PUCL Bulletin, August 1990

Things to do about the Press
By Arun Shourie

(Continued from June 1990 issue)

The Premise of democratic governance is that the people will decide. But what will be the character of the decisions they will take when instead of being informed, inspired, when necessary enraged to act on issues, they are distracted and merely entertained?

The notion that journalists must merely be "good professionals" is only a little less pernicious. Albert Speer was a good professional. An assassin is no poorer a professional in his marksmanship than a soldier. The new skills, the new technology, unless permeated by a sense of public purpose will end up enticing us away from the issues which we in any case do not want to face. They will therefore make us even less able to improve our condition.

This ideology of professionalism undermines all a sense of proportion, of all sense of purpose beyond that of getting the applause of one's peers and the audience. On this criterion purveying gossip about film stars well is as laudable as purveying facts about the North-east well. The consequences are immediate and disastrous, not the least for the professional himself.

Professionalism - specially good professionalism - puffs up the professional. He begins to insist that as he is such a good professional he is entitled to more than the ordinary citizen, and that he is entitled to special privileges merely because he is such a good professional - privileged access for one, the right to be taciturn about his assertions, for another-and he is entitled to them even though he is neglecting the duties that are his as an ordinary citizen. Similarly, professionalism - specially among the ones who come to excel at their job - gives the successful an exaggerated importance of their job, of continuing to be successful at it. Thus, for instance, even the best journalists muffle what they have to say on the rationalisation that they must preserve their access to the forum at all costs.

The consequences, of course, extend beyond the professional himself. Consider something that stares at us today from every news-stand. While the growth of magazines has been among the best things that has happened to India's journalism in the last decade, witness how many of them have shifted, and so swiftly, from issues to persons, from persons to gossip about persons, from gossip about persons to salacious gossip about persons….. Much of their output is excellent professionalism, but is the social function it serves not to merely divert our attention from the issues of life and death with which our society must contend?

This is one danger - commercialism, consumerism, the philosophy of being merely "good professionals".

Opportunism

The other danger is even more erass. It is opportunism. It is, of course, true that in journalism as in other professions we have long had opportunists. But in the last few years two things have converted opportunism into a grave danger.

First, in the press as in other spheres of life the tentacles of the State - in practice this means the tentacles of those who are occupying the offices of State from time to time - have spread far and deep.

Journalists are being offered and are lapping up all sorts of favours - trips, plots at confessional rates and much else. Many a politician has converted this purchase into an art. The result is that our papers are full of stories planted by these politicians. Naturally, politicians are not the only ones who practice the art. Business companies, foreign governments do just as much and as effectively. Among governments, for instance, communist countries have been in the business long, they have a veritable stable of journalists and magazines who will put out what they suggest or what they need to have put out. Business companies do the same. Among journalists they are known by the gifts that can be expected from them.

The consequences are before us. It isn't just that the press does not take up issues of vital interest to the public weal - for instance, the way Dhirubai Ambani prostituted institution after institution was taken up by hardly any paper other than the Indian Express.

A code

In the past whenever a politician has proposed a code of conduct for the press, my reaction, like that of so many others in the press, has been; "Why don't the politicians formulate and enforce a code for themselves?" I had the apprehension that the code would become another stick in the hand of the politician. The moment there was a code, I felt - even a one line code, "You shall report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth"- pressmen would be put to proving to somebody else's satisfaction that they were abiding by the code. The politicians would find it easier to manipulate that somebody - or those few bodies - that to manipulate a numerous and varied press. The only result, I feared, would be that the press would be put even more on the defensive.

But, alas, as the foregoing shows the politician is right, at least as far as journalists are concerned! There should be a code for pressmen to abide by or atleast one against which they can be measured. There are at least four reasons why this is so: first, there is much to improve in the press; second, the press must be improved; third, even through we have successively given up so many institutions, the press is one institution that can be improved and more swiftly than the others: fourth, a code can be one good device for commencing the improvement - it is possible, that is, to devise a code that if adhered to will liberate the press, not enrage it, a code that will have the virtue that any authority attacking a person adhering to the code will at once put itself in the wrong and at once vindicate the person.

The first reason is evident from the foregoing. The reader can garner example by the dozen every week from the newspapers.

There are positive reasons too for improving the standards. India needs a free press, in particular the poor of India need it. If public attention cannot be drawn to problems- such as the deep alienation of our people in the North-east or the plight of the tribals - the problems will not go away, in fact they will fester and eventually blow up, blowing much of the country with them. Pakistan, Iran and other countries provide examples.

The rich and middle class are well organised and well connected; they control and man the State; if the system is closed tomorrow it will be closed on their behalf and to their advantage. They do not therefore need a free press as much as the poor do who though so numerous, are unorganised, divided and so manipulable. The fact that it has been possible in the last 30 years to focus public attention on their condition has been one of the principal inducements for ameliorative policies. And today the country and the people need a free press even more than they did three decades ago as the other institutions that could ensure accountability - legislatures, the judiciary, and so on - have become progressively ineffective. But how can the press help in any of this if its standards remain that they are today?

So, there is much to improve and improve the press we must. The third reason for the code is that it is possible to improve the press. First, India is one of the few societies in which free expression and discussion have the opportunity to make a difference. There is scarcely a country outside North America and Western Europe that affords the pressman the freedom that we enjoy in India. We often make much noise about this restriction or that, about this "pressure" from the Government or that but it is only when we encounter evidence of, say, psychiatric hospitals in the Soviet Union or when we read Jacob Tiberman's account of the conditions that an honest pressman has to contend with in Argentina that we get a glimpse of what real restrictions and real pressure mean. In India by the contrast "restrictions" mean laws that are in fact helpfully worded, that are in any case not enforced; "pressure" means a telephone call from a more or less fraternal official.

Moreover, the record shows that there are many points of strength in the press on which one can build. Over the last few years on one issue after another the press has been associated with reform in our public life. If blindings are not state policy today, if the murder of citizens in "encounters" has fallen in Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, if a momentary victory has been won here and there against malfeasance, the press has had a hand in the outcome. It isn't just that there are these nodes of strength but that their being in the press is particularly helpful. The press is an infectious trade, it is more of a public profession than most, so that if a few journalists in one paper conduct themselves in an exemplary way others have to follow suit, in a little measure may be, but at least in that vital little measure. Hence the possibilities of improvement.

Finally, it isn't just that the press can be improved, a code of conduct can be one good device for improving it. Again, there are negative as well as positive reasons for this. Victims of the press are seldom in a position to fight back. As the relationship of a pressman to his victim is often of potential blackmail, as the latter is able to engineer to have the last word, as given their procedures it is so enormously difficult to bring them to book through courts there is much to be said for putting the relationship between the two a bit more at par.

Moreover, it is possible, as I noted, to devise a code that will be a shield for the pressman - that is, a code which shall not just be an ideal which when worked towards will have the virtue of drawing out the best in the journalist, but which will constitute a protection so that should the authorities attempt to put down a person adhering to the code they will at once put themselves in the wrong.

Hence a code. As in so many matters, there scarcely is a better guide for preparing such a code than Gandhiji. Reflecting on the counsel he explicitly set out for newspapers and pressmen from time to time, reflecting even more on what he himself did with the publications he supervised, I set out a code for pressmen which addresses itself to the lacunae listed above:

The Code

I affirm that an open society is imperative for India, not so much for the rich as for the poor and for all who work for transforming our society in the interest of the poor. I therefore subscribe to and I shall fight for the institutions of an open society.

I believe that a free press is an essential instrument for maintaining our society as an open one and also for reforming it, for to reform society we must first inform the people.

I affirm that I shall be a citizen first and last and not a mere professional; in particular I shall not claim for myself any more than I would urge for the ordinary citizen; but simultaneously being a citizen, I shall wholeheartedly and relentlessly devote myself to the public weal.

As in a society where the overwhelming millions are mute, the access to a forum that reaches large numbers is a privilege; as the use of the forum can have considerable consequence - both for good and ill - I shall view my work as a trust to be exercised on behalf of the people.

In particular: I shall not use my access to the forum for personal gain nor shall I let personal enmity distort what I write.

I shall use the forum for the good of the people at large and not to advance any sectional interests - including in the latter the interests of the press or any part thereof.

Adherence to Duty

I shall not write anything or desist from writing anything out of fear or out of an expectation of reward, whether from official or private sources.

Should any hindrance be put to keep me from thus serving the people in the form of "laws" or other obstacles, I will at once redouble my efforts to get the truth to the people.

I shall not censor the work of a colleague or a subordinate who is thus serving the people.

Nor shall I submit to censorship; if the publication I write for starts submitting to censorship or itself starts censoring, I will at once

Inform the largest number I can reach of the change,

Find other avenues of getting the truth to the people.

Facts

I shall scrupulously check the facts and I shall report them all irrespective of who or which point of view is helped or hurt by the truth.

I shall not purvey as fact what I cannot substantiate.

Unless the public interest unambiguously requires it, I shall not purvey an allegation merely because others are purveying it; on the contrary, I will expose every effort to "plant" news.

If I am proven wrong I shall at once and openly acknowledge the error and suffer such punishment as will convince the reader that sufficient amends have been made, in particular I shall not use the courts or the prevailing laws as a device for delaying justice to the person who might have suffered at my hands.

Language

In reporting the facts and in commenting on them I shall use the right word, neither sensationalising the effect by exaggeration nor diluting it by equivocation.

The Press

As my first charge I will do everything in my power to cleanse and strengthen the press, knowing well that its existing weaknesses render it easy prey and that unless it is honed into a strong instrument itself it cannot help improve our society.

Perspective

I recognize that the written word is only one instrument of change, that in a society such as ours it can have only a limited effect, I shall therefore not let the rationalisation that I must preserve my access to the forum as if that is lost I will no longer be able to serve the people, deter me from broadcasting the truth; I shall labour in the confidence that ultimately a writer can only serve as an announcement and that, if I have worked diligently and truthfully, no one can keep me from serving as such.

Adherence to the Code

I will subscribe to this Code only after prolonged and detailed deliberation, but once I subscribed to it I shall adhere to it in every particular and under all circumstances. In particular:

I shall openly acknowledge my lapses from the code and I shall inform my colleagues in the press of their lapses from it.

Mere Platitudes?

"But these are just platitudes. Who will enforce such a code? What penalties will follow if some journalist violates it?" First, the Code is not as innocent as it looks. One has to merely contrast what is today customary among journalists with what the innocent looking provisions of the Code entail, to see the reorientation it entails. "….I shall not claim for myself any more than I shall urge for the ordinary citizen": contrast the vigour with which a journalist insists that an official, a citizen substantiate his charge or claim and how he reacts when some one asks him to substantiate what he wrote about Kashmir. "…But simultaneously, being a citizen, I shall wholeheartedly and relentlessly devote myself to the public weal": contrast what devotion to duty the journalist demands of the official managing a public sector enterprise and his own cavalier attitude to his own duty, contrast how journalists demand of politicians that they should focus on issues, not personalities with how much time they spend purveying gossip about individuals.

"….I shall report them all (that is, all the facts that come my way and that I am able to verify) irrespective of who or which point of view is helped or hurt by the truth…": contrast this with the dominant view among committed journalists - mostly of the "left," I dare say - who regard it their duty to slant their copy to promote The Great Cause. "….I shall not purvey an allegation merely because others are purveying it": the favourite device today is to publish falsehood on the plea that 'X' or 'Y' - an "important leader", no doubt - has said so.

"If I am proven wrong I shall at once and openly acknowledge the error…": I can cite dozens of examples from my personal experience of the extreme reluctance of even the best papers and journalists to acknowledge a mistake when a candid acknowledgement was clearly owed to the reader, even when it could not but have enhanced the paper's credibility. Vanity and faith in the short memory of the reader won in almost every case. "…In particular, I shall not use the courts of the prevailing laws as a device for delaying justice…": anyone who has taken a paper to court knows how, its thundering editorials on "justice delayed is justice denied" notwithstanding, the paper adopts tactics which would do an Antulay credit. "As my first charge I will do everything in my power to cleanse and strengthen the press": a little investigative reporting of false circulation figures on the basis of which papers - big, medium and small - obtain newsprint which they then hawk on the black market…

So, the Code is not just platitudes. Nor does a principle become useless merely because it is obvious, merely because it is familiar. "But who is to enforce the Code? And how?" The Code must be enforced by the readers and by the journalists themselves. And this can be done in several ways. Vigilant readers can do a good bit to bring the press to heel. To begin with they can;

Demand that their paper comes clean about a mistake;

Watch out for "news" that is obviously a plant - and most often the whole thing is so crudely done that the alert reader should have little difficulty in spotting it - and when they locate such items, inundate the editors with letters demanding the base of the item;

demand that each time the paper or any journalist working on it receives a favour from a government - Centre or state, Indian or foreign - it must publish the information in the paper; launch a campaign for the reformation of court procedures so that papers cannot misuse the courts to delay the proceedings;

choose papers intelligently rather than continuing to buy a paper just because their grandfather bought it.

The papers naturally can do much more. To begin with a paper can:

take its readers into confidence when it makes a mistake, preferably giving the correspondent concerned an opportunity to himself explain how the mistake occurred;

have an ombudsman, a sagacious person to whom readers can refer their assessment of the paper's coverage of an event, who can judge the evidence and publish his findings in the paper itself;

publish each time the paper or a member of its staff obtains a favour, specially from a government;

announce that it will not drag out defamation proceedings should it ever be taken to court.

Nor is there any mystery about the occasion or issue on which to begin: tomorrow is as good an occasion as any, the issue dominating the papers this week is as good an issue as any other.

The basis in Gandhi

The code sketched above is Gandhian in several senses. First it aims at two eminently Gandhian objectives. The first objective is that of subserving mere professionalism to a larger purpose - recall Gandhiji's severe strictures against lawyers in the Hind Swaraj - of urging a sense of responsibility as citizens. Next, given the good fortune that one has in having access to platforms which have such a wide reach in a country where millions cannot read and write, where millions are mute, given the fact that the relationship of a pressman to his subject can always be of potential blackmail, the second objective is to put pressmen and their victims a bit more at par than they are at the present moment.

Moreover, the Code rests on four premises which, too, are Gandhian. First, it was Gandhiji's view that, apart from the fact that it is everyone's duty to work for the general good of the community, even from the parochial point of view of a specific institution, say the press, service to the community is the best way for the institution to safeguard itself against assault: the best way for the press to safeguard its freedom is to take up issues which are of concern to the people so that when it is attacked the people feel that an instrument vital to their wellbeing is being undermined.

Constraints Within: Next, he taught that an institution, a movement grows not by the demands it makes on others but by the demands it makes no itself, on its members. This is specially true in the case of the press in India today because the operative constraints on it arise not from external sources but from within. Three small examples will suffice:

Newsmen often tout as their alibi for not doing more laws such as the Official Secrets Act. But these laws are worded in ways that are in fact of help to the press. Thus, for instance, the Official Secrets Act, 1923, is aimed against a person passing official secrets surreptitiously to enemies of the State. Barring some hyper-patriotic umpiring by the judges it would be well nigh impossible for a government to use the Act to prosecute a pressman for disclosing "secrets" openly to the people, secrets which it is manifestly in their interests to know. And no government has succeeded in having even one pressman convicted under the Act.

And then there is the absence of effective, legitimate governments. There just is not a government in India today - whether at the Centre or in the states - which can use one of these laws to prosecute a paper and carry conviction with the people that it is not doing so for collateral purposes. Thus, whenever during the last few years the press in the public interest boldly published material that on the interpretations that were in vogue was supposed to lay it open for attack under this Act or that, the attacks when mounted swiftly backfired on the authorities, and had to be abandoned.

The few occasions when the governments' posturings have been effective, factors internal to the press are the ones which have given a handle to the governments: the chaotic state of the managements of most of the principal papers, their extreme dependence on governments for advertisements - a dependence that results not from any diabolic machinations of the governments but from the inefficiencies of the managerial departments of the papers - these factors and not any shrewdness or determination of the governments account for the latter's successes.

For this reason the standard remedies that are so often proposed - that this law or that should be liberalised, that guarantees ensuring press freedom should be specifically spelled out in the Constitution - remedies that make demands on others, will not go far. It is useful, of course, to use every new effort of the authorities, specially because the ensuing debate focusses attention on the working of the press also. But it would be an error to expect the withdrawal of that restriction or the liberalisation of some law, it would be an error, that is, to expect a remedy external to the press to make much of a difference. The operative constraints are internal. And so the remedy consists not in making demands on others but on ourselves, not in demanding that others change their conduct, but in improving our own. This is the second and truly Gandhian premise that underlies the Code.

The third Gandhian premise on which the Code rests is that the formulation of rules of conduct, of norms should not be diluted because of some supposed notions of what is practical and what is not. If norms are thus diluted the battle will be lost even before it is begun. Euclid's point without breadth or length, Gandhiji used to recall, is not realisable in practice and yet, he would say again and again, an entire geometry had been founded with it as a postulate; and what seems utopian today, he would say, comes to pass tomorrow.

Fourth, Gandhiji's operational premise as well as his experience was that if a few abide by the ideal others are likely to follow suit. This is more likely to the case in a trade which is as much a public affair as the press. But while this was Gandhiji's operational premise as well as his experience he would caution that one's adherence to an ideal should not be governed by this possibility, by this prospect of results. Ideals are worth pursuing in themselves for their pursuit alone endows our work with meaning.

Confronted with premises of this kind many used to dismiss - and even more will today dismiss - Gandhiji's prescriptions as those of an impractical man, of a mere idealist. Gandhiji used to maintain on the contrary that they were born of his practical experience and he would chide his interlocutor, "I have had some small success in practical affairs!"

Finally, the Code is Gandhian in that almost each specific element of the Code is derived not just from reflecting upon the current state of the press but directly from Gandhiji's writings on the press and related matters - in particular, from his writings during the Rowlatt agitation. The reader will perhaps have his favourite incident or passage from Gandhiji's life and writings to which the elements can be directly traced.

As illustrations, let me offer just two passages. The first deals with the language that one should use, as much as the issues one should pursue when the authorities are rattling the laws. It was written in mid-November 1917. How fresh its words sound 65 years later:

"What is the duty of newspapers when laws, like Seditious Writings Act & the Defence of India Act, are in force? We often find our newspapers guilty of equivocation. Some have perfected this method a science. But, in my opinion, this harms the country. People become weak and equivocation becomes a habit with them. This changes the form of language, instead of being a medium for the expression of one's thoughts, it becomes a mask for concealing them. I am convinced that this is not the way to develop strength in the people. The people, both collectively and individually, must cultivate the habit of speaking only what is in their minds. Newspapers are a good means of such education. For those who would evade these laws had better not bring out a paper at all. The other course is to ignore the law in question and state one's real views fearlessly but respectfully and bear the consequences. Mr. Justice Stephen has said somewhere that a man who has no treason in his heart can speak no treason. If it is there in the heart one should speak it out".

Rationalisation: The second passage (from Young India of January 12, 1922) is about the perspective that should inform our work. It is typical of Gandhiji's writings in that it evokes in us several reactions simultaneously. It confronts one with the sort of rationalization that pressmen fall back on for playing safe - the rationalisation that I must not jeopardise my access to the forum as once I lose that I'll have no way of getting the facts to the people - and shows it to be the evasive rationalisation that it is. It instills self-confidence in one, and simultaneously it elicits humility - for the assurance in the passage to come true one must conduct oneself like the Lokmanya!

"I believe that an editor who has anything worth saying and who commands a clientele cannot be easily hushed so long as his body is left free. He has delivered his finished message as soon as he is put under duress. The Lokmanya spoke more eloquently from the Mandalay Fortress than from the columns of the printed Kesari. His influence was multiplied a thousand fold by his incarceration and his speech and his pen had acquired much greater power after he was discharged than before his imprisonment. By his death he is editing his paper without pen and speech through the sacred resolution of the people to realise his life's dream. He could not possibly have done more if he was today in the flesh preaching his mantra. Critics like me would perhaps be still finding fault with this formulation of his, or that. Today, all criticism is hushed and his mantra alone rules millions of hearts which are determined to raise a permanent living memorial by the fulfillment of his mantra in their lives…."

"But who will be like the Lokmanya? This is sheer idealism. No one will adhere to the Code." To the extent that is the reaction of pressmen they should know that to that precise extent they are vulnerable. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the Code but in ourselves that we are underlings! The distance between the Code and our conduct, the distance that triggers us to dismiss the Code as utopian should instead of constituting a case against the Code induce introspection among pressmen. If anyone knows the weaknesses - those false circulation figures, those confessional favours, those houses taken from government for which rents have not been paid - that keep pressmen from adopting such a Code, the rulers do, and that precisely is the handle they have over the press.

Further tasks

Thus, a code enforced by the journalists - by examining their own conduct, by examining conduct of their colleagues and by publishing the results. A code enforced through the vigilance of the readers who measure the journalists and their work against such a yardstick.

The latter can scarcely be over-emphasised. As I mentioned, our popes and sub-popes coast on the short memory of readers. If the reader do no more than keep cuttings of what the principal newspapers and the popes and sub-popes who hold forth in them say on major issues, and if they watch the paper's twists and turns as the political wind twists and turns, and share these results with other readers, that itself would constitute an effective ankush. Indeed, such anthologies should be compiled periodically by conscientious pressmen themselves. They should be printed in the papers to alert the readers. They should be used in our schools of journalism to inoculate our future journalists.

So much for us in the press. But in addition a word of caution is in order for the dedicated souls who are working to transform our society. I fear that they have come to rely too much on the press for communicating with each other. In this they are seriously misled by the vociferous posturings and the self-congratulatory tone of the press since the Emergency. They act as if they forget that the press owes its recent reputation of independence primarily to the fact noted above that for the last few years we have not really had governments at all. Such governments as we have had have been so illegitimate that each time they have tried to assume powers to bring the press to heal they have had to retreat.

But this absence of effective and legitimate governments should not lead us to believe that the press is strong and legitimate. In fact, its internal state today is in many ways as weal it was on the eve of the Emergency. The only saving grace at the moment is that the governments are much weaker and much less legitimate than they were then. One cannot count on a factor such as this for long. Circumstances can swiftly arise or by swiftly created by the rulers to legitimise an assault on free expression.

It is important therefore that even as we urge improvement in the press and formulate codes for pressmen to live by, to be measured against, all whoa re working for the betterment of our people and who want democratic values to survive, develop modes of communication - for communicating with the people and for communicating among themselves - which are independent of the press. How apt is the counsel Gandhiji gave in December, 1920, during the non-cooperation movement, how apt it is for every movement working for fundamental change as well as for every editor dedicated to the cause of the people:

"I would far rather see a complete stoppage of a newspaper if the editor cannot without fear of the consequences freely express his sentiments or publish those which he approves. Non-cooperation while it gladly avails itself of the assistance that may be rendered by the press. It is - it has to be - by its very nature independent of the press. There can be no doubt that every thought we print is being printed on surface. A soon as its circulation takes effect, the Government, for the sake of its existence, will try to prohibit it. We may not expect this or any government to commit suicide. It must either reform or repress.

"In the ordinary course repression must precede reform under a despotic government such as ours. The stoppage of potent ideas that may destroy the Government or compel repentance will be the most among the weapons in its repressive armour. We must therefore devise methods independent of the press) of circulating our ideas unless and until the whole press becomes fearless, defies the consequences and published ideas, even when it is in disagreement with them, for the purpose of securing its freedom. An editor with original ideas or an effective prescription for India's ills can easily write them out, a hundred hands copy them, many more can read them out to thousands of listeners. I do hope therefore that non-cooperation editors, at any rate, will not refrain from expressing their thoughts for fear of the Press Act. They should regard it as sinful to keep their thoughts secret - a waste of energy to conduct a newspaper that cramps their thoughts. It is a negation of one's calling for an editor to have to suppress his best thoughts…"

Thus, the watchword for pressmen must be introspection. The watchwords for readers must be skepticism. And for those who are working to transform our society the watchword must be the counsel that Gandhiji gave in his article about the Lokmanya ruling our hearts without pen and speech:

"Therefore let us first break the idol of machinery and leaden type. The pen is our foundry and the hands of willing copyists our printing machinery….Let us continue to use the machine and the type whilst we can to give unfettered expression to our thought. But let us not feel helpless when they are taken away from us by a 'paternal' government watching and controlling every combination of types and every movement of the printing machine….By being indifferent to the aid of the printing room and the compositor's stick we ensure their free retention or restoration for all time…."

Home | Index