Ranjona Banerji: What is the primary duty of a journo? To ask uncomfortable questions of course!

31 Jul,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


What is the primary duty of a journalist? To ask uncomfortable, difficult, impossible, exasperating questions of course. We have to be able to examine the role of those who are in power, and those who wield both authority and influence. How far should a journalist go? This is often an individual or a newsroom choice. And it is not as easy choice.


Some journalists decide to take the line of least resistance. They play it safe by regurgitating what they are fed by press releases and officialdom. Others believe that it is alright to play along with those in charge provided they get an inside view – like “embedded” journalists during recent wars and conflicts. Many (or hopefully most) decide to skirt along the danger mark. They dip their toes into territories that are verboten and run the risk of legal notices or other actions against them.


Some resort to “tabloid” style journalism where they probe into the lives of people, often ordinary people for no reason at all except that they can. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK, involving the News of the World and the Sun are best examples of this. The newsrooms felt it was correct to hack into the cell phones of glamour and entertainment celebrities, the royal family as well of a teenage girl who was missing, later found murdered. This was direct interference in a police investigation and because the newsroom deleted messages, the police and the family assumed the girl was alive since the phone was active. It later turned out that she had been dead – murdered – all along.


This sordid episode perhaps comes under criminal interference. However the other side of the same coin is the sort of journalism practised by Julian Assange and Wikileaks. By believing that nothing is sacrosanct if the public is kept in the dark or fooled, Assange shamed all those journalists who genuflect to the official line. He paid the price and is a hounded man. One of his sources is Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, a young soldier who has been sentenced to 35 years for releasing classified files to Wikileaks. The greater public good was seen as more important than government rules.


The reason for this long diatribe is that when it came to the death penalty of Yakub Memon, convicted for his role in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, journalists in India showed us this entire range of journalistic choices, barring those of the News of the World and Wikileaks. We had embedded journalists, official journalists, questioning journalists and play-it-safe journalists.


And then we had several displays of the worst kind of journalists. Those who decided to embed themselves with officialdom and use patriotism as a basis to attack those who exercised the right to question. I reiterate once more that I am not talking about members of the general public or even to bloggers who think they are journalists. I am referring to people who should have known better and people who refused to do their homework. The only heartening factor in this is that many of the young journalists were in questioning mode while their seniors resorted to calling their peers traitors and so on.


Anyone who has worked as editor has had to contend with this sort of a journalist. Those who parrot the police line, those who will never question politicians they know for fear of losing sources, those who will give undue publicity to certain police officers or bureaucrats to further their own ends, whether professional or personal. We all know them.


I would repeat here celebrated American journalist Katherine Boo’s rejection of source-based journalism in favour of right to information based research. It is worth thinking about for some of our brethren.


I must also raise a toast to my fellow journalists who did not live and work through the riots and bomb blasts in Bombay in the 1990s and still decide that they are experts on the matter. I would accept their expertise if they had dedicated their careers to studying those events. Better stop before I start laughing.


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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: What is the primary duty of a journo? To ask uncomfortable questions of course!”

  1. ab_mannaan says:

    Great piece Ranjona.
    Anyway you cannot expect decency from Manu bhakts. I know Neeta personally & know how strong she is. These jibes should spur her to greater heights with lightning speed.

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