When nurses at the hospital, where I seem to have put down roots, first found out that I was a journalist, they subjected me to a lot of innocent questioning. "What is paid news? Are all journalists paid? Do all television channels lie? Are newspapers more believable?''
Frankly, I was startled at how certain journalists have brought journalism into disrepute. I found the second question the easiest to answer. "Of course, all journalists are paid - a salary, much as you and everybody else who works for a living."
The concept of paid news was more difficult to explain. It is to do with the moral fibre of the people involved much as in every other profession. There will be those who will always do an honest job and others who will never do their job except for a consideration. Don't always believe everything you see on television or read in the newspapers, I told the nurses. There will always be truths, half-lies and exaggerations. Use your own good sense to separate the wheat from the chaff. Draw your own conclusions for the media always do not present the gospel truth. Sometimes we make genuine mistakes, at other times these might be deliberate.
But their questioning got me thinking. Some years ago, I was part of a government committee that had initiated a process for legal protection to journalists under attack from victims of their reports. There has not been much progress on that front despite three governments and four chief ministers making conciliatory noises about the same. Through my conversations with some bureaucrats, as I am greeted on yet another Patrakar Divas being celebrated on Tuesday, I am getting convinced there never will be. For what sets apart journalists from the rest of the citizens of this country? That we are proximitous to the powers that be and that gives us some special rights and privileges, one bureaucrat questioned me.
Then what happens to doctors who also get beaten up often by irate relatives of patients upset at the end result of their honest efforts to save lives or lawyers who get roughed up for losing hopeless cases in courts? But there are others who live more dangerously than journalists in the field - NGO workers and Right to Information activists, more of whom have been killed in recent years than journalists outside of war zones. And what about journalists who get beaten up by film stars for undue intrusion into their private lives or for passing off gossip as fact? What about the paparazzi? If they are all not equally provided legal protection it could be a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution, leading to charges of discrimination and creation of a special class of citizens. These arguments are difficult to refute.
But more than issues of paid news or protection to honest journalists, what is worrisome is that we are willing to compromise ourselves without even being under threat or pressure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not one of my favourite persons in this world and I have never made any bones about that. I have seen the pressures he subjected the media to in Gujarat while he was chief minister. Since he began to head the country, barring a few, there have been mostly syrupy sweet references to him in the public domain. Which is why I was highly taken aback when at the platinum jubilee celebrations of Pudhari, a leading Marathi newspaper in Kolhapur, last week, Modi called for valid criticism in the media rather than just the publication or airing of allegations? Without quite saying it he seemed to be saying both that we are not doing our jobs correctly or that we are doing it for a consideration. Well, if Modi wants criticism, he should get it and, yes, it should be more than just mere unsubstantiated allegations. Or otherwise even innocent nurses in hospitals will continue to believe everything in the media is paid for and that nothing we say is credible.
At the risk of a little bit of unpopularity among my own colleagues, I would like to say it is time we unbent and uncrawled!