Ranjona Banerji: Conscience anyone?

11 Sep,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


A few public resignations from Republic TV have roiled parts of the media, of social media. Why have these journalists displayed these attacks of conscience so late? What did they think when they joined someone like Arnab Goswami and his new venture? What were they doing when farmers died, Kashmir was destroyed, activists were jailed, Muslims and Dalits were attacked? Was it only the extremes of the Sushant Singh Rajput case that bothered them?

All these are legitimate questions, one might argue. The media has a higher responsibility and journalists who work with toxic “news” channels, no matter how popular, have no business to discover a conscience, sooner or later. The media itself is divided over the issue.

Some believe that these journalists should be given a hearing and there are always compulsions which make people work at various places and it is unfair to be judgmental.

Others argue that it is wrong to make such late quitters into role models or conscience-bearers of the profession given that they went along with whatever nonsense they were instructed to do and revelled in it until it crossed some imaginary line in their heads.

The truth though is that the idea that all journalists operate on a “conscience” that is somehow on some higher plane than general human consciences is a bit of a fantasy and a myth, encouraged by journalists themselves. Some journalists do see their jobs as a “vocation” (little money, high satisfaction) and others as a profession. Much as in any profession: doctors, lawyers, politicians…

It’s just we don’t really expect industrialists or businesspeople or bankers or accountants or corporate suits for instance to be bound by consciences, so we accept that some of them will fudge figures, tell lies to the public about their products, hide unpleasant accidents, poison and kill thousands of people because of faulty industrial practices, underpay their staff and so on, and get away with it.

Assume that the basic job of a media outlet is to provide the public with all kinds of news, largely unpleasant, occasionally pleasant, information and some opinion. If the coverage is broad enough, it will upset some people. It could be the party you like, the company you work for, the government you support, the film star you love. The opposite will also happen. All media outlets will work in their own fashion to make their news “packages” attractive to their audiences, which will appeal to some and annoy others. Some will crunch down on sensitive toes to infringe on unspoken lines. Others will be less sensationalist. Some will sink to sting operations and traps. Others will be more straightforward. Some will spend money and time on newsgathering, others will just pick up and rewrite agency copy. As long as the approach is broad enough, the media has done its job.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There is that all-important “truth to power” principle, where you alert the public to the wrongdoings of the ruling administration because that is your most significant job in a democracy. If you really want to get upset about the media, remember that about 90 per cent of the Indian media has failed in this most fundamental job for the past six years.

From most of the media attacking the UPA 2 on corruption, policy paralysis, political mismanagement and more, we have seen almost every section of the Indian media in a state of adulation when it comes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his two governments at the Centre.

No journalist, whether vocational or professional, is unaware of the current state of India. Covid-19 cases are at almost 100,000 a day. The Indian Centre for Medical Research has said that it is possible that for every positive test there could be up to 130 undetected cases. The economy is finished. Livelihoods are finished. There is a battle waging with China in Ladakh, where the Chinese are using Modi’s statement that “no one entered Indian territory” to prove their “innocence”. The state of Kashmir remains in a state of unconstitutional lockdown. I could go on and on.

So the resignations of a few journalists are not a major crisis of any sort. When The Times of India group introduced Medianet, an official system of selling editorial space to interested parties and PR agencies on their glamour pages, a handful, if that, of journalists resigned. Many media houses sat on high horses of disdain, then counted how many pennies TOI was raking in and quickly jumped off their moral postures and followed the pied piper.

As a reminder, in 2002, that same Times of India did not give in to enormous government and BJP pressure from the AB Vajpayee-led Central government and the Modi-led state government and did not stop its Gujarat edition from covering the riots and exposing the government’s hand in it. Compare that with today’s situation.

That is the problem we face. Journalists may find and lose their consciences. The abyss currently staring back at the media is much, much worse than reporters haranguing postmen and JCB drivers.


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


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