The Foe-rth Estate

*This essay was written by Abhimanyu Hazarika from Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts. He won the Essay competition which was part of Slant 2017. The following essay was written on the topic: To Be An Impactful Journalist, Do You Need To Have An Adversarial Relationship With The Establishment?

Establishments in the subcontinent are characterised by unending shades of sycophancy. When an essential pillar of society like media is to carry its basic function on the same, i.e., to impartially report to and inform the masses, does it make sense to merely join the bandwagon of servility or be as combative as one would be with a foe?

If the proliferation of digital media outlets like HuffingtonPost in India are anything to go by, it would seem a left-liberal ideological backing justifies adversarial and hence acrimonious ties with the current establishment. At the same time, channels veering towards the right at present arguably do well in highlighting the positives towards government’s reform measures and its rejection of minority appeasement.

As much as the clamour behind traditional news ethics hold weightage, in contemporary times, true impact and effectiveness of journalism in pitching particular stories lies in its distinct ability to be as critically skeptic of the government’s actions and intentions as possible. The key word here is critical, not against or selective negativity. Towards this end,
Senior Advocate Ram Jethmalani says, “Democracy without education is hypocrisy without limitation. We should teach our children to question at all times and about everything.”

Closer examination of press trends reveals how this creative cynicism has been building up and helped distinguish as well as increase audience of particular channels. Private Hindi news have far greater television ratings over the year than even primetime slots on DD News, a government run enterprise with an evident sense of publicity broadcasting rather than grave information dissemination. Personality cults being gradually ingrained into the anchors of premier slots of these channels is all the more on the rise.

In an acclaimed vote-of-thanks speech at the 2016 Ramnath Goenka Journalism Awards, Chief Editor of the Indian Express made a pertinent point. In response to the Prime Minister’s praise of certain journalists, he noted, “You … said a few wonderful things about journalists that makes us a little nervous. You may not find it in Wikipedia, but Shri Ramnath Goenka, and it's a fact and I can say that as the Editor of the Indian Express, he did sack a journalist when he heard the Chief Minister (praise him). That's very very important … (today’s journalists) do not know that criticism from a government is a badge of honour”. These statements could not be more reflective of ground reality when looked at in the context of appointment of select journalists to Rajya Sabha seats. Infact even as journalist Rajdeep Sardesai would interview Mr Modi before the eve of state polls, on one occasion the latter quipped that such questions would surely fetch him a place in the Upper House (as it was the UPA era).

As Justice Markandey Katju, former Chairman of the Press Council of India has mentioned, media’s role is to highlight prevalence of social ills and government inadequacies. As has been mentioned, the same is more credible when done without sympathy or empathy for the establishment.