Habits of Mind

How the lack of a philosophical model makes the press India's most vulnerable institution

01 December, 2013

THE INDIAN MEDIA IS LIKE pliable dough. It can be kneaded, punched, stretched and rolled in all directions. If overworked, it turns rubbery, dense and inert. And if the hands that knead it are dirty, it becomes impossible to separate the grime from the good. External pressures and internal pollutants jointly compromise the loaf.

In the past two years, there have been a number of examples of our institutions and politicians overworking the press. The union information and broadcasting minister officially advised journalists on how to cover the prime minister. The minister for telecom constituted a body to curtail press freedoms on the internet. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate warned journalists to blindly toe a chauvinistic line. A Silchar court in the north-east and a Pune court in the west issued ex-parte injunction orders forcing media companies to remove journalistic content from websites. A Karnataka court tried a woman journalist under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for exposing police corruption. A Tamil Nadu court barred the publication of a reported biography of a chief minister, since it displeased her. And a Delhi court blocked the release of a movie that “contains sex and vulgarity” that hurt religious sentiments.

Within the media industry, there was plenty of grime. Media owners bargained with the government to secure lucrative licenses to mine coal blocks in return for their power to influence the public. Editors got caught on tape striking deals with lobbyists, but remained arrogantly unapologetic. Owners fired political editors who wrote about politics independently. Many reporters—as an article in this issue on the glamorous national security beat demonstrates—increasingly peddle lies as news. And as I write this, the news breaking about Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal’s alleged sexual assault of his colleague reminds us that many male editors habitually harass their female staff, ensuring that newsrooms are no safer than the streets for women. The dough is destroyed from the exterior and the interior.

Having thought through some of the specific instances of the external punches on the media and the ugly impairments inside the media, large questions bog my mind. Why is our journalism so pliable? What gives external forces the temerity to shape the media to their own ends? What is it in our democratic culture that makes the media subordinate itself to the legislature, executive, judiciary and corporations—making it susceptible to inappropriate influence? (See the cover story on Network18 for an incident in which Forbes India pulled a story off the press because it irked the finance ministry.) And looking inward, why don’t we have the sense of duty in our media culture that compels us to say no to influence?

We don’t have—like a few democracies do, and like all democracies ought to—a well-articulated philosophical framework by which to think about the media, that would define to all—politicians, judges, bureaucrats, police, academics, media owners, editors and reporters—what the rules of the game are. As a society, our readings of the roles and responsibilities of the press are so diverse that, if the 30 sitting Supreme Court judges were asked individually about where a citizen’s fundamental right of speech and expression ends and our innumerable laws on telegraphs, defamation, official secrets, sedition, and public safety—all of which have clauses that clash with fundamental rights—take over, the chances are you would get 30 different opinions.

We inherited this confusion primarily when we goofed up the constitutional promise with the very first amendment we made to it. Passed less than 15 months after the constitution was adopted, the First Amendment Act (1951) was a blow to press freedom. Once they became the government, the same luminaries who drafted the constitution—from Jawaharlal Nehru to Bhimrao Ambedkar—hastily decided to set aside three years of deliberations in the Constituent Assembly on freedom of speech, because the Supreme Court and two high courts (Madras and Patna) interpreted the new constitution against their liking.

Between the promulgation of the constitution and the drafting of the first amendment, these courts passed three now legendary judgments in favour of press freedom, reprimanding the government for infringing on the fundamental rights of freedom of speech in the name of “public safety”. The courts found active laws from the British Raj era (including the Press Act and the Indian Penal Code) to be archaic, and laws passed by the new government (East Punjab Public Safety Act and Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act) to be “restrictive” and “unconstitutional”. These interpretations were unprecedented; for the first time, courts were interpreting the constitution of a sovereign democratic country, and looking at the citizenry’s right to a free press, after shedding the shackles and fears of centuries of colonial and princely rule.

The judgements were an affront to egos in the new government. Sardar Patel, the home minister, criticised the rulings for “knocking the bottom out of most of our penal laws”. Patel, in a conversation with S Sadanand, founding editor of the Free Press Journal, plainly stated what press freedom meant to him: “We are interested in newspapers which will support us wholeheartedly. To say you will support us when we are right is meaningless. For why should anyone oppose us then?”

Instead of allowing the organic growth of independent constitutional interpretations to continue, the secretaries, steeped in the methods of the British colonial government, cried foul to Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar—each of whom demonstrated a certain unwillingness to be criticised by the courts. They closed ranks to stop the judiciary from interpreting the constitution on this important subject. In 1791, American legislators had written, in their historic first amendment, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. Our first amendment said exactly the opposite: nothing in the future shall “prevent the State from making any law” that takes away the freedom of press.

Much other moss has gathered on this immobile stone. For over 60 years, state powers—bureaucrats, politicians, and even local police officers—have been taking away the right to speech and expression on flimsy grounds. This has institutionalised fear among journalists, taught them self-censorship, made them subservient to other institutions, and stifled the possibility of creating a press tradition that could serve as the basis for a fourth pillar of our democracy.

Following the first amendment, in the “nation building” era, everyone from Nehru to Lal Bahadur Shastri to Indira Gandhi was building institutions, fighting poverty, and taking on social odds. People in the fields of science, education and health naturally became partners in state programmes. The press also obliged. Instead of maintaining a safe distance from power, we joined the state as masons.

The current culture of rewarding and punishing the press started around the time Sanjay Gandhi joined politics, and Indira turned increasingly autocratic. Journalists who defended them during the Emergency were rewarded: Khushwant Singh, for example, wrote in his biography that “Sanjay asked me if I would be interested in a diplomatic assignment. He had the post of High Commissioner in London in mind. I turned it down without any hesitation, as I did not want to leave India. Then he offered to get me a nomination to the Rajya Sabha and the editorship of the Hindustan Times. I accepted the alternative.”

One of Singh’s predecessors at the Hindustan Times, BG Verghese, suffered one of the country’s first journalistic punishments for standing up to autocracy and corruption. A note exchanged by Indira’s personal secretaries in 1975 demonstrated how easily the prime minister could remove an editor: “I’ve spoken to KK Birla [the owner of the paper]. He has given notice to Verghese.” On the morning Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, Verghese was prevented from entering the Hindustan Times’ office. That era also witnessed rare and indomitable publishers, like Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express, who fought vested private interests and the establishment. But the dominant mood of the press corps was docility.

By the early 1990s, when the idea of large government suddenly became unfashionable and the market opened up, the media moved en masse to build and serve the new big thing—private power. From nation building, we went to work again as masons on India Inc building. Broadsheets became colourful; pink papers flourished; television added star value to journalism; and journalists began to get better salaries. But unbiased, world-class reporting remained rare. The fortunes of a few media houses went up, while others went down. So did institutional respectability. The Indian Express, which courageously revealed the malpractices of Reliance in the 1980s, had borrowed around Rs 150 crore from the same industrialists by the turn of the century, a former editor in the Express group told me.

Despite all this, it’s reasonable to hope things might change, as they have in other democracies. Before the Great Depression, the press in the United States was understood in libertarian terms, as an extension of private enterprise. Following the crisis, which media owners had colluded with private power to create, people began to distrust newspapers. By the 1930s, they were cancelling their subscriptions and migrating to radio. But a noble act by a media proprietor in the early 1940s brought some fresh air to the proceedings.

During a board meeting of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1942, Time magazine’s owner, Henry R Luce, passed a note to Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago. With people fast abandoning the press, Luce had personally felt the post-Depression pinch. His note read, “How do I find out about the freedom of the press and what my obligations are?”

“I don’t know,” Hutchins replied.

“Well, why don’t we set up a commission on freedom of the press and find out what it is?” Luce asked.

“If you’ll put up the money, I’ll organize the committee.”

Upon returning to his office, Luce wrote a cheque for $200,000 to Hutchins, mandating an “independent inquiry into the present state and future prospects of the freedom of press in the United States.” Hutchins named a commission of 12 members and four foreign advisors. Nine of them were scholars from diverse backgrounds such as law, economics, political science, ethics, anthropology, history and philosophy. None of them were journalists.

The commission laboured for three full years, interviewing hundreds of men and women connected with the press, government, industries, and private agencies, as well as members of the general public. Luce never interfered in the process or tried to shape the commission’s conclusions.

The final report became a post-war charter for the media. The American press was in danger because those who directed it had engaged in practices that society condemned, the report said. Freedom of the press “can only continue as an accountable freedom.” The commission stressed the press’s social responsibility towards the public, and the 106-page report, unanimously accepted, set down five demands that society laid upon the press: to provide “first, a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning; second, a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism; third, a means of projecting the opinions and attitudes of the groups in the society to one another; fourth, a method of clarifying the goals and values of the society; and, fifth, a way of reaching every member of society by the currents of information, thought, and feeling which the press supplies.” This was a radical departure from the libertarian, free-market view that the American press was accustomed to for 175 years.

The immediate reaction from the press was a mixture of outrage and scoffing. Hutchins became a swear word in most newspaper offices. But two decades after the Hutchins commission, a study in the Columbia Journalism Review credited the report with having revitalised public debate about the press in subsequent decades. The need to help maintain public accountability through coverage of the press; diversity in the newsroom; journalists seeking apologies from the public for gross faults in reporting or ethical misconduct—all these traditions grew out of the values of social responsibility theory articulated in the Hutchins commission report. “The Report served notice on journalism that its performance was no longer a matter of internal concern, the mere operation of a business,” the study said.

Of course, the social responsibility theory was never a complete deterrent, and the American press has gone horribly wrong several times since the late 1940s. The most egregious recent example was the coverage of the Iraq War. Some of the country’s most respected journalists blindly fell for lies fed to them by high-placed sources in the CIA, Defense Department, and other government agencies. The New York Times, arguably the world’s most reputed paper, trusted its superstar national security reporter Judith Miller, and put her “scoops” on the front page. Lies about weapons of mass destruction went in as plants, and came out printed as facts, which the Bush administration cited to argue for deploying American troops to Iraq.

The war trumpet sounded so ferociously that in a year’s time, when it was found there were no such weapons in Iraq, big media houses like CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post apologised to their viewers and readers. The New York Times’ columnists Maureen Dowd and Byron Calame lashed out at Miller, and many more journalists in the newsroom asked for her resignation. Finally, she apologised and resigned from the paper. Acknowledging the mistake on his part, New York Times’ then executive editor Bill Keller said, “I fear I fostered an impression that the Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers.”

Apologising for mistakes is the least individuals and institutions can do to maintain the integrity of the press. Acknowledging errors can help prevent others from making the same mistakes. The theory of social responsibility can also act as a moral currency, incentivising sincere, silent folks to stand up and question erring colleagues.

Unfortunately, the world’s largest democracy doesn’t have a model for a democratic press. How many times have you seen an apology in print or on air in India? Have you seen journalists owning up to our mistakes? Has a big-shot journalist lost his or her job for unethical reporting? The opposite—honest journalists getting sidelined, or losing their jobs—happens often. The public is also in the dark about the business interests of media proprietors, and there’s little discussion of how this affects news coverage.

Change is hard without conceptual reference points. The Indian press desperately needs some life-supporting philosophical interventions that can cut across our social and political institutions, and assert the primacy of the public good. Are we thinking so narrowly about our annual profits that we forget to sustain the cause of journalism? Where are the visionary publishing leaders in India?

Earlier this year, I met with one of the country’s biggest media magnates. Our two-and-a-half-hour-long conversation touched upon the quality of current journalism, the increasing trend of opinions masquerading as reporting, and the integrity of journalists at his empire and the rest of the media. At one point, he spoke glowingly of Henry Luce, and I asked him: had it been him, would he have subsidised a study like Hutchins’s? He hadn’t heard of the commission. I explained Luce’s purpose, and the cost of the exercise. (Adjusted for inflation, it would have been roughly what Sarah Palin was paid to speak at a recent media conclave in Delhi.) He paused for a few seconds, then asked, “Were there sponsors?” I understood where he was coming from—he was asking if a mining company, or a real estate firm, put their money on the table for Luce to fund Hutchins. Disappointingly, giving for the profession—helping build its integrity for the sake of a stronger democratic polity—does not come very easily to the industry leaders of Indian media.

Even a relatively small publishing house could take up such a historical, philosophical challenge. But it would be more meaningful if the patronage came from a media conglomerate, since it would help the process gain legitimacy in the market, which now exerts the greatest external pressure on press freedom. (After all, we’re supposed to be builders of India Inc.) Even better would be a group of publishers coming together. But such an endeavour should never be a government-sponsored one—like the two press commissions that we’ve had since Independence—or led by a trade body. And it is best to avoid putting journalists or other media insiders on the commission. One could take a set of clues from the Hutchins committee on the background of its members, if and when such an endeavour is ever undertaken.

Right now, for many people it is business as usual in the press. But the barometer of displeasure is rising to the extent that several goodhearted people are quitting the system voluntarily, or are forced to quit for their sincerity while the rot inside flourishes. A democratic country can’t function long this way. There’s always a lingering danger of slipping into one of two extremes—a totalitarian press (what the USSR had, and what many Arab nations and China follow today), or a libertarian press (what the United States had for 175 years, until the Social Responsibility model began to have an influence on the system). Communication studies place the Totalitarian model and the Libertarian model on the edges of a long line and the Social Responsibility model in its middle. But in India, the more I think about it, I realise there’s a real possibility that it is a circle, where totalitarianism and libertarianism can come together in the absence of a democratic press model. It happened during the Emergency, when the government constituted a censor, and censured newspapers before publication; it jailed journalists and editors. The prime minister’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, used state media as his private toy. Recently a Congress leader told me how “Sanjay had the brilliant idea of playing the Hindi blockbuster Bobby on Doordarshan to stop people going for Lohia’s rallies.” Compare this with Narendra Modi’s verbose threat to the press on 29 September this year, in Delhi. Modi brought an air of “chilling silence” to the press gallery, as one journalist who was present there put it to me. In the context of what later turned out to be an utterly distorted comment—the dehati aurat (village woman) remark that Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif supposedly made in New York describing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—Modi boomed thrice, “Listen people,” to amplify the bang, before instructing them about what he “expects” journalists to do.

“I, I want to ask those journalists, I do not know who those journalists were, but those journalists of my country who were sitting in front of Nawaz Sharif, eating his sweets, while Nawaz Sharif was talking against the prime minister of my country, he was abusing him, he was calling him a rural woman. I expect that journalist, this nation expects that journalist to have thrown away Nawaz Sharif’s sweet and left.”

First of all, Modi got all his facts squarely wrong—from the dehati aurat comment to the journalist eating sweets.

Second, even if we agree that all this was true for argument sake, does Modi want journalists to parrot a chauvinistic line, and is that his idea of journalism? Is he expecting this important democratic institution to copycat his versions of nationalism? History tells us when journalists put blind nationalism ahead of reason, truth and professional principles, the press become collaborators in mass crimes.

The danger of our press slipping into a combination of totalitarianism and libertarianism is not an improbability. The ideas of Sanjay Gandhi and Narendra Modi remind us of that. It is the absence of a democratic press that can aggravate that fall.

What’s required is not a set of instructions (which we already have from the Press Council of India), but a framework, along the lines of a Social Responsibility model, with enough integrity to support a new media culture. The first aim of such a philosophical model is to question and change the portions on speech and expression in the First Amendment itself, so that the disciplining that the system has undergone—from the state that polices the press to the self-censorship that journalists do mechanically—these habits of mind can be changed. Such a philosophical exercise would automatically build dialogues in the public around the conduct and ethics of media, to a point that misbehaviour leads to distrust, and distrust leads to loss of face and revenue—this would be a deterrent not to mess up. Also, such a media culture would empower young people getting inducted into the system—hopefully from increasingly diverse backgrounds—to question their higher-ups.

Structural changes may begin to show only 15, 20, 30 or more years from now, but we need to start that philosophical, historical intervention no later than now. Can we, one day, see the dough cleaned up?

Correction: Doordarshan screened the film Bobby in March 1977, on the day of a Janata Party rally where Jayprakash Narayan and Jagjivan Ram were the speakers, and not Rammanohar Lohia, as the Congress leader mistakenly told The Caravan