"Criticism From the Govt. Is a Badge of Honour For Journalists": Editor Jha Unplugged
NEW DELHI: All it took was six minutes and a brave editor to place journalism in its correct context, and make it clear to even the Prime Minister of India that while homilies and speeches are welcome, it is for journalists to determine their job and their credibility.
Indian Express editor Raj Kamal Jha, a journalist who has provided sound leadership in the newsroom for crucial months now, came on to the stage for what was to be a vote of thanks after the Prime Minister had spoken at the Ramnath Goenka Awards function in Delhi recently.
And in just a few sentences sent a strong message out that good journalism is not dead, and as he said, it is just that since the past five years bad journalism is making more noise.
Jha is right as the aspirations guiding working journalists remain the same, except that the space has been constricted and squeezed by the collusion of governments and corporates. A pressure that clearly the Indian Express has been feeling, and might now feel a little more, given the set face of PM Narendra Modi as he sat on state listening to a professional editor speak.
Jha made some very pertinent and important points, and in the process warmed the cockles of every scribes heart who heard him then and since. His first two sentences addressed directly to the PM were loaded: “after your speech we are all speechless” and “your being here is a very strong message.”
Jha made some very important points with each sentence imbued with a message larger than perhaps immediately apparent to listeners outside the profession. One, he made it clear that good journalism comes from reporters who report, and editors who edit. And very clearly implied is that the bar of good independent journalism cannot be set by advertisors, governments and corporates.
And that good journalism is not defined by “selfie journalists” who appeared on the lawns of the BJP office for the first time after PM Modi had won the elections, and instead of asking questions queued up to take selfies with him. This behaviour had raised serious questions within the profession at the time, but was repeated again later and ever since. Jha in his vote of thanks spoke for serious, independent journalism when he described them as “always obsessed by what they thein by their face, by their views, who keep the camera truned towards them, the only thing that matters to them is their voice and their face, all the rest is backdrop.”
And went on to highlight the dangers of this selfie journalism, an euphemism clearly for those routing for the government. As he said, “ in this selife journalism if you dont have the facts it doesnt matter you just put the flag in the frame and you hide behind it.” This is exactly what the journalists propagating every step, right or wrong, of the government have been doing. Invoking ‘nationalism’ for every wrong fact, and half truth and lie that is put out in the name of journalism.
But to my mind the most important point that Jha made was on the issue of credibility. He told the PM that the good things he had said about journalist “makes us nervous” and went straight into a story where the old, indomitable late owner of the Indian Express Ramnath Goenka had sacked a journalist just because he was praised by a Chief Minister to him.
In this story, Jha emphasised the fundamental importance of keeping a distance from the government, where criticism from the latter is a bade of honour, and where praise something to be worried and nervous about.
This is the irreverence of good journalism, where it kept a distance from the government and for it there was no difference between the party in power and the opposition.As Jha said at the very end of his remarks, witha grim Prime Minister’s steely eyes fixed on him, that while the journalist knows the difference, he does not make any difference between the two. This is quite opposite to the current trend where scribes, out of fear or favours, tend to becomes spokespersons for the government.
The school of journalism run by editors in the newspapers taught the fundamentals, that criticism from a government is a plus and certainly not a minus. Old Goenka who stood up to the Emergency, and made the Indian Express a reporters paper in every sense of the word, did take positions that prorietors rarely did.
To add to Jha’s story, I was summoned by him as a young cub reporter as I had been carrying a series of stories that had irked someone in the power chain, and who had approached Goenka who she knew very well personally. The doughty old man rarely ever summoned new reporters, and this was seen by the news room as a goodbye signal for me. Then editor Arun Shourie who had warned me of this possibility, but never stopped the stories, took me in. Goenka greeted me with a ‘you are a very mischievous girl” that did not sound as ominous as it should have; introduced me to the person and then told me to check with her when I needed to. This woman had abused me over the phone, asking me for my sources. So I responded to Goenka with an angry, “you mean I should tell her my sources.” Pat came his response, “you tell her your sources and you are out of a job.” And then as we were leaving he called me back and said, “you know young lady you will come across many people who know me, but as long as your facts are right don’t let them ever stop you.”
Now of course we are fighting off the remote control whereby news is switched on and off by an unseen hand. As Jha said, rather bravely, and with a slight laugh that did not disguise the seriousness of his words, perhaps the RMG award for excellence in journalism should go to the remote control.
Fortunately the following two videos, one of Jha’s vote of thanks and the other an audio of NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar who has stood up for independent journalism in no uncertain way, prove that journalism ---while certainly wounded---is still alive and kicking. Enjoy!