Twenty five years ago, on this day, I walked into the Old Lady of Boribunder – Times House, opposite what was then still known as VT (Victoria Terminus) in what was still Bombay – to become a journalist.
I was an idealistic twenty-something then, with just two career choices in mind. One was the civil services and the other was journalism. Both, I felt, could help me do something for the country. Journalism was my first choice. I had appeared for my civil services prelims in Delhi and had opted for Bombay for the mains, which were due to start on 2 November. In the event, I never appeared for the mains, even though I had carted all my preparatory notes and books to Bombay. A second chance came some years later. Again I gave the prelims and again bunked the mains. The call of journalism proved stronger.
Do I regret the choice? No, but I would be lying if I said I never ever questioned it. There were times I felt fleetingly that perhaps I should have given the IAS a shot. As a journalist I can only write and rail about something, but as a government official I could do something about it, if I was so inclined. But deep regret? Never. And though there were many disappointments and falling off of rosy spectacles, somewhere I still believed that journalism was about enquiry, raising questions and highlighting neglected issues, about providing a forum for answers to those questions and solutions to those issues, about telling people about things as they are so that they become better informed. And above all facts were supreme.
Today, I am deeply disillusioned with journalism in a way I never have been before. I pick up the papers in the morning and on every page of every paper, I see a complete lack of rigour. Three different papers will have three different versions of the same event. It isn’t about each having an exclusive angle – it’s just that the basic facts will be different. How on earth can that be possible?
Basic facts are wrong. Clearly there’s no fact checking happening at all. Laziness has become the hallmark of today’s journalist, the best example of this being the hoax carried out by Penpricks, the blog being run by a bunch of Goa journalists (see my earlier post on this). All major newspapers fell for it and when they realised they had been had, none of them bothered to apologise to their readers. One newspaper quietly pulled it off its website. No heads have rolled in any newspaper.
One source stories – even concocted stories -- have become the norm now. Reporters will be lazy, will try to cut corners. But shouldn’t someone be ensuring that they don’t? Unfortunately, editors are not just turning a blind eye to this phenomenon, they appear to be encouraging it. Some years back one friend heard about some development on her beat. Being from the old school, she checked it out, found it was wrong and didn’t file the story. The next day other papers splashed it. The bureau chief asked her. She told him the story was wrong. Only to be told “you should still have filed it.” The next day all the other papers carried a denial from the ministry! But that didn’t get my friend back into the good books of the bureau chief or the editor.
Where also is the concern for issues? I don’t mean to imply that journalism should be all about breast beating and bleeding hearts. Developmental journalism, if not done the right way, can be quite boring and let’s face it people don’t have the time to digest long pieces on sombre topics like wasteland development or rural drinking water supply. But to ignore all serious issues altogether? Is that right?
Some months back I had gone to meet Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a story on the economy. He got quite worked up over the fact that just the previous day, he had inaugurated a conference on health and though he had made many important points on health in his speech, all the press wanted from him was a quote on inflation. The next day’s papers had nothing on the conference and he was quoted everywhere on inflation. “I didn’t even say anything significant on inflation,” he lamented as he showed me the bunch of press clippings. The following day he was going to be the chief guest at an event organised by a publishing house. I told him the proprietor-cum-editor of that paper didn’t want serious issues like health and education in the paper.
A friend’s niece quit journalism in four years, saying she didn’t want to write about bubblegum and candyfloss. But that is what journalism is becoming today. A feature on women activists in a respected and leading paper needs to have a repressed sexual urges angle – need one say any more?
And then there are the mistakes – spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, missing articles and wrong punctuation marks. My memory goes back to 1983 and The Times of India desk in Bombay, where the chief sub will throw the copy back at us if we made any mistakes. And a year later, to The Times of India desk in Delhi, where we would be asked for written explanations for wrong headings, poor subbing. Those systems have disappeared.
Was everything about those days good? Certainly not. There were a lot of things wrong even then. But the spirit of journalism remained alive. That’s not the case now.
What saddens me most is that the decline in journalism is being presided over by people from my generation.
In 2002, I stepped out of journalism, to write a book and do other things – mainly a lot of editing work and consultancies for UNDP. It was a very enlightening and educative three years. I didn’t miss not being a journalist (I was writing occasionally just to keep my PIB accreditation and when I wanted to sound off on something) and didn’t even bother looking for a job, though a lot of people who thought I was making a mistake would keep telling me to approach this editor, go to that paper. Just as I was wondering how to convert what I was doing into a viable revenue stream, I got an opportunity to work with an editor I had a lot of respect for and whom I had never worked with before. But today, as I look back on these 25 years, I am beginning to feel the first stirrings of regret – that I didn’t work out an alternative career for myself. Let me clarify: not because the editor didn’t turn out to be what I expected of him, but only because of what journalism has become today.