Ajai R. Singh MD

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For a free and fair press

The Times of India, Friday, April 15, 1988

 

For A Free And Fair Press

By AJAI And SHAKUNTALA Singh

 

 

Now that the controversy over the so-called “activist” and the patriotic” press has subsided, we may try and understand why the fourth estate faces charges of quixotism or sychophancy not only from outsiders but from its own members. For any proper discussion on this issue, we need to consider some basic points.

Apart from expedient action which is guided by pragmatic considerations of the day, the basic underlying inclinations or biases of most editorial policies must be guided a greater or lesser extent by what the readership wants and how much this readership is amenable to modification. What the readership wants involves the whole gamut of human thought and feelings, and therefore the vast array of writings that feed the public with what they desire.

But every responsible editorial mix must ultimately desire to guide its readership in some direction that involves healthy development of society at large, based on its own convictions of what this should be.

That is why personal preferences get couched in terms of high principles, which might sound pontifical and therefore obnoxious to some.  Therefore the zealous crusader continues in his crusading manner, and the cynical commentator in his.  While they may often appear to be at loggerheads, they often represent not competing but complementary aspects of the variegated nature of what the human mind itself essentially is, and none of these need be totally relevant or totally irrelevant,. They become irrelevant only when they play the game according to standards foreign to their field.

 

Basic Paradox

            The second point is the resolution of the basic paradox between crusading zeal on the one hand and limit-setting on the other.  For those to whom frameworks appear a hindrance, the need is for a more flexible approach, but yet one that cannot cross certain fundamental parameters.  For those who believe in limit-setting there is the need to sometimes stretch their limits to accommodate opposing views without of course compromising on certain fundamental principles.

            Therefore the essential questions to which the fourth estate need address itself in this connection are what are the fundamental parameters which cannot ever be abandoned; which are the one which appear fundamental but in fact are not; and which are those which should not be parameters at all in our quest for an enlightened press.

            The third question is how free is the press, really? This is again dependent on two basic factors; how free does it want to be, and how does it resolve the basic rights duties dilemma. In wanting to be free of course, all these facts come into consideration that deal with business interests, with political and other pressures, with human inclinations and a judgment, sound or otherwise, of which aspect of journalism one’s expertise lies in.

 

A Myth

Complete and unrestricted freedom is a myth. That need not however, negate its worth as a guiding principle - never to be attained, true, but any approximation near it more desirable than one away from it.  The interlinked question is that second factor, of the rights duties dilemma.  Anyone who expects certain fundamental rights cannot but be conscious of certain fundamental duties as well. When here is a talk that freedom of expression is not a reward given by the benevolence of a government to its people but their sovereign and inalienable right, this point must get stressed as well.

            If freedom of speech and expression is used by the fourth estate with the main, if not sole, motive of making a financial success of its enterprise, and norms of ethics or accountability are side stepped, albeit shrewdly, then one must expect that all those with whom such a press enters into confrontation will no longer remain benevolent.  And when this confrontation is with a powerful entity like the government, it is inevitable that the atmosphere must breed mutual paranoia and strife.

            In its more retributive moods, a government, especially one in distress or intolerant of criticism, will take every available opportunity to utilize this situation to silence the press in a way that it finds suitable to itself. Which may not at all be according to the rules of the games as the press wants it played.  That does not mean the press emasculate itself to toe only pro-establishment line. Far from it. It only means discretion is the better part of valour, and if, for whatever reason, one does not believe in discretion and decides on valour as the major motivating factor, there is every reason to expect an onslaught as well as every reason to take it on one’s stride.  Any protest raised should then only to influence public opinion, and never a cry of despair.

 

Editor’s Role

            A corollary to this is the important aspect of the role of an editor in an industrial dispute between the management and the employees of the press.  Whatever means either side may adopt, the question is whether any limits need be set to the role of an editor in strike-breaking or not.  If one does not believe in limit setting as a concept, then whether it is industrial battle or political battle editors obviously must get totally involved. Any chance such an editor has of basing his policies on legitimate convictions and the search for truth must either become elusive or a lot of hot air.  This need not justify the traditional “hands-off” attitude that some editors adopt; it only means the editor is in that unenviable position wherein he has to remain uncommitted in any industrial dispute involving the press management and its employees, howsoever brazen may appear the stand of either, and yet retain the rights, as well as perform the duty, of an impartial intermediary if called upon to do so.  Any transgression of such limits must involve paying a price if not immediately, certainly in the long run.

            The fourth question must address itself to the influence of party politics on the fourth estate, and its own politicisation.  If what we mean by politics is holding a viewpoint on government and governance, furthering it, analysing a situation from a particular angle with some expertise while allowing for at least some degree of catholicity in the expression of contrary viewpoints, the press is a political weapon and it cannot be depoliticised.  But if to be politicised offer us an excuse to indulge in politicking, in we ourselves playing the nefarious games of those whom we watch, then surely there is a great need for the press to be de-politicised.  To be sure, it can never be totally so, but it surely needs to be shielded against anything more than the barest minimum of this ulterior influence.

 

Public Opinion

            To be sure since, both the political process and the press are fundamentally dependent on public opinion, that they should interact with each other and even jointly attempt to influence public opinion is a possibility that can never be done away with. What the press has to beware of is to ally with the politician and manipulate people’s thinking.  To influence is one thing, to manipulate quite another.

            The press is an industrial establishment and legitimately involves money-making.  But if anyone wants to convince himself that the sole motivating factor – or even its most important one – is money making, he is putting forward a dangerous argument that must justify every activity that leads to better money spinning in media circles.  Has it no longer remained financially viable to believe earnings in the press industry can be the result efficient management policies, good employer-employee relations, morale etc? Can we not think that this still applies to most successful business establishments everywhere which also maintain at least some scruples?

            Press barons and pressmen both will have genuinely to believe that enough money can still be made by the legitimate means that do not compromise professional ethics and social commitment. This is essence means there is still plenty of money that can be earned, along with fame and power for those so inclined, by eschewing sensationalism, politicking or playing to the tune of a public avid for scoops and intrigues and an ever-ready politician-establishment supplying fresh supplies of the same. Here probably is the rub and the vital point that needs to be confirmed or rejected by all journalists with any commitment to that which they otherwise seek to both profess and project.

 

 

 

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