‘It must be fun to be a journalist,’ someone said to me the other day and I have to admit it often is. When a story you’re covering is on top of the news it can be thrilling to be at the cutting edge. But there are times when, for the same reason, journalism can be troubling. Or, to put it more accurately, it can raise issues you may not be able to easily handle.
That happened last week on two consecutive occasions. First was an interview with Swami Agnivesh on the Bhushans. My original intention was to interview Prashant Bhushan. But after accepting he backed out. He felt he did not want to prolong or attract fresh discussion around the controversies surrounding his family. Though disappointed, I understood. So I turned to Swami Agnivesh, a close supporter of Anna Hazare’s movement, to answer questions on the Bhushan controversy.
This is when the problem hit me. My job as a ‘devil’s advocate’ is to raise and, even, persist with difficult and awkward questions. Their content and, at times, their tone could suggest the Bhushans are ‘guilty’ and have a case to answer. My pursuit of the argument, beyond Swamiji’s initial answers, might convey that his responses were inadequate and the issues I raised unresolved. The outcome could create an image of the Bhushans in trouble.
Yet the truth is I don’t believe the Bhushans are guilty of anything. Perhaps a little hypocrisy, possibly a few double standards — and that’s only human — but no illegality; definitely no crime. The questions I asked did not reflect my full opinion. They certainly did not convey my actual position.
So why did I ask them? Because that’s my job. If I only ask questions about issues I have a personal and firm opinion of then the subjects I can raise will drastically shrink. More importantly, by definition, a devil’s advocate is meant to ask troublesome and tricky questions.
But will the Bhushans understand? Or will they be offended? If our roles were reversed it’s quite possible I would be upset. After all, it’s not easy to hear someone question your conduct or motives and say he’s only doing his job. Even if they’re not actually incriminating, the questions can still hurt.
The second issue was less personal but no less difficult. After Sai Baba’s death, don’t we need to assess his life and achievements, not just in terms of his miracles and spirituality, but also in the light of the allegations he faced of paedophilia and fraud? It wasn’t just the western press that raised these issues. Years ago so too did India Today, The Pioneer and PC Sorcar.
Yet the discussion on television and the screeds written about him in the papers predominantly ignored all of this. We had women in pearls claiming he was only hovering in space and would return to his body and resume his life very shortly but no one spoke of these charges that have never been satisfactorily resolved.
No doubt, it would have stuck in the throat to raise them hours or days after Sai Baba’s death, just as it feels uncomfortable to raise questions about friends when you know the controversy is very possibly unfair or unjustified. But that’s a journalist’s job. Once an issue is in the news — and assuming you haven’t put it there — you can’t duck it. That isn’t easy, I admit, but do you have a credible alternative? I think not.
The views expressed by the author are personal