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Others Commentary: Shoe Shame, Media Game – Who’s to Blame?

Commentary: Shoe Shame, Media Game – Who’s to Blame?

Author | Anurag Batra | Wednesday, Apr 08,2009 8:07 AM

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Commentary: Shoe Shame, Media Game – Who’s to Blame?

“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” – Henry Anatole Grunwald, the late Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc publications.

I was with a very respected editorial head of a news channel when the news of a journalist named Jarnail Singh from a leading media house – the Jagran Group – hurling a shoe at Home Minister P Chidambaram came in. The journalist was not satisfied with the response of the Minister at a press conference and registered his protest by hurling the shoe.

I was shocked and ashamed on the conduct of the journalist. Was it stage managed? I was aghast and disturbed by the fact that two news channels and I will take names here NDTV and IBN got Jarnail as a guest on their channels. Aren't news channels making Jarnail Singh a media created Frankenstein ,a Media created monster? In my view, news channel are encouraging other journalists to emulate Raj Thackrey and Varun Gandhi. This unusual way of marking his protest by a journalist was against the basic tenet of Journalism where a journalist’s job is to report the news and not become news himself. I am part of the generation that witnessed the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 closely and felt strongly about them and empathise with our Sikh brothers and their anguish even after 25 years. Thanks to 24x7 news television, Jarnail Singh became an unlikely hero, the hero of what Times Now calls India’s ‘Shoegate’. Is the shoe mightier than the pen or the camera? Should politicians be more afraid of shoes than TV cameras?

It became the biggest story of day. The larger point and question is what does this action of Jarnail Singh do to the credibility of a journalist, to the respect that a journalist commands, the pride of being a journalist, the role of a journalist in the largest democracy of the world with so many independent media entities. The second question is, how history will look at Jarnail Singh and is the action an outburst of a human being, a Sikh or of a professional journalist? I know the term ‘professional journalist’ sounds like an oxymoron, much like the cliched ‘honourable politician’. I must mention here that the media organistion that employs Jarnail Singh, the much respected Jagran Group, was quick to condemn the action of its reporter and dissociated itself from the individual’s action,promised to take action and in my opinion, rightly so.

The larger philosophical question is the role, responsibility, conduct and ambitions of the modern-day journalist, especially in a country like India.

There is a survey on the most respected and least respected professions that is done in UK by a leading media company. Let me share that with you, the readers of exchange4media.com:

The Top 10 professions listed in order were – doctor; nurse; teacher; fireman; paramedic; Army/Navy/RAF; scientist; ambulance driver; police officer; care assistant.

And the 10 least respected professions listed in order were – MP; estate agent; government minister; lawyer; journalist; footballer; advertising executive; car dealer; company director; accountant.

I am sure you have noted that ‘journalist’ is the fifth least respected profession. Would that ranking be any different in India if such a survey is conducted? Is the line between politicians, political activism and journalism blurring?

The point I am trying to make here is that in today’s world, credibility of media, of media people and editors and journalists are under tremendous pressure, and probably lower collectively as they were, say a decade back. Is it because the right people have stopped getting into the profession and those who are coming in are coming for misguided and less noble reasons than say 20 years’ back. But am I not making a simple and overstated point. Yes, may be, which brings me to my next point: why is this happening to well-intentioned and bright editors and journalists?

I don’t know. Maybe be because journalists probably don’t want to be great editors, but aspire to be MPs, business tycoons, chief guests, celebrity speakers, etc. Gone are the times when an editor was well-read and not heard and seen. Maybe all editors are in the queue to get the Padma Shris and are hedging their bets when any party or coalition comes to power. Editors and journalists have become deal-makers. Just look at the number of functions journalists and editors are called as guests or speakers (yours truly included, and I am not excluding myself from the scenario I share with you even for a moment).

Should media and journalists play the role of an activist and take sides?

In the US and the UK, we know the biases and leanings of all major media entities and media leaders in mainstream media, which are stated upfront and articulated loudly. In India, where we have a fairly very independent and fearless media, there are well-known biases that are never openly stated.

On the day of a major news development, I have successfully predicted at least 20 hours in advance the headlines of the two major dailies in Delhi knowing their leanings, both as organisations and of their media owners. Why can’t Indian news organisations either leave their biases or share them upfront?

At the Eighth Pranabesh Sen Memorial Lecture on ‘Parliament, People and the Media’, Kolkata, on January 12, 2009, Somnath Chatterjee had stated: “In a Parliamentary democracy, Parliament, People and the Media are as they should be, integrally linked. Thomas Carlyle famously wrote: ‘Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all’, which signifies the pivotal link in the relationship between Parliament and the Press. The Parliament, as the supreme representative institution, embodies and reflects the hopes, aspirations and urges of the people and the media serves the people as well as the provider of news, which must be based on truth, and by informing people about the working of parliamentary institutions, namely, the activities of their elected representatives and about the issues raised and discussed and most importantly about laws made in Parliament, apart from the accomplishments and lapses of the executive.

“But in this context, what is important is to keep in mind that if the media chooses to paint all members of Parliament and the entire political class with the same brush as detractors of democracy, then in my humble view, they will be doing a great disservice to our Parliamentary system and indeed to our political system as a whole. It will inevitably result in the people losing faith in democratic institutions and weakening the polity itself and will make them cynical, which will be most disquieting. I feel effective communication about Parliament in the Media is central to maintaining people’s faith, trust and interest in parliamentary institutions.”

Also quoting Vir Sanghvi, Somnath Chatterjee had said: “The noted Editor had said while receiving the 1st Lokmanya Tilak Award for Excellence in Journalism: ‘After politics, media is the second most powerful profession. But unlike politicians, who are in some way accountable, media is power without accountability… journalism cannot merely be a business. In one sense, it is a business, but if you enter into journalism only to make money, then you are betraying the ideals of journalism’.”

I am also reminded of the rather interesting lines of two American journalists that are etched in my memory.

Walter Lippmann: “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil – remain detached from the great”

And, Lewis H Lapham: “People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true.”

Home Minister P Chidambaram handled the situation in a very matured manner and like a statesman. “Let us not let the action of an individual hijack the press conference,” he said calmly.

As someone who has seen journalists and media institutions from very close quarters, I would say, let us not judge the actions of an emotional journalist acting in a fit of emotion as symptomatic of the entire Indian Media, but judge Indian Media by the large number of media institutions and very honest journalists who serve the country every day and who make all of us in the Indian Media proud of being a journalist. For every Jarnail Singh, there are many Dr Prannoy Roys and Girilal Jains.

I would like to wrap up with a short poem that I have penned down inspired by this incident:

Shoe Shame, Media is Game
But ask yourself who is to Blame.
Everyone is calling all of us by a Name.
Did Jarnail do it for Fame?
Is this anguish adding to the Flame?
Isn’t the hue and cry by Political Parties Lame?
It brings Media a bad Name.
You decide yourself who is to Blame.
Is media important to you, Guy and you, Dame?
Even after today, Media would be the Same.
Hope Jarnail’s mentality is what we can Tame.
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