THE CONSENT THAT WE IN THE MEDIA MANUFACTURE
NEW DELHI: The Indian media, particularly after the Emergency, has been very resistant---and rightly so---to a government imposition of a code of ethics. And has preferred to follow a loose knit, and yet valuable, ethical code in the belief that this would remain mandatory for those who claim to be practitioners of journalism. And the belief was supported for a while, even after the advent of 24 hour television channels, with press organisations like the Press Council of India that has since turned into the extension of the government at the centre, the Editors Guild and the more active Press Clubs holding periodic meetings and discussions and even issuing general guidelines from time to time.
The Press Council, although without teeth, did intervene during media excesses when the liberties taken with the truth crossed all limits with letters of censure directed at a particularly publication, that was then required to carry the censure as part of the practice. This was first challenged in 1992 when a Hindi newspaper in Uttar Pradesh replaced facts with charged fiction, and for a while refused to publish the Council’s censure. But finally it had to concede, and carry the rejoinder on the front page.
News Television has over the years moved out of the ambit of this rough code of ethics, with more and more liberties being taken with the truth , Sensational headlines in the midst of communal violence; the lack of perspective offered in reports about the tribals and adivasis who are broadly lumped under the “Maoist” bracket; the acceptance of police ‘leaks’ branding individuals as terrorists without even an effort to use the word alleged, let alone investigate the truth of the police and intelligence claims has together led to an environment where the lie is often accepted as the truth by the viewers, and reactions set in accordingly.
The media, even when proven wrong does not apologise or issue a denial. But moves into the next story that is already knocking at the doors of 24 hour coverage. In the process the arrests can be made with impunity, and the acquittal at times over a decade later finding not even a line in the same television channels that had described the person as a wanted terrorist. Any number of incidents of this travesty of justice have been recorded over and over again, with the media convicting the individual----as in the case of the JNU students in recent days----and the courts often releasing the detenus later for lack of evidence when the case comes up for trial.
There is not a word or a follow up story on what happens to the young man when he is arrested, while he is custody, in jail and then the acquittal that is often a trauma in itself. As he returns to a family that has been broken in the process, after the torture he underwent, and the years in jail despite being innocent. A Kashmiri journalist colleague was arrested a few years ago for being a “terrorist”. The Special Cell barged into his house, and spent hours searching everything before they took him away. Meanwhile one of the cops switched on the television and this scribe----who was acquitted after a long ordeal, and after Delhi journalist bodies protested and marched for his freedom---was shocked to find that a Hindi news anchor was reporting from just outside his house (while he was sitting inside) that this dreaded terrorist was now absconding! “Faraar hai” shouted the anchor who incidentally has been one of those covering himself with the glory of describing young students as ‘terrorists’.
Needless to say the anchor did not apologise, either personally or publicly to his colleague when he came out of jail, and has since gone from strength to strength.
Senior journalists and editors are worried about the coverage, and the hourly violation of basic ethics that had always separated journalism from the mob. The coverage of the JNU meeting has been particularly vile, for want of another word, from the journalistic side of the fence. Students were branded as anti-nationals, even by mainstream English channels; morphed videos were aired on the channels with running commentary on the ‘traitors’ theme; a tweet from a fake Hafiz Saeed account was splashed across the screens to ‘prove’ that one of the students was in touch with him and even when the IB denied this, there was no effort by some of the channels to apologise, to correct the falsehood, with the story being dropped as suddenly as it had appeared without explanation; students were invited to the students to be attacked and berated by the anchors without even being allowed to speak as if they were criminals; and a ‘case’being built in this media trial of young students to hang not just them but an entire University as well. Any ‘guest’ on these TV channels---three being particularly offensive and vulgar in their reportage---who spoke for the students was also berated, shouted at, mocked and ridiculed during prime time television shows. Why they accepted this, is for these guests to say but as a journalist, this complete defacing of journalism by a few anchors and channels needs to be challenged.
In fact a few TV channels moved out of this anti-national space, but interestingly so low are the levels of training that basic ethics were again not complied with. A channel, trying to be objective eventually, aired a few videos from JNU, said that except for one all were authentic,and while going on to give a clean chit to JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, put up photographs of other students that it claimed had been shouting these anti-national slogans. As a crime reporter for years in the Patriot and the Indian Express at the start of my career, I think I would have lost my job had I suggested to my editors then that we should carry unauthenticated, sourceless photographs of students claiming that they were anti-nationals! is that our job as journalists? To replace one set of pictures with another? Or are we here to question the police about its claims, to ensure that the truth is not camouflaged, and then leave it to the courts to work out who the accused is or are. it is a shame that the lies about Kanhaiya were not punctured by the media that in fact perpetuated these with its high pitched coverage, but by students and the faculty and others who started releasing the videos of the meeting that any journalist by the way could have got from the first hour itself. And then when the untruths come out, we turn and say, “well that lot are fine, but look at this, what about these people?” In other words, we must have heads roll---guilty until proven innocent---before we as journalists are satiated.
Umar Khalid in for sedition made some key points in his speech before he went with into the custody of the police. And perhaps the most telling statement was his opening line while speaking to JNU students, “My name is Umar Khalid no doubt but I am not a terrorist.” And then he speaks of the media trial through which he “came to know things about myself that I never knew.” That he was Jaish e Mohammad member, that he had been to Pakistan twice, that he had made 800 calls to the Gulf, and of course to Kashmir that is projected in the mainline media constantly as the den of terrorism. All these myths by the way were busted by the cops who could not find any evidence as the more responsible sections of the media reported, but the channels focusing on this did not apologise or stop even then to verify what it was spinning out. And in the process sought to nail a boy who for the media, is innocent, until the courts give a verdict. Most heart wrenching was this students sentence that for the first time in his young life he had felt like a Muslim in the past 10 days. And that while he was not fearful for himself at all, he had panicked when he saw the threats of rape and death being hurled at his sisters and his family. Was this portrayed by the big 3 baying for his blood? Of course not, as that might have not worked for the audience (and the masters) they are clearly aiming for.
Journalists have to sit back and reflect what pass this amazing profession has come to. Even those whose side the establishment media is on, show contempt by beating journalists up. In fact when those lawyers in Patiala courts were attacking the scribes on the beat, they did not ask what channel or newspaper he or she represented. Who are you? A journalist, and the beating began. Why? Perhaps this is what needs to be understood, and then acted upon. And the code of ethics that demands ---amongst other things---that the media does not have the authority or the right to name, frame and hang an accused needs to be implemented in all its details. This is essential, and public pressure should be created along with sections of journalists who are independent and still care about the profession, to ensure that a beginning is made with this one point. The rest of the code can follow, as currently for a few years since it is this tendency in the mainstream media that is creating havoc, making a mockery of the law, and turning individual lives upside down. As the media joins the corporates, and the governments to ‘manufacture consent’ about people and issues through debates that are turned into trials that often go against the grain of not just ethics, but constitutional democracy.
And that friends is not journalism. Or nationalism.