Problems Journalism &  Journalists must Answer

23 Jun,2020

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Neha Dixit is one of India’s brightest young print journalists. I say young but that is relative. She has 13 years of excellent investigative work behind her and many more ahead. She delves into issues that many news organisations consider to be too difficult and important but non-sensationalist to spare one of their one of their employees for.

Welcome to the world of the freelance journalist. Where you do back-breaking, painstaking work usually minus the support of a news organisation behind you, large or small. If you are lucky, you may get an introductory letter from them. But not everyone is lucky. Most newsrooms use freelance work. But it is not often that freelance journalists get either their due or the privileges which a contracted employee gets.

Thanks to Covid-19 and the resultant economic situation, the media has been hit very badly. There are cutbacks all over and jobs have been the constant casualty.

What Neha has put out on social media is a call which any editor worth their salt – few and far between – needs to pay attention to because it is a plea to safeguard the future of good journalism without which we are sunk. In an elliptical way, if heeded it will also rid us of the parasites which hang around the media, bleeding both resources and reputations.

 

Neha Dixit:

“With media organisations, including organisations who have closed bureaus as a cost-cutting measure, dependent on freelance journalists (including ones who are called stringers, not even given the dignified with the word journalist), no structures are created to safeguard our right to report.

“I speak from experience since this does not stop at not having a press card. It includes legal costs of court cases for your stories, newsgathering expenses that you hardly remunerated for and many basic benefits that you will never get.

“If you are an editor in a news organisation, or a person on board of a press body, please take the issue of providing identity cards to freelance journalists seriously. Start thinking of a system to address this. A system that is not dependent on favours or caste, class, gender networks.

“We know there are no contracts for freelance work in India, we also know that we are paid less than peanuts and those peanuts don’t even arrive in our accounts because of YEARS of delay. The least that can be done is to let us report with dignity without fearing the police baton.

“Everyone benefits from the work of freelance journalists in the New Media model. A transparent structure to provide press cards will help news organisations too. By not doing so, people are being pushed to make fraud ids or use their privilege networks. TO JUST DO THEIR WORK.

“Discourse about freelance journalism in India falls on deaf ears. But this is 2020 and we must demand our editors, press bodies to change. They all are complicit in pushing a gig economy as a revenue model. So all talk about press freedom is hollow if this disparity continues.”

The atmosphere in which Neha writes this is dire. There are mass salary cuts and losses in almost every news organisation now. Bureaus and editions have been shut, especially in areas away from big cities. Presumably nothing happens in India outside of the may be 10 urban conglomerations. Or, some wisecrack – I wanted to write a ruder word here – in management or some careerist self-serving editor has suggested that low-paying stringers and freelancers can fill the gap.

We all know, however much we pretend otherwise, that those who have lost their jobs will replaced by interns, because they are cheaper and hopefully will be more malleable. The wealth of knowledge and experience that goes into making a journalist has no value. Bad managements want grunts and cheap grunts at that to be exploited and manipulated.

People reach out to press organisations to come up with some answers or provide solutions. But everyone knows there is no such thing as an effective press organisation, really. The essence of a free press in India has been to stave off government control for as long as you can. And a trade-off has been to ensure that no press body has any kind of power at all. Because of the way our politics works and because most media houses are owner-driven, any other method is to open yourself up to even more establishment pressure.

You can see how it has worked with the current government which is all about “perception control”. Media houses have capitulated, top down, to try and ensure that the government line is followed. Those who have deviated slightly have had money held back, advertisements denied, cases filed and essential supplies over-taxed. And now spectacular mismanagement over Covid-19 has led to further economic devastation. A rock and a hard place, Hobson’s choice, devil and the deep sea, or any other cliché that you want.

However, in all that, Neha Dixit has encapsulated in her series of tweets, the problems which journalism must answer, which journalists must answer. If the future of our calling, vocation, profession is to survive, we need quality work. And by denying respect and support to our own, we only stand to lose.

As it is, we teeter on the edge of the abyss. Sounds sensationalist? Watch some “news” television debates if you don’t believe me.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

 

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