For India’s sake, allow the press to do its job

Columnist  | Shobhaa De

Opinion, Op Ed

We are fortunate enough in India to have a reasonably credible national press.

If a national issue is being manipulated, distorted and misrepresented by a political party or any other organisation, it is the job of journalists to present an accurate picture to the world.

There can be no hard-hitting, investigative journalism in India or anywhere else in the world, without the invaluable inputs provided by “sources”. This is a time-tested system that has worked for decades. Just as the police force depends on informers to crack crimes, journalists rely on sources who provide data that is the key to substantiate sensitive stories. It has to be understood and appreciated that sources stand to lose as much or more if the State machinery threatens to go after them. They risk their jobs, positions and often, their lives, when they share documents with trusted and respected editors or reporters. Most do so in the larger interests of honest journalism. It is a tough call. For both — the source and the recipient of the material. Let’s also make the distinction between a source and a sneak — the opportunist who leaks confidential matter for a price or for gain in some other form. Sucking up and betraying are not the same thing as exposing and corroborating. If a national issue is being manipulated, distorted and misrepresented by a political party or any other organisation, it is the job of journalists to present an accurate picture to the world. In order to do that efficiently, one of the means employed is mining a reliable source. The emphasis is on the word “reliable”. At a certain level, this source could be a former minister, or even an official in charge of crucial documentation in the form of files, contracts, letters, emails in the appropriate ministry. A good journalist spends years cultivating such a person or persons. This is called an investment. If the truth matters to a journo, information becomes a prayer, a mantra, a belief system. There can be multiple “sources” working in tandem or not while uncovering a story. A mature journalist knows exactly who can be trusted and who plays games. It is easy to fall prey to manipulation and half-truths when the stakes are this high. It happens all the time. This is when one sifts the amateurs from the professionals. A seasoned journalist will never trust just one source. Checks and balances are required to get the full picture before rushing into print or breaking the story online.

We are fortunate enough in India to have a reasonably credible national press. We also can count several top notch media players who have been doing their jobs with admirable passion and commitment over four decades. Cynics like to believe it is a rapidly shrinking, dying breed. This is not so. It is a breed the next generation seeks inspiration from. It is the breed that has set the bar high. It is the breed readers trust. It is petty to attribute personal agendas and motives to all those who do not fall in line with the ruling party.

We are facing an important dilemma right now. N. Ram has rightly and boldly refused to name his sources for the “stolen” documents. The Editors’ Guild of India has unequivocally backed his decision. This is being treated as a test case. What happens next will directly impact the future of journalism in our nation. Mr Ram’s bold and uncompromising stand must be endorsed and supported by the vast majority in the interests of transparency. The Rafale deal has been murky from the word go. If the narrative has suddenly become murkier, the people of India have the right to know what exactly is going on.

It is one thing to cash in on the heightened patriotic emotionalism on parade post-Balakot, quite another to try and intimidate or kill a story by accusing an editor of “theft”. So… what will the charge read, if it ever comes to that? Theft of what? And why such a theft? Who is the real thief? I recall the Deep Throat saga from Richard Nixon’s time. “Watergate” did become a watershed moment in American history. In that distant period, there were media stalwarts like Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, who took on the mighty, protected her sources and ran the story that brought down the administration. The Pentagon Papers remain attention-worthy to this day. The thing is, she trusted her team of reporters and stood by them at enormous cost to herself. It was a matter of following her conscience and doing the right thing.

Aha — that’s it, isn’t it? How many people are willing to put themselves on the line and do the right thing?

The political climate is cloudy enough with all sorts of self-styled, self-declared super patriots fanning public opinion. It happens when times are uncertain and precarious. These clumsy attempts to distract public attention from essentials to non-essentials have converted even normally sober and sane people into hyper-ventilating morons. The overall atmosphere is still tense and dicey on both sides of the border. It is a shame our soldiers are being dragged into all sorts of undignified platforms to garner publicity. This should never happen. When politics gets into a space it has no business to be in, trouble bubbles and military discipline takes a hit. Let’s not contribute further to the already vitiated atmosphere by raking up another controversy. Mr Ram has done what any self-respecting editor would — he is neither a superhero nor a supervillain. He is doing his job. Nothing more, nothing less. Let’s leave him to it.