversial of the British editors of the paper for which I worked for more than 30 years, took that picture of Rajaji at his desk. Though Stephens was at the centre of a maelstrom, my impression is that colonial British officials were more concerned than Indians at his views on Pakistan. I may be mistaken. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel may have pressured Lord Mountbatten in ways of which I know nothing.

When Stephens died in 1984, Amartya Sen wrote approvingly in The Times (London) that in his last book, Unmade Journey, Stephens “had noted with some evident satisfaction that he was ‘still respected in India, especially perhaps in Bengal, because of what we had done during the 1943 famine.’” Sen’s conclusion is worth repeating. “In the subcontinent in which Ian Stephens spent a substantial part of his life, he is remembered not only as a great editor (with amiable, if somewhat eccentric, manners), but also as someone whose hard-fought campaign possible [sic] saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Rajaji knew before moving to Calcutta of the special position The Statesman then occupied in Indian life, and of the prowess of the editor who favoured singlet, shorts and sandals. He probably also knew he had caused some discomfort between Stephens and Lord Linlithgow after Stephens called the viceroy’s rejection of Rajaji’s request to meet Mahatma Gandhi in jail soon after August 1942 “a mistake”. Two or three months later, Linlithgow asked Stephens if he still maintained that view. Disconcerted, fearing that candour might spoil his interview, yet unable to equivocate, Stephens replied “flatly” that he did. Linlithgow liked honesty even when it went against him. “The stony face for a moment lit with a genial smile … The interview went well.”

Stephens’s sturdy integrity may have inspired Rajaji’s inscription on the photograph. “A Government is protected by the vigilant care of the press. But who can look after the press except the conscience of the editor.” There is no question mark at the end of that arresting sentence. Though phrased as a query, Rajaji was making a statement, expressing his profound conviction that it’s the press that protects the government, not the other way round. Nehru eulogized press freedom as he did secularism and other idealistic principles of State policy. Patel proclaimed that since press support is only expected when the government is in the right, it’s when the government is in the wrong that it needs loyal support. But Rajaji implied a detached corrective force whose vigilance and wise counsel saves the government from its own follies.

Harold Evans, the distinguished former editor of Britain’s The Times and Sunday Times, backs that assessment in his recently published memoirs. “Government just cannot govern well without reliable independent reporting and criticism,” he writes. “No intelligence system, no bureaucracy, can offer the information provided by free competitive reporting; the cleverest agents of the secret police are inferior to the plodding reporter of the democracy.”

Rajaji rose above Nehru’s abstraction, Patel’s demand that the press should be authority’s handmaiden and the unthinking mouthing of American jargon about an adversary role. His definition rules out trivia (Britain’s press is now cogitating over Queen Elizabeth’s plea to leave her family alone over Christmas) as well as publish-and-be-damned bravado. There is no scope either for the dependence of journalists in New Delhi or state capitals who, living in free or subsidized official accommodation, are as firmly embedded as any Fox News reporter accompanying the American invaders in Iraq.

Indebtedness does not end with accommodation. Not surprisingly, the long and lanky colleague who turned up in London on a government junket when I was based here produced a shopping list. What did surprise me was that it included a double-breasted suit for someone half his height and twice his breadth. He explained it was for the finance ministry official who had sanctioned the foreign exchange entitlement of a higher grade of journalist on the understanding that half the difference would be spent on a suit for him. The paper, of course, unknowingly paid the money.

Much bigger robberies are committed beyond my ken but it’s through these small acts of collusive deception that the media are perverted, the soul of India corrupted and the ground prepared for the major crimes that are undermining the system. Lee Kuan Yew told the International Press Institute that it’s a myth that a free press curbs corruption since “the media itself is corrupted” in many democracies. He exploded at my suggestion that Indian papers were exciting in their outspokenness. He had not found them “exciting in the sense of a vision of a new India and how to get there”.

Apart from a multitude of obvious inducements, an American journalist — Tom Wicker of The New York Times — wrote that Henry Kissinger’s practice of calling journalists by their first names (could the courtesy be reciprocated?) suborned their independence more surely than any bribe. Stephens obviously made an exception of Rajaji when he warned against getting too close to people in power because of the “peril in confidences”. He wrote in 1945, “A journalist must guard against accepting any (confidences) that seem designed to curtail his scope for comment. Great men are not always scrupulous. Of late a publicity technique has developed for nobbling writers of integrity and conscience, by deliberately divulging secrets to them, reckoning that this will stop their writing about or around that subject.” To quote H.L. Mencken, “Reporters come in as newspaper men trained to get the news; they end as tin-horn statesmen full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.” That’s why so many senior (in years that is, not necessarily wisdom) political correspondents look so self-important and write so little of any consequence. They see themselves as officers of State.

A signboard in the film, War, Inc., reading “Coke presents the Implanted Journalist Experience” takes embedding a stage farther. This spoof on the Iraq invasion replaces the Lone Superpower with Coca-Cola because “in the 21st century great corporations will bestride the earth, replacing nations as the true creators of history, amassing powerful private armies to do their bidding”. Remembering Chile, corporate imperialism is not quite such a novel idea but implanting — a jab behind the ear such as my farming friends in Cornwall inflict on their miniature ouessant sheep for bird flu — holds grim echoes of Huxley, Wells and Orwell.

Rajaji’s thesis of inter-dependence means restraint and a consideration of consequences. “Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story: Is it news?” John F. Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs fiasco: “All I suggest is that you add the question ‘Is it in the interests of national security?’” In India, communal harmony is tantamount to national security. Haunted by childhood memory of Direct Action Day, I have twice as editor felt it necessary to temper editorial freedom with circumspection. I argued indignantly with the BBC interviewer who called me “craven” but without the benefit then of Rajaji’s ultimate trust, though Dalmias and Goenkas stalked the horizon, in “the conscience of the editor”. His grandson’s incumbency in Raj Bhavan rekindled my interest in the twinkling old man with a wicked sense of fun who asked my age at our first meeting. “Twenty-eight,” I replied. “It’s a good age,” Rajaji said. “You stick to it!”