When a journalist should draw the line

Published on Jun 26, 2021 06:23 PM IST

The raison d’etre of a meeting last Tuesday, chaired by two leading Opposition leaders, was an anti-government purpose. I chose not to attend.

As opponents of the Narendra Modi government, they would inevitably give it a political colour, even though it might not be narrowly party-based (PTI)
As opponents of the Narendra Modi government, they would inevitably give it a political colour, even though it might not be narrowly party-based (PTI)

A number of people have asked why I chose not to attend the Rashtra Manch meeting last Tuesday and I think it would be useful to explain because the answer illuminates an important issue – the need for journalists to maintain distance from politicians. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t flattered to be invited. But to have accepted would have raised questions about my journalism. In a nutshell, that’s why I stayed away.

However, this requires further explanation. Let me start with the character of the meeting. First, it was chaired by two leading Opposition politicians, Sharad Pawar and Yashwant Sinha. As opponents of the Narendra Modi government, they would inevitably give it a political colour, even though it might not be narrowly party-based.

The other concern was the agenda. The invitation said the meeting “is being convened to take stock of the prevailing socio-economic and political scenario in the country and to suggest, discuss and decide upon ways and means to consolidate secular, democratic and constitutional forces in the country”.

At first reading, that sounds anodyne and legitimate for a non-politician to participate in. After all, we’re all concerned about what’s happening to our country and want to consolidate secular, democratic and constitutional forces. But it’s also code for opposing the Modi government. On this reading, the meeting metamorphoses into a gathering of opponents.

Now, why do I believe it would be wrong for a journalist to participate? Because it’s tantamount to taking sides. In my case, it would damage the neutrality required of someone who conducts political interviews. Consider this example.

If I was given a chance to interview the prime minister (PM) – unlikely as that may be – and you saw me questioning him toughly on his vaccine policy or his disregard of scientific advice by permitting Kumbh Mela shahi snans and encouraging crowds at his political rallies, I would hope you would view my questions as objective and backed by facts.

But if you know I’ve participated in meetings with Opposition politicians to consider ways to oppose the Modi government, you might, instead, conclude they’re prejudiced and asked by an anchor who dislikes the PM. In those circumstances, you would be right to doubt my credibility and, even, switch off the interview.

This raises the further question are journalists not entitled to express their political views? Of course they are, but it must be done journalistically. So, if I were to write an op-ed piece explaining my position, either in favour or opposed to the government, that’s a legitimate exercise. If with friends over a drink, I make my personal views known, that, too, is acceptable because it’s done in private.

The difference arises when you attend a formal meeting with a clear anti-government purpose. That was the raison d’etre of Tuesday’s meeting. It was further underlined by the fact no one from the government’s side was invited, although some might wish to discuss the “scenario in the country” and “ways and means to consolidate secular, democratic and constitutional forces”.

Before I end, let me make a wider point. Politicians and journalists need each other. They often use each other. All that is fine. But should they be friends? Remember, it’s hard to toughly question, leave aside expose, someone who’s a friend. But journalists are often required to do that.

My friendship with Benazir Bhutto taught me how difficult this was. I expected her to agree to every interview. She expected sympathetic treatment. But when I put my journalism before our relationship and persisted with questions she preferred not to face, it created problems. It upset her but I was lucky she soon forgot and it did not disrupt our friendship. But you can’t be lucky every time. The alternative would have been to protect our friendship at the cost of my journalistic integrity. Frankly, I’d hate to be in that position.

That’s why I did not attend the Rashtra Manch meeting. But I’m grateful for the invitation and trust Messrs Pawar and Sinha understand.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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    Karan Thapar is a super-looking genius who’s young, friendly, chatty and great fun to be with. He’s also very enjoyable to read.

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