A beautiful rendition of the words of renowned Kannada poet D. R. Bendre began what would be an evening of humor, masterful skirting around of defamation laws, and a strong case for holding onto hope in the seemingly bleak landscape of Indian politics and corporate media.
The second endowment lecture in memory of Dr. M.V. Kamath, the founder-director of the School of Communication (SOC) in Manipal, was delivered by Padmashri award-winning journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. The Director of SOC, Dr. Nandini Lakshmikantha, talked about the late Dr. Kamath and his love for journalism. She also spoke highly of Mr. Sardesai’s journalistic integrity, citing the case of him quitting his job rather than working under a controlling conglomerate. Dr. Padma Rani, the Associate Director of SOC gave the audience a brief but detailed insight into the life of the prolific Dr. Kamath, a person widely acclaimed in international journalistic circles.
Mr. Sardesai began his speech with a fond memory of Dr. Kamath. He said that although they disagreed on a number of topics, the most notable being Hindutva politics, they didn’t allow their disagreements to diminish their respect for the other. Rather, they agreed to disagree, something Mr. Sardesai believes is essential for healthy dialogue. Furthering this point, he talked about his work for The Times of India in Bombay where he met R. K. Laxman, the creative and journalistic genius behind the popular cartoon series, The Common Man. When the two conversed about the nature of journalism, “Tell me the story!”, used to be the firm belief of the late Mr. Laxman. Journalists were dispassionate chroniclers of history, people who see the story as it happens and bring the unadulterated version to the public. Now, he says, it’s not so much about the story, but how you can spin it to fit your already existing ideas.
He rues the black and white nature of today’s media, giving the example of Kashmir, a complex reality that’s condensed into a nationalist vs. anti-nationalist argument. While these arguments seem valid in a newsroom hundred of miles away from the story, the reality is much different. From his recent foray into Kashmir, he tells us the story of a boy who has never seen his father, an innocent baker, and the boy never will, because his father was lost to a bullet fired in the wrong direction. “Don’t thrust patriotism on a person”, he states, ‘the job of a journalist is not to stand for the government and its decisions, their job is to stand for journalism’, ‘to present the truth in all its dimensions’. You have to be able to say that the emperor of the country that you love and fight for, has no clothes. That doesn’t make someone less patriotic, ‘no one owns patriotism’, he says.
The job of the journalist, he believes, is to ‘Ask the questions and seek the answers’, not to say, ‘We have all the answers, show us the questions’. Today’s media, according to Mr. Sardesai, has become a 24/7 news circus and the news debates, a free-for-all. The media landscape today, reflects skewed priorities and a fundamental misunderstanding of public interest. He says that the difference between a story being in public interest and of public interest is something vital to be understood. He points out that few stories have come out in the national media about the floods in Meghalaya and Mizoram and parts of Bihar being submerged due to the damming of the river in another state. The media chooses sensation over sense, chaos over credibility and ratings over quality. He also talked about the grim reality of paid media, where there is a natural reluctance to question the establishment. The top people need to be under the scanner, he says. Rather than seeing a small town inspector exposed for taking a 50 Rupee bribe to augment his 7000 Rupee salary, he wants to see the day the media exposes a DG of police or a judge.
He also spoke about the inherent illogicality of the criminal defamation act, a law put down by the British in colonial India to curb patriotic sentiment. The same law, he points out, that was used to send our Mahatma to jail, and one that has since been removed even in Britain. He says while he has no issues with a civil defamation law, the criminal law is being used as an instrument against honest voices, to curb the media and to curtail its effect on wrong doers.
As the atmosphere became heavy and the journalists-to-be pondered words like sedition and anti-nationalist, Mr. Sardesai proclaimed that not everything is dark. We live in a great time for change, things might seem bad now, but that’s only a part of the reality. The situations and the realities we see every day are not new ones, they have existed for centuries, only now do we have the power to witness it, and to do something about it. He talked about the benefits of social media and the availability of our ministers through such platforms. He told us a story of a village in rural India, and how the lack of a post office forced its people to walk 40 kilometres to receive their mail. When the issue was brought to light on social media and the ministers concerned, the issue was rapidly fixed and the village now has its own post office. He spoke of more such incidents, saying that digital media is the future of journalism and urged the public to use the weapons of information we all hold in our hands because we are all stakeholders in our nation.
In the end, his overarching message was one of hope, that it all lies in how one approaches journalism, pointing out two ways. One is to presume the worst in people, and the other is to presume the best. While the first seeks controversy, the second seeks to change our society for the better, it offers room for solutions and answers. Somewhere down the line, journalistic integrity seems to have been deemed optional, with editors available for a price in today’s media; he subtly pointed out examples of editors receiving high-paying roles in different fields.
While fielding a question from the students, he talked about the ‘tyranny of distance’, saying that the cost cutting working model of television media today is an inherent deterrent to establishing bureaus in every state and major city. He said, frankly, that he doesn’t expect it to change. What we should do, he says, is turn to digital media and local media, to stay informed. Because, as Mr. Sardesai puts it, ‘Journalists are bridge builders, their job is to connect the people to the India that exists beyond the news studios in our capitals because that’s where most of India lies, that’s the real India.’ Over dependence on national media has caused parts of our country to fall off our map, he cites the example of Jharkand, a state that’s at the heart of our country, but is overlooked but for news of M.S. Dhoni. He also praised the work of Prabhat Khabar, a Hindi newspaper in Jharkhand that has been campaigning relentlessly against corruption, and said that while some of us might judge the state of today’s media by the English language establishments, English media is less than 1% our country’s media.
He closed his talk with a message of positivity, that we have a bright future to look forward to with our powers of instant connection across the world, and that we all have the ability to change our society for the better since the media today is the public. The evening ended with a hopeful audience of inspired future journalists, and their determination was palpable. As a writer at MTTN myself, and as an aspiring do-gooder, I wish all the journalists in our country the best of luck and a safe passage through the murky waters of politics and government. India needs your honesty.
-Vishnu Deva for MTTN
Pictures by Mayank Agarwal and Anurag Varanasi