“You are not the judge, jury or executioner”: Sagarika Ghose on Journalists
Veteran journalist Sagarika Ghose and author of book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister was in Manipal recently as part of TechTatva, MIT’s first fest of the college year. The Manipal Journal got an opportunity to meet her for an interview, in which Ghose expressed her views on the topics including the safety of journalists, pseudo nationalism, corporatization of media and media bias.
An issue that is plaguing the journalist community is the rise in journalist murders. What are your opinions on the safety of journalists in our country?
What has happened is very troubling to all of us. Gauri Lankesh was a friend of mine and her death has shaken us. We are terrified of what is happening to journalists. 32 journalist have been killed in the North East, the journalist who exposed the Dera Sacha Sauda rape was shot dead, Shantanu Bhaumik was lynched. What we are asking as journalists is, where is the institutional protection? Where is the protection from the State?
A journalist is an information gatherer for the citizen. If he is not able to gather information then democracy is badly served, constitutional values are badly served. We need to guarantee protection to the messenger. Many of us are petitioning the Home Minister for some kind of an institutional mechanism to be worked out; a journalist body which can provide legislation even.
Maharashtra legislative has passed the ‘Protection of journalist act’ which is landmark legislation. It protects a journalist against criminal intimidation and threats. We are also asking for financial aid. When a journalist from the far flung area is killed in say the North East, what about his family? What if he had young children to take care of?
Telling the truth is risking all nowadays. A journalist is doing his job as a public service, a public duty. A lot of journalists are really afraid and a journalist is an unarmed messenger for the citizen, so you cannot let the journalist be killed. We are asking for a law, for a body to be set up for legal aid, financial aid and also that every state government wakes up to the Maharashtra law. The feeling that this is a very powerful government and that and there are very powerful interests at stake is in many ways responsible for journalists being scared and not being able to push as hard as they should.
Do you think that personal bias among reporters is affecting journalistic objectivity? Also, what are your comments on journalists adopting the tag of pseudo-nationalists?
I do believe that people are displaying their personal bias especially those who are cheerleading for the government. I believe journalists should ask questions to every government. I believe that a journalist should be driven by constitutional values and the mission of the journalist is to ask questions irrespective of who is running the government. That’s my credent.
A lot of people are biased towards the Hindutva way of thinking among the journalist’s community and they will try and paint me as a Congress friendly journalist when I have never been a Congress friendly Journalist. I am not a communist or a socialist or a nationalist, I am only a journalist. I believe that personal biases are coming in but our job is to hold every government should be held to account. The politician and journalist can never be friends because the politician is always the natural adversary of the journalist.
There are so many people who are pseudo nationalists within journalism and they are the ones who are so openly cheerleading for the government and they say that we are biased. You cannot go to Kashmir and talk about Nationalism. You are not the judge, jury, and executioner you are there as a journalist. The journalist is the one eye and only ear that the citizen has. You are there to see, to hear and to tell the truth. I see a lot of cheerleading of ideologies especially the ruling ideology and I find that very strange.
In Ravish Kumar’s book ‘More news is Good News,’ he talks about journalists being obsessed with Lutyen journalism and neglecting other stories which aren’t considered ‘serious’. Has mainstream media trivialized important issues including farmer suicides and the Rohingya crisis?
Where are we seeing the reports of the intense farmer protests in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh? The farmers of Tamil Nadu had to travel to Delhi and eat their own feces to be noticed and the farmers of Rajasthan had to bury themselves in the sand to get attention to their problems. Mainstream media is guilty of not focusing on these issues on issues in the North-east, the Assam floods. Instead, we know of the potholes in Mumbai.
There is a lot of metropolitan focus. But this is changing with the growth of the regional, online media and social media. At the end of the day, the media is reliant on the advertisers. The people are well aware of the Hritik-Kangana issue but most of them do not know what the Rohingya issue is. They simply say they’re either pro-Rohingya or anti-Rohingya without knowing the issue in itself. The media needs to bring to light stories which are in public interest and not just those of public interest.
The press has a certain function in the democracy which is to inform the citizens of what are the times he is living in and what are the realities of these times. The press has to ask questions and hold the powerful to account, that is why we need institutional protection.
In the prime-time debates there are a lot of raised voices and accusations implicating the opposing parties but at the end of the day the question raised in the debate, a cause of public concern, is hardly addressed. To what extent is broadcast media following with journalistic ethos?
Indian Broadcast Journalism is a failed media, it has collapsed. It is doomed because of the fact that there is simply not enough money to spend on newsgathering. The financial business model has broken the people who own television today are the ones who have a lot of other businesses. They are not interested in actually asking the right questions and the real questions. They are only interested in keeping the government happy.
The kind of debates you have is highly colored because there is a lot of political and corporate pressure on the stories. There is no attention being given to informing the readers, there is only this form of tu-tu-mein-mein which is supposed to get you TRPs and just generates a lot of heat but sheds no light. As a BBC editor once said, we are becoming prisoners of fast journalism. In this race, we are losing out on the journalism of the slow. We are losing the slow spaces. Slow is where you understand, slow is where you know the context, slow is where you get perspective.
The debates on television reveal a complete breakdown of what news is supposed to be. I think television news is being killed, it is dying if not already dead. Slow journalism has to be revived. We are now looking at the subscription based network. So if the customers subscribe we are motivated to be excellent we are motivated to deliver a good product. Some sort of crowd sourcing and crowd funding is required because the minute you are tied to the advertiser you are the slave of the corporate. I think our salvation lies in the fact that there are so much of media around we will have slow spaces coming up. In this chaos of output, there will be some output which follows slow journalism. The days of relying on one medium or one channel are long past, you will have to see where you get maximum value for what you are looking for.
There are various mishaps that happen with broadcast journalism including your 2011 interview with Shri Shri Ravi Shankar on CNN where a recorded interview was played during a live debate. Is the fast-paced feature of Broadcast journalism responsible for this?
Recorded lives are done all the time. I don’t know why I got so much flak for it. Television media is dependent on when the people are available. Suppose your debate is at 10:30 in the night, the person may not be available at the time. So we record the answers to the same questions earlier and we play it. All of this is technology right. Say the person is at a far-off place, I can’t be there personally and so I ask a correspondent to take the interview, so the recorded answers were played in the interview. What they now say is recorded earlier.
I think the mistake I made was joining us live, but everyone else was live. There was a huge barrage of things that came at me after that because of which I had to go and apologise as well. I couldn’t figure it out.
Why did you apologise?
It was because for a long time the Shri Shri people were coming at me, they came to my house. Initially, I told them it was a technical error. It is something that is done all the time, it is common practice. The correspondent had told Shri Shri Ravi Shankar that the answers will be recorded and played out during a 10:30 show and the same questions would be asked. It was made clear so I don’t understand why it became such a huge issue. First of all the whole woman journalist thing, they’ll attack you often for no reason.
In your recent book ‘Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister,’ you have drawn parallels between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. You have been very critical of the Modi government too. Why the analogy?
I called her the most powerful Prime Minister and not the best Prime Minister. I think she wielded power more effectively than any Prime Minister. She was a ruthless power politician, and I don’t think her legacy was a good one. It was controversial; she split the Congress party, waged war against certain institutions. She was a leader of tremendous charisma, power and she was independent India’s first personality cult, but her legacy is a very mixed one.
I’m critical of personality cult politics. I feel Narendra Modi and Indira are personality cults. Indira Gandhi was India’s first supremo leader, the strong person, who people admire. Our society is captivated by power, and we worship power. The problem with such stronger leaders is that they are not very good for democracy because they concentrate all power to themselves. They become one-man shows, one man party. They become so dominant they don’t leave room for successors.
In this male dominated society, how was your journey in this career?
In the beginning was quite difficult, and it continues to be quite difficult for women journalist. When I joined in 1991 as a print reporter, women journalists were not given important beats. They were given beats like health, food etc which were then considered unimportant. Men would be assigned bigger stories, including the Home ministry and Finance ministry.
Today things have changed; television has brought a huge change in the field. Some senior journalists say that when they first joined Times of India there were no ladies rest rooms, so it was very discriminatory.
Politics is very male dominated too. As a woman, if you are covering politics, you can’t sit all night in any male politician’s house because it is frowned upon. Politics is a very patriarchal, old-fashioned and male dominated sector. Finance, Law and army are also male bastions. Invariably it becomes the male journalists who set up relationships in these sectors. The networks in our society are patriarchal. As you become senior journalists, the senior men tend to pull ahead of women because it is easier for them to build their networks. However, as society changes this is also changing.
With contributions from Shreya Job.
Featured Image: Radhika Chatterjee
Edited by: Soumyajit Saha and Shreya Job