I never collected my graduation degree because I thought it had no relevance in the amphitheatre of action I was choosing for myself. Most vocations have entrance tests, clearance exams, iron-clad codes, hierarchies and practices. They are arranged in neat boxes, modular, easily recognisable, easily manageable. The finest doctor in AIIMS can be tamed by a government order printed in triplicate.
Journalism, on the other hand, exists in the very middle of the market square. It belongs neither to the church in the right corner, the state in the left, nor the merchants lining the sides. Its virtue is its wildness, its untutored clamour. It speaks in a thousand tongues. It is the babble of a creative society. It is the soapbox of democracy. It is the open, brazen space, the unrefereed arena, where the grumblings, mumblings, aspirations, corrections of a free people find vent and organic resolution.
No journalist is ever as valuable as a good doctor, engineer, or even a trench-digger. But as a collective, journalism is worth more than them all: it embodies the very idea of human liberty — free will, equality, and justice — and at its best bats for it every day, protecting it and expanding it. It is critically important because it acts as a durex, a prophylactic, protecting the ordinary person like you and me, from the abuses of power and money. And no one in India needs to be told how desperately necessary that is.
Its potency stems from its unfettered voice, its ability to shamelessly scream. Often it’s trivial, often it’s misplaced, but as often it’s a crucial cry for reparation and change. Indian journalism’s record is stellar here. Anti-communalism, anti-terrorism, anti-corruption, anti-injustice, anti-violence. Pro-India, pro-equality, pro-life.
Now there is a dangerous move on to choke this voice. Stealthily, over the last few years, an attempt has been on to somehow silence what has become the greatest tool of journalistic investigation and exposure. Something that has revitalised reportage in India, blown the whistle on corruptions, human rights violations, witness coercion, witness purchase, the misuses of power. For the first time in decades, there has appeared an independent deterrent to wrongdoing in public. The sting. Designed to incontrovertibly nail the excesses of power in a country where the powerful have always gotten away with everything.
So who doesn’t want the sting? It cannot possibly be those who wish for probity in public life, those who pursue transparency and clean dealings. Not surprisingly, the initiative comes from those who most fear being shouted out. Politicians don’t want the sting, powerful people don’t want the sting.
The reasons being trotted out are specious. The violation of privacy? But every responsible journalist believes that stings should not cross into private lives. There is no doubt that every sting ought to be tested on the anvil of public interest — as must all journalism. Public interest has to be the central — and sole — mantra for journalism in any democracy. And all the major stings of the last few years accord to the highest standards of public interest. Look at the record: corruption in arms procurements, match-fixing in cricket, doctors at Agra consigning dumped wives to lunacy for Rs 10,000, the bribing of Zaheera Sheikh to change her crucial testimony, foreign paedophiles in Goa, cash-for-questions in Parliament, the misuse of MPLADs scheme, the amputations for beggary scam, the Jessica Lall murder cover-up, and innumerable small exposes on the corruptions in police stations, government hospitals, tax offices.
The young reporters striking these public interest blows need to be applauded, not targeted. It requires courage, skill, resourcefulness, commitment and stamina to carry out a sting. Weeks, sometimes months, of painstaking hard work go into capturing a single moment of revealing detail. I would never be able to do one. I can only marvel at, and back, the young reporters who do. Who are these grand eminences who would keep from these energetic young journalists their admiration? What would they have them rather do? Push press releases and replicate press conferences? Reprint endlessly the obvious hypocrisies and banalities of power?
There is an even more bizarre argument being pushed that questions exposes that are contracted for telecast on news channels. Are we saying that those who don’t own news channels must not practice serious journalism? Are we saying that journalists must not earn money for themselves or their work? By that reckoning, every newspaper and magazine that earns crores of rupees in profits every year ought to be shut down. By that reckoning everything — everything — in Indian journalism is counterfeit.
The truth is stings are as legitimate as anything in Indian journalism, and often more powerful. The truth is there may be some bad, motivated and indifferent stings — but that is no different from the rest of journalism. The truth is the best stings are brilliantly innovative, using new technologies to uncover old and new societal malaises. The truth is only the quality and credibility of the sting should matter — the money is only an accompanying by-product, as it is of every activity in life (should we suspect Sachin Tendulkar’s contribution to the Indian team just because he makes hundreds of crores while at it?). The truth is the only people who want stings to be policed are those who most fear being exposed by them. The truth is if you held a referendum in the country, 90 per cent, if not 99, would back the sting. The truth is it is a salient-subversive weapon of the powerless against those with power. The truth is we need more stings, not less. The truth is it would be an unmitigated disaster to legislate the soapbox of democracy. The truth is every journalist in a country like India must learn to dirty his hands, to wage the untidy battle. The truth is, as Mahasweta Devi said in Frankfurt recently, that freedom has not yet touched millions in this country. The truth is, stings, journalism, the soapbox, are all meant to keep reminding us of it. The truth is, it would be suicidal for us to allow the shameless scream of truth to be choked. The shameless scream must scream on.
(The writer is the Editor-in-chief, Tehelka)