Sorry, it ain't journalism!

(By K Bala Kumar)

During the tumultuous mid and late 1980s when the then Rajiv Gandhi government lurched from one scandal to another,  The Indian Express, under the redoubtable editorship of Arun Shourie (and the ownership of Ramnath Goenka), unleashed a no-holds-barred attack on the government, tearing apart for its various omissions and commissions.

Arun Shourie would write longish signed pieces almost every day, arguing forcefully why the government deserved to be booted out. Then there was the feisty Ram Jethmalani, in the avatar of public spirited advocate-sleuth ferreting out scandals, posing ten questions a day for a month to the government. Then there was also S Gurumoorthy, a firebrand chartered accountant then, targeting the Ambanis with the relish of jungle lion going after its prey. Then there were the cartoons of E Unny (and also Ravishankar and Rajendra) that brought wit and piercing satire to sting what was decidedly a feckless government.

The Indian Express did not leave any one in doubt that it was aiming for the Prime Minister’s head. And in the general elections, Rajiv Gandhi, who had ridden into power in 1984 on the back of the biggest mandate ever received by an Indian Prime Minister, was humbled as the Congress that had won a record 404 seats in 1984 ended up with 195 seats in 1989.

The Indian Express was rightly credited with as one of the architects in unseating the Rajiv Gandhi government. But even in those highly-charged times, when you opened the pages of The Indian Express you could easily differentiate between what was opinion and what was reportage. The sanctity of that Laxman Rekha was never violated.

Alas, that is not the case with certain newspapers and media outlets that are now targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Particularly, the likes of The Telegraph and the internet-based The Wire.

It can be nobody’s case that Telegraph and Wire should not attack the Modi government. The Press is essentially the watchdog that should bark at the powers be. But what Telegraph and Wire are doing is to blur the notional line between news and views. It is the cardinal sin in the world of journalism.  

Everyday, you open the newspaper or log into the site, you find stories, irrespective of what they are about, blaring out the one message: Modi must go! This ain’t journalism. It is obsession, and a dangerous one, at that.

In this era, it is a fact that when everything around us is politicised, there is nothing called objectivity. In fact, there was nothing called objectivity ever. But there are certain styles, well-laid protocols in news reporting. Those lines should not be transgressed.

Take the example of today’s Page-1 in Kolkata of The Telegraph. The ‘banner news story’, under the byline of “Our Special Correspondent”, screams “Nehru did it”, while the strapline above reads: “Rediscovered Ancient Science of Time Travel To Pass the Buck”. This main story on page-1 is about the political fallout locally after China blocked India’s efforts at the UN to designate JeM mastermind Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

Without leaving anyone in doubt, the story makes fun of this government’s propensity to blame Jawaharlal Nehru for some of the nation’s contretemps. There is also an accompanying illustration to this news story that amplifies in caricatures what is presented in the news.

The thing is, Nehru’s legacy is troubled. Some people allege that it is indeed at the core of the problems confronting India. And some others feel that the BJP government is indeed guilty of using him to escape blame from it. But these are views. But when a newspaper slyly passes one view as the main news of the day, it is just rhetorical pamphleting.

It is an unwritten rule in journalism your main story of the day has to purvey news and not peddle contentious opinion. It is an old-fashioned sentiment, but still relevant.

Then again, these things can be condoned as long as they don’t get classified as journalism. Right-wing news sites don’t enjoy much ‘street cred’, and justifiably so because of their inherent bias. The Telegraph and the likes of The Wire deserve that level of credibility only. Some of the headlines may be smart-aleck. Some of the captions may be stirring. But still they are not journalism. Just partisan penmanship.   

Perhaps, they should take lessons from Arun Shourie, who, as it happens, is now on their side of the fence only.

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