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Sunday Sentiments

  • Oops, excuse me

    Posted On September 30, 1998

    By Karan Thapar

    What is a journalist? You might find that an odd question from an old hack. However, it’s prompted not by idle curiosity but a recent report on Star News. And let me not mince my words. The report disturbs me for it confuses the role of a journalist and transgresses the limitations of the profession.

    Last saturday Star reported on a campaign to catch snake charmers trading in endangered species.   On the surface it was a story that purported to show the media in a good light.  Ecological protection is a cause we all defend.

    The problem was the Star team played a critical role in ‘deceiving’ the snake charmers.  Had the reporter and crew not been there the snakemen would not have shown up and, it follows, they would never have been caught.  The fact that Star made a clean breast of this complicity in their commentary matters not one jot.

    The snake charmers were led to believe they were being filmed on behalf of a foreign purchaser of snake skins and in due course the client would show up to clinch the deal.  The TV news team thus pretended to be something other than they were.  But once the reptile catchers revealed the snakes in their possession the police showed up instead, declared they had caught them red-handed and marched them off to jail.

    Now journalists are not policemen, do-gooders, moral arbiters or even keepers of the flame.  Of course, on the op-ed page we slip into these roles; but a Star news reporter is not an opinion maker nor is news the place for such functions.

    Reporters ought to tell stories as they find them.  It’s in the objectivity of their account that so-called journalistic truth lies.  If they tamper with it – no matter for how good a cause – they will end up telling a lie.  And a lie in journalism is more than just an un-truth.  It’s the erosion of credibility.

    Journalists are believed because their audience (or readership) holds them to be credible.  In other words they trust them.  And when that trust breaks down journalism ceases to be.  That, after all, is the difference between a rag and a reputable publication.  No one trusts a rag.  You don’t believe what you read in it.  The news, on the other hand, is only worth watching while you believe it.  Here credibility (or trust) is everything.

    I admit the snake charmer story is a small incident but it’s nonetheless telling.  And I also accept most people would not care to judge Star News by it.  Even I hesitate to do so.  Yet the malaise at its core threatens the health of the entire bulletin.

    Let me explain.

    Journalists often expose situations.  To do so they rely on information given in confidence.  That confidence is everything, for many of those who talk want to help but are also anxious to avoid incrimination or trouble.  That’s why journalists refuse to reveal their sources even up to and including the threat of imprisonment.

    As a result people the world over are prepared to tell journalists things they wouldn’t divulge to anyone else.  But who will talk to a journalist with a record of deceiving?  You would be scared he might twist what you say and use it against you.  Instead of trusting him, you would be on your guard.  If that becomes the prevailing attitude journalism as a whole will suffer.

    There is another issue.  Journalists can and do pretend to be someone else when they’re stalking criminals.  But they have to be acting for a greater good and that good has to be proved not merely asserted.  Equally importantly, the crime has to be manifestly criminal.  Once again everyone must recognise that.

    The problem here is that I’m not at all sure capturing and killing a snake is not the best thing to do.  When it comes to cobras and pythons (the snakes in the story) few, if any, have great love for them.  That is why snake charmers are hardly criminals even when they catch endangered species.  In fact if the snake is endangered so much the better !

    In my book the criminals journalists can justifiably deceive are conmen – those who themselves lie to make a fraudulent living.  In their case it’s nemesis catching up with them whilst the harm they have done has actually affected ordinary people in whose interest the journalist can claim to be acting. But who, pray, has the snake charmer deceived and who – other than the captured snake – has he hurt?

    Snake charmers are poor, probably illiterate and definitely gullible.  They’re not to know that potential foreign buyers don’t preview snakes through TV footage.  When journalists turn on them to gain their scoops they’re only exploiting the class barriers of our society.  That’s why a snake charmer is easy prey.  Catch a Harshad Mehta if you can or a Sukhram.  At least they can defend themselves against a journalist’s guile and they’ve done real harm to boot.

    The BJP ducks the issue

    Old Macdonald had a farm
    With a quack quack here
    And a quack quack there
    Here a quack
    There a quack
    Everywhere a quack quack
    Old Macdonald had a farm

    I suggest the BJP Delhi government gift itself a party song and if they can’t find one I recommend the one above.  It’s eminently suitable.  Even though it’s a nonsense rhyme it suits the party’s policies to the last – well, let’s say to the last quack.

    The BJP government has decided it prefers quacks to the rest of us.  Given that many of you probably feel a man has to be a quack to vote BJP next time round I daresay there’s nothing wrong with that.  Except that’s not the sort of quack I had in mind.

    I’m talking about the fraudulent doctors, the vaids, hakims, pundits, apothecaries, compounders, etc. who pass conveniently under the label quack.  Delhi has 30,000 of them compared to just 15,000 qualified doctors.  As a result there’s an uncomfortably big chance that next time you fall ill, and if you don’t have the means to investigate the physician you choose, he or she is likely to be a quack.

    No doubt that prospect sends shivers down your spine.  But the BJP government doesn’t care.  Proof of this is its reluctance to pass the Quackery Prohibition Bill.

    The Bill seeks to enhance the penalties quacks pay when caught.  One would have thought that would be welcome revenue for a cash-strapped administration
    -:  4  :-

    but, as it’s election time, the boys in the BJP care more about votes.  Apparently quacks are loyal BJP supporters which is more than you can say for the rest of us.

    The bit I like is the philosophical dilemma raised by the Select Committee of the Delhi Assembly.  It fears that if passed the Bill will deny quacks their livelihood.  I suppose in a just world even a quack has a right to an income.  But is it not a moot point if its earned at our cost?

    So quacks live on whilst we have to fight another day.

    It’s time for a reprieve.  I’m off to London to indulge in sin.  If you read next week’s Sunday Sentiments I’ll reveal just how successful I’ve been.  But right now, as I smack my lips in anticipation, let me pause to thank Rasika Kumar at British Airways.

    When I made my last minute bookings I was horrified to find that half of India had the same idea.  A sojourn in the wicked city is clearly everyone’s idea of fun. 

    If it had not been for Rasika I might have found myself stranded at home.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it was pity that prompted her kindness.  I suspect my hectoring, pestering, frequent telephoning and aggressively persistent manner ended up exasperating her.  She probably decided the country was better off without me.

    Anyway, thank you Rasika.  I am glad you sent me packing !

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