#PliableJournalist: The problem with the Editors Guild’s intervention

Bodies that represent journalists need to be discerning while speaking up.

ByAbhinandan Sekhri
#PliableJournalist: The problem with the Editors Guild’s intervention

Rahul Gandhi’s jibe at ANI Editor Smita Prakash has caused a bit of a furore. This is unsurprising at a time when anything and everything is outrage-worthy. However, in this specific case, the Editors Guild has stepped into the melee and issued a statement chastising Rahul Gandhi, as has the Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps and Press Association.

The joint statement by the Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps and Press Association says: “Terms like ‘presstitute’ used by a former union minister and more recently ‘pliable’ by the president of a political party for the media are inappropriate and lower the dignity of discourse in general.”

In the same statement, the organisations also threw in: “We note with deep concern the continued incarceration of Manipur journalist Kishorechand Wangkhem under the NSA for his social media post criticising members of the ruling party at the state and centre. We reiterate our demand that the charges against Mr Wangkhem be dropped…” Possibly because both offenses are seen as similar or equivalent by the body.

The Editors Guild is a “bipartisan body” (as mentioned in the statement) and has a very important role that impacts all news professionals. Its functioning and standing up for journalism and journalists is of way more consequence than we realise and that the organisation is often given credit for. How relevant it chooses to remain will be determined by its own conduct and wisdom. When bodies that represent journalists put out statements, they must be for reasons serious enough to warrant them—an incarceration, an assault, using police or public institutions to bully, and anything that prevents journalists from doing their jobs.

In this particular case, I was not sure what the purpose of the intervention was. The way I see it, one could have any of the following concerns.

– That news organisations or journalists should not be criticised by politicians at all.

– That politicians can criticise journalists but the words used should not be abusive or insulting. In this case the word used was “pliable”.

– The third possibility is that criticism is okay and the word “pliable” is also fine, but the Editors Guild feels it’s unfair in this case. This could be because the Guild finds the interview appropriately probing and robust as a journalistic exercise.

By reading the Guild’s own statement, it’s clear that they believe “civilised criticism is okay” at the same time that they find Rahul Gandhi’s criticism problematic, which leads me to conclude that the Guild believes the word “pliable” is uncivilised or inappropriate. In the very same statement, the Guild has thrown in presstitutebazaaru and dalal as other objectionable terms used in the past by the BJP and AAP to attack news media. So basically it’s one general complaint against politicians with Rahul Gandhi as the “peg” of the story, if I were to use a newsy approach. Same with the joint statement throwing in a mention of the incarcerated Kishorechand Wangkhem as the side-show to the discourtesy shown to Smita Prakash by Rahul Gandhi.

If the suggestion is that the word “pliable” falls in the same category of insults or attacks as “presstitute” or incarceration, then what constitutes civilised criticism may be significantly narrow.

The problem with this intervention by these organisations is that it seems to stem from trying the “there are good/bad people on all sides” type balancing act and/or overcompensating for an expected backlash from Rahul haters. It also has the hint of the over wokeness-inspired paranoia some millennials demonstrate. This flies in the face of the claim of the “thick skin” that the Guild congratulates itself for in the last paragraph of the statement issued.

Personally, I thought that Smita Prakash’s interview of Narendra Modi was the toughest he has faced since 2013. That may not be something to celebrate, considering the ones by Arnab Goswami, Sudhir Chaudhry and some other pliable journalists were so cringe-inducing that even I—who is otherwise happy to see them embarrassed—winced. Ms Prakash’s interview may not have been aggressive and combative, which is fine, considering Mr Modi is the Prime Minister, but it was not a suck-up interview either. It was certainly tougher than any interview Sonia Gandhi negotiated. I disagree with Rahul Gandhi on his take. We can all react as individuals which is a good thing but does Gandhi’s criticism warrant this intervention by journalism bodies?

If every quip needs a statement, then the Guild will have to issue one on a daily basis. The fear of being called out by whatabouters cannot be a reason to put their weight behind an observation (even if inaccurate, though very subjective) about journalists by politicians. There are far bigger assaults happening like the one on Shajila Ali Fathima of Kairali TV or those reporters arrested and put behind bars.

For a body that represents journalists to be relevant in its upholding the rights and values of news professionals, it needs to be discerning while speaking up. If everything is uncivilised, then nothing is uncivilised. If everything is an assault, then nothing is an assault. A statement about everything (prison, presstitute, bazaaru, pliable, etc.) becomes a statement about nothing.

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