Meet Mahatma Gandhi, the journalist: ‘When a newspaper is a means of making profit, serious malpractices are likely’
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Meet Mahatma Gandhi, the journalist: ‘When a newspaper is a means of making profit, serious malpractices are likely’

Gandhi was associated with six journals, two of which he edited.

By VS Gupta

Published on :

Today, when the media scene bristles with unheard of turmoil owing to the overriding role of market forces, and when the media is trying to project celebrities and models as the icons of modern society, it is worthwhile to revisit Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and canon of journalism, and his contribution as a journalist.

According to Chalapathi Raju, himself an eminent editor, Gandhi was probably the greatest journalist of all time, and the weeklies he ran and edited were probably the greatest weeklies the world has known. He published no advertisement; at the same time he did not want his newspapers to run at a loss. He had gained considerable experience in South Africa, where he had taken over in 1904 the editorship of Indian Opinion and published it in English, Tamil and Gujarati, sometimes running the press himself.

Young India and Harijan became powerful vehicles of his views on all subjects. He wrote on all subjects. He wrote simply and clearly but forcefully, with passion and burning indignation. One of the objects of a newspaper, he said, is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments, and the third is to expose popular defects fearlessly.

Gandhi’s papers published no advertisements. They enjoyed wide circulation. His approach to journalism was totally devoid of ambition. To him, it was not a vocation to earn his livelihood; it was a means to serve the public. In Young India of July 2, 1925, he wrote: “I have taken up journalism not for its sake but merely as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life. My mission is to teach by example and present under severe restraint the use of the matchless weapon of satyagraha which is a direct corollary of nonviolence.”

Gandhi looked upon journalism as a means to serve the people. He said in his autobiography: “The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this line of reasoning is correct, how many journals of the world would stand the test? But who would stop those that are useless? And who should be the judge? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil, go on together, and man must make his choice.”

Gandhi, the great communicator

Apart from being a national leader and social reformer, Gandhi was a great communicator. More than anyone else, he recognised that communication is the most effective tool to shape opinion and mobilise popular support. He was successful because he had a latent skill in communication that surfaced in South Africa, where he had gone initially to set up practice as a lawyer. The practice of communication started by him in South Africa gave him the clue to rally millions of his countrymen when he returned to India.

Gandhi was associated with six journals, for two of which he was the editor. His first paper, Indian Opinion, was started in South Africa. In order to ventilate the grievances of Indians and mobilise public opinion in their favour, Gandhi started writing and giving interviews to newspapers. He focused on open letters and letters to editor, but soon realised that occasional writings and the hospitality of newspapers were inadequate for the political campaign he had launched. He needed a mouthpiece to reach out to the people, so in June 1903 he launched Indian Opinion. It served the purpose of a weekly newsletter which disseminated the news of the week among the Indian community. It became an important instrument of education. Through the columns of the newspaper, Gandhi tried to educate the readers about sanitation, self-discipline and good citizenship. How important the journal was to Gandhi is seen from his own statement in his biography, My Experiments with Truth: “Indian Opinion…was a part of my life. Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns and expounded the principles and practice of satyagraha as I understood it. During 10 years, that is until 1914, excepting the intervals of my enforced rest in prison there was hardly an issue of Indian Opinion without an article from me. I cannot recall a word in these articles set down without thought or deliberation or  word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please. Indeed the journal became for me a training in self restraint and for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts.”

The critics found very little to which they could object. In fact, the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critics to put a curb on his palm.

Gandhi launched Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act and the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh. He learnt in South Africa how important the press and public opinion could be in politics and had taught himself how to use the written word most effectively.

The two journals Young India and Navjivan were used by him to ventilate his views and to educate the public about Satyagraha . In 1933, Gandhi started Harijan, Harijanbandhu, Harijansevak in English, Gujarati and Hindi, respectively. These newspapers were the vehicles of his crusade against untouchability and poverty in rural areas. These papers published no advertisements even then they enjoyed wide circulation. His note of defiance and sacrifice gave a new stimulus to the evolution of the press as a weapon of satyagraha.

Gandhi and the role of newspapers

It will be pertinent to point out as to what Gandhi considered to be the role of newspapers. He wrote: “In my humble opinion, it is wrong to use a newspaper as a means of earning a living. There are certain spheres of work which are of such consequence and have such bearing on public welfare that to undertake them for earning one’s livelihood will defeat the primary aim behind them. When, further a newspaper is treated as a means of making profits, the result is likely to be serious malpractices. It is not necessary to prove to those who have some experience of journalism that such malpractices do prevail on a large scale.” 

He was of the opinion that “newspapers are meant primarily to educate the people. They make the latter familiar with contemporary history. This is a work of no mean responsibility. It is a fact, however, that readers cannot always trust newspapers. Often facts are found to be quite the opposite of what has been reported. If newspapers realised that it was their duty to educate the people, they could not but wait to check a report before publishing it. It is true that  often they have to work under difficult conditions. They have to sift the true from the false in a short time and can only guess at the truth. Even then, I am of the opinion that it is better not to publish a report at all if it has not been found possible to verify it.”

The eminent journalist and freedom fighter Salien Chatterjee covered Mahatma Gandhi, his actions and programmes for a number of years. In an article, “Reporting Mahatma”, published in early 1998, he wrote: “I joined journalism in 1942. Reporting Mahatma Gandhi and my tours with him were the best and most memorable period of my journalistic career. Gandhi himself was a journalist. During my tours with him, he often told me how he worked day and night to produce his journal Indian Opinion in Natal, South Africa. He described Indian Opinion as the most useful weapon in his struggle in South Africa. He always stressed the importance of newspapers in educating the people. Gandhi always believed and always emphasised that the sole aim of journalism should be service, service of the people and the country.”

In Young India, Gandhi once gave a glimpse of  the exacting code he had set for himself.  “To be true to my faith, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write  merely to excite passion. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary. It is training for me. It enables me to peek into myself and to make discoveries of my weaknesses. Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds.”

Gandhi’s canon of journalism

Gandhi frequently wrote about various aspects of journalism. To him editorial independence, adherence to truth and self-restraint were the three overriding considerations for journalism. In his message to the editor of the newspaper The Independence on January 30, 1919, he wrote: “In wishing you success in your new enterprise, I would like to say how I hope your writings would be worthy of the title you have chosen for your journal; and may I further hope that to a robust of independence you will add an equal measure of self-restraint and the  strictest adherence to truth? Too often in our journals as in others do we get fiction instead of fact and declamation in place of sober reasoning. You would make The Independence a power in the land and a means of education for the people by avoiding the errors I have drawn attention to.”

On receiving advertisement support for running a newspaper, Gandhi wrote: “It is now an established practice with newspapers to depend for revenues mainly on advertisements rather than on subscriptions. The result has been deplorable. The very newspaper which writes against the evil of drink publishes advertisements in praise of drinks. In the same issue, we read of the harmful effects of tobacco as also from where to buy it. Or we shall find the same issue of a paper carrying a long advertisement for a certain play and denouncing that play as well. Medical advertisements are the largest source of revenue though they have done, and are still doing, incalculable harm to the people. These medical advertisements almost wholly offset the services rendered by the newspapers. I have been an eyewitness to the harm done by them. Many people are lured into buying harmful medicines. Many of these promote immorality. Such advertisements find a place even in papers run to further the cause of religion. This practice has come entirely from the West. No matter at what cost or effort, we must put an end to this undesirable practice or at least reform. It is the duty of every newspaper to exercise some restraint in the matter of advertisements.”

Today, when there is widespread concern about the growing influence of market forces on the media, and regret over journalism being no longer a social service, Gandhi’s views on the values of journalism bring to bear on the profession the force of ethics and morality. In this context, he once said, “It is often observed that newspapers published any matter that they have just to fill in space. The reason is that most newspapers have their eyes on profits…There are newspapers in the West which are so full of trash that it will be a sin even to touch them. At times, they produce bitterness and strife even between different families and communities. Thus, newspapers cannot escape criticism merely because they serve the people.”

Gandhi’s speech during his visit to The Hindu sums up his philosophy and vision of journalism: “I have, therefore, never been tired of reiterating to journalists whom I know that journalism should never be prostituted for selfish ends or for the sake of merely earning a livelihood or, worse still, for amassing money. Journalism, to be useful and serviceable to the country, will take its definite, its best for the service of the country and, whatever happens the views of the country irrespective of consequences. I think that we have in our midst the making of newspapers which can do so.”

This article is being republished with permission from mkgandhi.org, where it first appeared. It’s been edited for clarity and style.

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