Haddi Mein Kabab
How the News Media Can Stay Independent
There’s a gentleman who may want to remain anonymous called Firoz Bakht Ahmed who regularly sends me opinion pieces that he wants published in the paper I work for, Hindustan Times. The articles always deal with some aspect of Muslim incoherence or show of outrage that Mr. Ahmed, praise be upon him, is in turn outraged as a liberal Muslim about. Essentially, he’s the liberal Muslim voice that many liberal non-Muslims find missing in such asymmetrical media debates.
The only problem is that Mr. Ahmed doesn’t write too well. It’s not only the quality of language that I’m talking about — that, after all, can be cleaned and dolled up by my colleagues and myself. But it’s the fact that most of his observations are repetitive (“…the self-proclaimed leaders of India’s Muslims are more interested in looking after their own vested personal interests than that of the community was never in doubt…”) and banal leaves a deeper impression on me than his value as an anomalous media Muslim or, for that matter, a rare type of media liberal.
But what clinches the deal for me as an editor responsible for publishing various opinions, is the fact that Mr. Ahmed is keen on bringing me kebabs and biryani. Mind you, not all the time (that would be too crass) but during Eid or other special occasions. This is usually preceded or followed by yet another flurry of articles he wants published. No quid pro quo is mentioned or suggested. But it’s there in the air, at least in my naturally crooked mind. Sometimes the kebabs are replaced with words of praise on sms: “Great page-1 write up today! Will u take one from me? Regards! Firoz.”
The reason I have brought up this supply-demand relationship is that what’s true in the domain of an opinion section of a newspaper involving two small cogs in the opinion-sharing wheel holds true in the case of much, much bigger players in the hyper-active, crowded universe of news-information where more than kebabs can come into play. I don’t want to bang on and on about the Radia tapes (the morning I write this, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 2G licences stating that the first-come, first-serve policy of mobile spectrum ‘distribution’ was a rotten idea that led to gigabyte-levels of corruption) but essentially, the possibility of the role of the news media as a facilitator between corporate houses and politicians spilled out into evening living room and other social media platform conversations.
The world suddenly knew of the possibility of the existence of something that only some in the business knew may be possible: that by marinating and massaging journos or media house-owners, news can be published or aired — or, more importantly, ‘not’ published or aired — that would nudge, push, pull or solidify VIP or popular opinion.
One reason why the news media has become such a potential drop-box for ‘subjective information’ – ‘Kapil Sibal doesn’t want to gag the internet, he wants to stop communal riots from breaking out’ – is the very changed nature of the media. For those bemoaning the shrinkage of space for straightforward, no-frills news, I don’t quite have much sympathy. To run the risk of letting out a cliché, television and its force-multiplier cousin, social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter, have ensured that we get ‘what’s happening’ in more or less real time. In any case, reading about what the PM said in a gathering of switchmakers certainly requires much more than press release-style ‘simple facts’. I certainly would prefer context, background and that dreaded word ‘colour’ in such a scenario. And in this fog of digressional/incidental information comes the sheep in wolf’s clothing: opinion.
In this increasingly opinionating atmosphere of news media – where TV anchors make pronouncements in the manner teachers once made about drugs to school kids, or where reporters via the newspaper’s news desk editors tip the report in a direction that can be as subtle as a drum beat in a song – there is bound to be the protagonists, or at least their emissaries, who will come to feed their ‘perspectives’. And sometimes, it’s about hypnotising the journalist into thinking something else than what the latter had thought of. I’m not talking about the journalist’s or the editor’s sometimes flawed line of reasoning being corrected by a non-objective party. Sometimes it’s about telling the folks handling the day’s news: ‘Of course pigs can fly.’
So does it mean going back to the drab world of ‘pure news’ that only Press Council of India Markandey Katju will find riveting? Bloody hell, no – not that human nature and economics will allow that either. At the cost of sounding terribly naïve, even the digressionary tactics of the character assassins let loose in the media against Anna Hazare and his anti-corruption campaigners was worth its while in prime-time advertisement costs. Because for the viewer/reader, having <only> a government perspective is just a wee bit better than having <only> an anti-government perspective. So ‘true’ facts, whichever side of the Maginot Line they may be coming from, must be entertained.
The problem is that not too many media platforms – newspapers or tv channels – do that on a consistent basis. They pick a side and run with it, instead of picking up a story and running with it.
Of course, this over-veneration of all perspectives (read: news) has to confirm to journalistic professional check boxes. The opposite of ‘Arushi’s parents killed their own daughter’ can’t be ‘No one killed Arushi’. Which is where like any precaution, news media should also practise safe intercourse of information and perspective. Professional prophylactics – fact checking, cross-checking, follow-ups, counter-questions, leading questions, background checks, etc. – should not be forsaken for the thrill of ‘taking a side’.
As for the soft spots that make a media organisation or journalist pick a side for reasons other than journalistic conviction, it’s the same ones that make my dear friend Firoz Bakht Ahmed mix his contributions with the allure of kebabs. The notion that the media, with clouds of information and perspective flies buzzing all the time above its various heads, can provide an access for the humble journalist and the surprisingly humble media owner in this country to things that aren’t normally within its grasp. This could be a plot of land, money, favours, the notion of power that comes with having ‘ready access’ to the powerful.
Or it could be just plain kebabs.
My strategy in dealing with such a temptation? I accept the kebabs, give it to Daya, our office Man Monday-to-Saturday, and don’t publish Mr. Ahmed’s articles. I hope that one day, he’ll get the message.