Jarnail Singh has been soundly condemned by journalists for shaming the profession when he crossed the line between journalism and activism. But my embarrassment as a journalist began much before Singh tossed his shoe, with deliberate miscalculation, into an empty chair two places away from P Chidambaram.
Jarnail Singh was not the only journalist who embarrassed the profession that day. I was squirming and cringing in my seat for 10 minutes even as Chidambaram took his at the podium and was waiting for the noisy journalists to “settle” down. He waited… more cackle, cackle. And he waited… more gaggle, gaggle. Since the journalists insisted on behaving like school children (no offence meant to school children), Chidambaram quickly assumed the role of a headmaster.
Each time he implored “please settle down quickly, how can I talk if you continue to talk among yourselves?”, I was embarrassed pink imagining what the viewer might be thinking about journalists and their behaviour.
If we call ourselves professionals, how can we be so discourteous to anybody in our work area? Does not every press conference hall (or space) become office space for us? And don’t we have office rules, office decorum?
Chidambaram had barely taken control when Jarnail decided to act and then there was mayhem all over again. As Chidambaram was trying to calm things down and carry on, the commotion reached a crescendo. Right there, sitting in the room, TV reporters started filing the “breaking news”. Chidambaram quickly got over the shoe-insult, but was exasperated by the lack of civility of Jarnail’s colleagues. “All of you are filing reports, nobody is listening… even Sunil Prabhu who asked me the question is not listening.”
Rude indeed! Nothing wrong in filing breaking news as it is breaking. But courtesy demanded that those who wanted to file left the room. Not that things were any better outside the room. As Jarnail was being led away, cameramen and reporters waged a war against one another for that elixir of news TV: byte.
In the innocent print-only years, “newshound” was used to describe a journalist always hungry for news. TV has taken that to literal heights. Under breaking news situations (euphemism for perennially), TV reporters can kill to get that byte. They wear the look and determination of the aboriginal hunter (once again, no offence meant to the aboriginal) and are willing to trample on anything and everybody.
The same sequence was repeated when Jarnail emerged out of the police station. He was pushed, pulled, and shoved as reporters battled to thrust the mike in his mouth. It could have so easily ended up in a stampede, a tragedy. The fact that it has not happened till now is no guarantee it won’t happen. There is a good chance that somebody, a reporter or the subject of their frenzy, might get seriously hurt. Or, worse, reporters might actually come to blows. This is not far-fetched, it almost happened during those Aarushi days.
Jarnail did not shame journalism as much as he shamed himself. Jarnail will get his just desserts from the profession, though he might become a star in another theatre. He will leave no permanent scars on the profession. But our daily transgressions of acceptable behaviour will soon add up to public contempt.
Each time the viewer sees us behaving in such a manner, he tends to dislike us a little more because when he sees the BBCs and CNNs, and he knows there is a better, dignified way of doing this. Forget the code to cover emergencies; we need a code for our every day behaviour. Let’s do this before somebody gets hurt.
About the coverage of the incident itself, I will say only this: I wish at least one channel had described it accurately, that Jarnail did not “throw” the shoe “at the minister”, that he did not intend to hit the minister, that for whatever reason (thank God) he deliberately missed him, etc., etc. It was almost like there was a common code of silence across channels not to mention these obvious things perhaps under the belief that facts would dilute the drama or it would make the “crime” seem less serious.
The symbolism of Jarnail’s lunatic action was the news that day. Jarnail, a Sikh journalist, threw a shoe (a symbol of the Sikh anger) on the podium occupied by the Home Minister (the symbol of the Congress party and Government). This symbolism would not have been diluted a bit if the news channels had mentioned the fact that Jarnail did not aim for Chidambaram and, in fact, he deliberately missed him. He was not even looking at the minister when he did it.
Only the next morning, the newspapers found the right words to describe Jarnail’s action: “lobbed” said the TOI, “tossed” said the HT. I would say he almost “offered” it to Chidambaram’s non-existent colleague. Facts never subtract from a story as fiction never adds to it (as I write this, India TV finds itself in a spot with the NBA body headed by Justice JS Varma over of something of a similar nature, but more on that next week).
Tera Naam kya hain, Basanti?
Tailpiece: Let’s lighten up a bit. I always thought that the immortal Amitabh Bachchan line in ‘Sholay’, “Tera naam kya hain, Basanti” (What is your name, Basanti), was unbeatable. But try this for competition: NDTV’s Nagma was in Surat, outside a shop that catered to Andhra migrants. Nagma, to the shopkeeper: ‘Aap ka naam bataiye, Telugu mein bataiye’ (Tell us your name, tell us in Telugu)! He said his name was ‘Anil’. Wonder what his name would be Hindi!
(Venkat, as the author is known, is a certified lunatic of the Hindi news space who still believes that editors should put news on news channels. Imagine! He will occupy this space every Saturday. Write to him at email@example.com)