Why must we celebrate journalism? I use the verb ‘celebrate’ in its original meaning, of recognising and honouring something that has enduring relevance and value, either to a group or community of people or, more ambitiously,to society at large.
In my understanding, there are three essential reasons why we need to recognise, safeguard, and celebrate journalism.
The first is the intrinsic relevance and value of journalism as a democratic craft. Journalism, as it has evolved in modern times, is best understood as “a form of expression or brainwork that includes making news judgments, gathering evidence, constructing narratives and making sense of things” and as “a method of capturing and representing the world of events and ideas as they occur” (Adam, G. Stuart, a Professor of Journalism, “Thinking Ahead: The Difference between Journalism and Media”, Poynter Institute: https://www.poynter.org/archive/2008/thinking-ahead-the-difference-between-journalism-and-media/).
But journalism as a profession is not value-neutral. As a sort of trade-off for the robust and far-going freedom – including freedom from all forms of prior restraint – it lays claim to, it accepts the obligation of exercising social responsibility, which in the best media organisations and among the best practitioners of the democratic craft brings in well defined, teachable, and transparent ‘standards of performance’. Over the decades, a substantial literature has appeared on templates for socially and ethically accountable journalism and also on the constitutive elements of journalism. This has yielded codes of practice or professional ethics that privilege such principles as truth-telling,freedom and independence, fairness and justice, humaneness, and working in the public interest, for the social good. At a practical level, the journalistic method of “capturing and representing the world of events and ideas as they occur” emphasises such disciplines as fact-checking, verification, investigation, rigorous data sourcing and analysis, providing context and meaning, and maintaining proportionality and perspective.
It is not for nothing that Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the great writer, weighed in on the virtues of journalism as a democratic craft and on the need for journalism schools to “return to basic training on the job and to restore journalism to its original public service function”. In a wonderful little meditation titled “Journalism: The Best Job in the World”, which was published in 1997, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who had started out as a journalist and remained engaged with journalism and journalism education all his life,laid down “three fundamental principles” for journalism training and education: “first and foremost, there must be aptitude and talent; then the knowledge that ‘investigative’ journalism is not something special, but that all journalism must, by definition, be investigative; and, third, the awareness that ethics are not merely an occasional condition of the trade, but an integral part, as essentially a part of each other as the buzz and the horsefly”. https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2017/03/journalism-best-job-in-the-world-gabriel-garcia-marquez-on-journalism/
Freedom of the press
It is self-evident that journalism as a democratic craft needs the widest freedom and space to flourish. I assume that no one in this audience has any problem with the proposition that a democratic Constitution and the rule of law must give high priority to freedom of speech and expression as a basic right available to all citizens. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, which was adopted in 1950, guarantees “freedom of speech and expression” as a fundamental right. This right, hard won in the freedom struggle against a highly repressive and censorious British Raj, is deemed to be unamendable thanks to the ‘basic structure’ doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court of India.
Freedom of the press is not explicitly mentioned by our Constitution but the Supreme Court has, through judicial interpretation, read it into Article 19. It has held that freedom of the press is a combination of two freedoms – Article 19(1)(a), ‘the freedom of speech and expression’, and Article 19(1)(g), ‘the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business’. The first is clearly the principal component. In a recent order on a matter relating to the admissibility as evidence, in a review petition, of classified or secret documents on the Rafale deal published by The Hindu, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld freedom of the press, rejecting the government’s contention that the documents must not be looked into since they had been unauthorisedly obtained.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s judicial interpretations, freedom of speech and expression comes up against an expansive Article 19(2). This provides for restrictions on the fundamental right prescribed by law – some reasonable, others not. Notable among the unreasonable restrictions that remain on the statute book or in practice are the law of criminal defamation, the undefined power of contempt of court, uncodified legislative privilege, the law of sedition (124A of the Indian Penal Code), other illiberal provisions of the IPC (especially 153A), the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Official Secrets Act, and other draconian laws enacted in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism.
Further, media freedom in India is considered ‘incomplete’ because the print media and the broadcast media have not been placed on an equal constitutional and legal footing. The higher courts have not judged it necessary to confer effective Article 19(1)(a) protection on radio and television.
There is a strong case for re-visiting our laws relating to the press and the news media, repealing or amending the outdated and illiberal provisions, and strengthening media freedom through legal reform and constitutional amendment, as needed. Ideally, the Indian media need constitutional protection along the lines of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – any law abridging freedom of speech and expression, and media freedom, must ipso facto be unconstitutional.
The second reason for staging this event is to offer a reality check, so that young people who are drawn to journalism as a democratic craft that is premised on truth-telling and serving the public interest come into the field with their eyes open. It is precisely because journalism, at least to a significant degree, is performing its independent investigative and public service function effectively that journalists have come under increasing pressure, risk, and attacks in various parts of the world, including the United States and India. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) speaks to this reality. It shows “how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear” and “the number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline”. The 2019 Index gives a ‘good’ or ‘fairly good’ press freedom rating to only 43, that is, 24%, of the 180 countries and territories surveyed. The 2019 Index classifies press freedom in India as being in a “difficult situation” and the country ranks 140th from the bottom among the 180 (slipping from 136th in 2017), which means that 75% of the world’s countries and territories rank above India.
But this is not all. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has, after careful enquiry and strict verification, documented the work-related killing of 1332 journalists worldwide, including 50 in India, since 1992. Of the 50 journalists killed in India between 1992 and 2019, 35 were murdered ‘in retribution for, or to prevent, news coverage or commentary’, and the remaining 15 lost their lives while on ‘dangerous assignments’ or caught in crossfire. Since 2008, CPJ has been publishing an annual Global Impunity Index, a quantified ranking of countries where journalists are murdered, the cases remain unsolved, and the killers go free. In other words, the Global Impunity Index is a graded indictment of countries where the rule of law does not seem to apply when journalists are murdered in the course of their work. India, along with six other countries, has figured in the Global Impunity Index every year over the decade. This a shocking state of affairs for a country that calls itself the world’s largest democracy.
Why has this happened? The main answer is provided by the intensely divisive and polarising political and social tendencies,and the hate campaigns and crimes,that India has witnessed and experienced from the 1990s. The situation turned qualitatively worse in 2014, when there was a regime change that proved to be much more than a change of government. Communalism as a political mobilisation strategy, the re-jigging and manipulation of state institutions, and the weaponisation of hate speech, fake news, false news, and toxic propaganda have combined to cast a shadow over Indian democracy and the Indian media landscape. I don’t need to elaborate on this in my opening remarks, but we can discuss it in the course of this evening if there is interest.
The third reason why we need to recognise, protect, and celebrate journalism has to do with the economics of contemporary journalism. I refer here to the digital disruption that was first experienced by the ‘mature media markets’ of developed countries and has spread, at varying speeds, to other parts of the world. This unprecedented disruption in the media ecosystem was brought on by transformative digital technologies and by digital hegemons, the so-called GAFAT companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter.
One aspect of the media crisis in western countries has been the decline and fall of the well-established 20th century business model. In this model, buoyant advertising revenues paid for expansive journalism in print, radio, and television and brought handsome profits, and in some cases super-profits, to the media owners. The other aspect of the crisis has been the complex set of changes in audience behaviour and news consumption accompanying the mass migration from print and other analogue platforms operated by the traditional news media to digital platforms with their constantly transforming tools and techniques. We can understand this as the challenge of engagement of the audience that has been getting away, and this trend has been particularly evident among young people, those between the ages of 12 and 30.
All this has caused deep anxiety about the future of journalism. Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian, conveys this sense of anxiety vividlyin his book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now:
By early 2017 the world had woken up to a problem that, with a mixture of impotence, incomprehension and dread, journalists had seen coming for some time. News – the thing that helped people understand their world, that oiled the wheels of society, that pollinated communities, that kept the powerful honest – news was broken.
More recently, some major news organisations like The New York Times,The Washington Post,and The Financial Times and their counterparts in non-English languages have reshaped and, in a sense, re-invented themselves as effective digital age players. The subscription model, fine-tuned to attract and retain a mix of loyal and fence-sitting readers, seems to be working for them. There are also a number of pure-play digital news ventures which are making a go of it in the media marketplace. But the sense that the news media are not in control of their future persists in many parts of the world.
India, fortunately, has been in a better place, with growth continuing in print, television, and of course on digital news platforms. The latest Indian Readership Survey, IRS Q1 2019, released a couple of days ago, brings some positive news: print readership, which is estimated at 425 million for all languages, is growing, along with online news readership and television viewership; and, although overall growth for print has weakened, daily newspapers have managed to add 18 million readers and magazines 9 million readers since IRS 2017.There are several reasons for this growth,and it seems that the key factors identified by the political scientist Robin Jeffrey as the drivers of India’s Newspaper Revolution continue to operate in some measure. These factors are improved technology, steadily expanding literacy, better purchasing power, aggressive publishing, and last but not least, political excitement.
The digital age took its time to arrive in our country. For well over a decade, India lagged behind several developing countries, notably China, in internet use and broadband development. This led to a general attitude of complacency and denial in mainstream media organisations towards what was coming. But that situation has changed.The number of internet users in India is reported to be around 500 million, with the number of active internet users estimated by the latest IRS survey to be close to 385 million. Broadband has arrived at last, in some form. There has been a rapid rise in the number of users of social media, search engines, and messaging apps, with India now leading the world in the number of Facebook (260 million+) and WhatsApp (200 million+) users.Most tellingly, urban as well as semi-urban and rural India has seen an exponential growth in the use of smart phones.
Let there been no doubt about this: the digital age is truly upon us; the Indian media landscape is being transformed by the same forces and trends that operate elsewhere; and the same kind of vital challenges must be faced, although the time scale and effects might be somewhat different.
Not surprisingly, the established media, newspapers, television, and radio across India, are currently engaged in a process of scaling up, diversifying, and enhancing their digital operations. However, no general interest newspaper has so far ventured to place its editorial content behind a serious paywall.
Then there are the digitally native,young journalistic ventures which are doing interesting things, as of now mostly on a modest scale. Let me cite a few examples from Tamil Nadu.
Ippodhu (http://ippodhu.com/) is an independent, smartphone-friendly digital media outlet launched in August 2015. It was promoted with the idea of creating newer spaces for conversations on empowering women, sexual minorities, and other oppressed sections of society who do not find their voices in the mainstream media. Ippodhu has the stated objective of immersing itself in Tamil society and culture and offering to the public humanised journalism. The venture takes investigation and its public service role seriously and has begun to make a social impact. Sustained initially by the personal savings of the founder, Peer Mohamed Azees, and his friends, Ippodhuhas received a grant from the Independent and PublicSpirited Media Foundation (IPSMF) during its second year. The promoters, who see news as a common good,believe that Ippodhu needs to be nurtured for two more years before it can generate sizable revenues to sustain itself.
JustOut News is a mobile news app launched in August 2017; it is promoted by brothers Sathak and Aslam of the Mohamed Sathak Group. This bilingual news app in English and Tamil has more than 120,000 users and a monthly average impression of 1.1 million. From the start,the founders were intent on building a credible news ecosystem. This company employs ten journalists, two business leaders, and a team of five tech developers.
Then you have Minnambalam. Founded and run by the former Nakkheeranjournalist Kamaraj, this digitally native,three-year-old journalistic venture has elements in common with serious literary magazines.Sustenance is the primary challenge for the digital journalismstartups andit may take years for them to gain acceptance and be seen as serious news providers. They need all the outside support they can get, whether from investors or philanthropic foundations.
Behindwoods (www.behindwoods.com), founded in October 2003,has proved a real success, primarily in the entertainment segment.Itsstated mission is to ‘inform, entertain, and inspire’ and its commitment is to “generate error-free, fast, creative and exclusively original content round the clock”. It has connected deeply with consumers of entertainment news and has ambitious plans to spread its wings.
It is in this challenging context that free, independent, and brave journalism as a democratic craft needs to re-establish its credentials and play the kind of role that history has prepared it for.
Our press is more than two centuries old. Its strengths have largely been shaped by its historical experience and, in particular, by its association with the freedom struggle as well as with movements for social emancipation, reform, and amelioration. The long struggle for independence; the sharp ideological and political divides; controversies and battles over social reform; radical and revolutionary aspirations and movements; compromising as well as fighting tendencies; and the competition between self- serving and public service visions of journalism – these have all found reflection in the character and performance of the Indian press over the truly long term.
There is still considerable diversity in the Indian newsroom, whether we are speaking about newspapers, television, radio, or the new media. Pluralism in the Indian media can be said to reflect the vast regional, linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural heterogeneity of the subcontinent. A positive factor for our news media is that over the past quarter-century, their social representativeness has broadened. For one thing, there has been a rapid feminization of the newsroom. Alongside this, the composition of the journalistic workforce has become more inclusive in socio-economic and regional terms. However, the number of Dalit journalists in the mainstream news media continues to be insignificant.
A conceptual framework for journalism
The long-term Indian press experience, set in a broader framework, suggests two extremely valuable central functions that the country’s best newspapers have performed in modern and contemporary times. These functions may be termed (a) the credible-informational and (b) the critical-analytical-investigative. An accompanying condition – which evolves overtime, typically as an outcome of a democratic or working people’s struggle – is that the political system, for whatever reason, gives newspapers free or relatively free rein, and a public culture of valuing these functions develops. Performed over time, the two central functions working together build trust in the press, or more accurately, in individual newspapers.
There are also valuable derivatives of the two central, twinned functions. The first derivative is the agency of the press in public education. A second is serving as a critical forum for analysis, disputation, and comment, in which different opinions and ideas are freely discussed, debated, and have it out. A third derivative is agenda building. Socially conscious media can trigger agenda-building processes to help produce democratic and progressive outcomes; and this they can do best when an authentic public opinion and a congenial context of attitude, feeling, and critical democratic values and practice exist.
A third function of the news media is the pastime or entertainment function. At its worst, it seeks to purvey escapist entertainment, celebrity worship, vapid talk shows, scandal, and even voyeurism at the expense of everything else. But it can be something quite different: engaging, entertaining, delving into life’s small pleasures, covering hobbies and recreation, mixing in humour and satire, lightening solemn, heavy, ponderous journalism, and in general serving the ‘pleasure principle’ as the French use that term.
Four core tasks for 21st century journalism
In his book on newspapers, journalism, and the business of news in the digital age, George Brock, an experienced British journalist and journalism educator, identifies four core tasks as “the irreducible core…the foundation on which journalism in the 21st century is going to be rebuilt”. These tasks are verification, bearing witness, sense making, and investigation. (Brock, George (2013), Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age, London: Kogan Page.)
Over the decades, journalism in India has performed these tasks with competence, skill, impact, and at times with distinction.Its contribution to empowering the public with relevant and timely information and knowledge has been many-sided. The democratic and progressive role of the Indian press in blowing the whistle on hunger as crisis, as during famines or severe droughts, has been recognised and praised by no less than Amartya Sen. Some of the finest work done by Indian journalism, historically and in contemporary times, is its investigation and exposé of political corruption, ministerial misconduct, and government misdeeds.
The present is a period in which independent and fearless journalism is at a premium in India, or so it seems. Several Indian television news channels and mainstream newspapers, daily and periodical, are clearly and conspicuously engaged in propagandising and manufacturing consent for the ideology, policies, and actions of the ruling party and the dominant saffron political formation. However, there is evidence that independent, investigative journalism is alive, active, and productive.
Let me cite The Hindu’s Rafale investigation as an example; we did the main investigation of various aspects of the deal but the investigative or contextual articles published by The Caravan,The Wire, and Business Standard helped provide a more rounded picture of what happened. Let me cite another recent example: Somesh Jha’scomprehensive investigation of unemployment trends and the official cover-up of the unprecedented crisis, published in a series of eye-opening articles in Business Standard. NDTV’s analysis of hate speech during the current protracted election campaign is another example of independent public service journalism.
A few words on investigation as perhaps the most important of the four core tasks. When Márquez and a number of old-world journalists insist that there is nothing special that needs to be called investigative journalism, what they mean is this. All journalism worth the name must aspire, and be held up, to the higher standards demanded by the profession, not necessarily as it is practised in many places, but at its best. This means that truth-seeking, verification, digging deep, placing facts and events in context and in historical perspective, exercising the journalistic and, where possible, the literary imagination, analysing and commenting independently and freely, acting justly, humanely, and ethically should become an integral part of journalism.
When you take the broad view of journalism that sees investigation as one of its integral tasks, rather than as a super-specialty or a sequestered discipline, a vast and wonderful vista opens up of work that is truth-seeking, richly themed, exploratory, imaginative, creative, literary, and, above all, passionate about freedom, humanity, and justice.
While investigating, exploring, and experimenting, journalists of the first rank are not satisfied with bringing to light a mass of material facts that they manage to unearth through diligent work, or that falls into their lap by a stroke of luck. Their real pursuit is to invest these hitherto concealed or inaccessible facts with social, moral and, often, historical meaning and weave them into a coherent and compelling story, so that the journalism contributes significantly to raising social awareness of the issues involved and also stands the test of time.
(This is the keynote speech delivered by the author at the event “Celebrating Journalism with N.Ram” held in Chennai on April 28, 2019 ahead of the World Press Freedom Day which falls on May 3, 2019)