A truth journalists don’t like to admit
Scepticism and cynicism towards media is by no means unique. Infact, many think of journalism and journalists poorly. Karan Thapar writes.columns Updated: Dec 29, 2013 00:15 IST
I will never forget the words with which Charlie Douglas-Home, then deputy editor of The Times, welcomed me into the journalist profession: "You seem to have a way with words even when you don’t know what you’re talking about. I guess that means you could be a journalist!"
At the time I was a greenhorn, brimming with idealism and convinced I had chosen a noble profession. It was only subsequently that I discovered that Charlie’s scepticism was by no means unique. Indeed, it reflects the attitude of many others.
A recent speech by the British High Commissioner at his Christmas lunch for journalists has made me aware of how deep this cynicism runs. Although Sir James was joking his humour hinted at a deeper truth.
So, as we transit from 2013 into the New Year, let me make you aware of how poorly journalism and journalists are considered by those who occasionally think about them. Most of you, I bet, share that viewpoint.
Of the profession itself, Oscar Wilde said: "By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community." GK Chesterton, another British writer, was equally pithy and cruel: "Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive."
Many in India, I suspect, would particularly agree with Alexander Cockburn, the American journalist, who said of the profession: "The first law of journalism — to confirm existing prejudices rather than contradict it." I know many of my family and friends are convinced this is true of the Indian media.
Now, if this is what people think of the profession, it won’t be surprising that no one has a high regard for the type of person who becomes a journalist. We, in the trade, call ourselves hacks. Knaves, it seems, or even ignoramuses, is how the world sees us.
Karl Kraus, the Austrian writer, defined a journalist as "a person without any ideas but with a great ability to express them." His second definition was yet more searing: "A writer whose skill is improved by a deadline: the more time he has, the worse he writes."
The American author Norman Mailer was even more hurtful: "If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist." Ouch!
However, if I’m totally honest there are times when even I wonder how many people would agree with Humbert Wolfe, the early 20th century British writer, who produced the following little ditty about British journalists, which, of course, applies as much to journalists in India as it does to those anywhere else in the world: "You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God!/ the British journalist./ But, seeing what the man will do unbribed,/ there’s no occasion to."
What particularly shook me was the discovery that my mother, who is nearly 97 and often forgetful, shares this scepticism of my profession, I had gone to see her one recent afternoon and when I got up to leave my excuse was I had to get back to work.
"What work do you do darling?", Mummy innocently asked. Stunned that she couldn’t remember I said I make television programmes.
"Ah" she replied. "Does anyone watch them?"
Sadly, no where near the number I boast of, leave aside what I’ll admit to! But will that change in 2014?