Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
One has come to expect a certain kind of shrillness from Times Now's Arnab Goswami but his efforts at manufacturing outrage on Newshour on Tuesday (July 10) went clearly overboard. The debate was about non-medically qualified employees of a public hospital in Bulandshahr performing a 'surgical procedure' on accident-patients. The hospital apparently has 23 doctors but at that time in the morning, only one was present. To cope with the emergency, the doctor on duty had summoned all hands on the deck. Under his supervision, 'Class IV employees' had done some surgical procedures: they had administered an injection and sutured wounds. No one had wielded the scalpel. The hospital's chief medical superintendent Shishir Kumar said the ward boy had worked in the operation theatre for 10 years and was adept at stitching wounds. Other media reports variously described the employee as a sweeper, a janitor and an operation theatre assistant.
The information was scanty to form an opinion, much less for an indictment to be pronounced, and panelist Madhu Kishwar of the Center for Study of Developing Societies said as much. DR Rai, secretary general of the Indian Medical Association, patted the hospital's medical officer for rising to the occasion but had to backtrack on being badgered for 'abetting quackery'. The way Samajwadi Party leader Kamal Farouqui was shouting to be heard that public hospitals are stretched, I thought he would himself need a surgical procedure for impaired larynx. Through the show, the anchor kept needling the panelists for their 'chalta hai' attitude. To rub the point in, he kept repeating that chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was holidaying in Europe when perhaps he should have been waiting at the Bulandshahr hospital to commiserate with the accident victims when they popped in.
Of course conditions in our public hospitals are appalling and there is much to be outraged about. But from the facts presented on the Newshour show (or the report on CNN-IBN), a person in the audience could not determine how many of the 23 doctors at the Bulandshahr hospital were surgeons, whether the rest were taking it easy while only one was on morning duty, or whether they were being reserved for better use during rush hours and whether one should mock the doctor or applaud him for attending to the patients with whatever help was available and not throwing up his hands in helplessness?
This kind of breathless journalism with its lack of balance, fair play and regard for facts, and eagerness to indict rather than give the benefit of doubt ends us divesting the news media of credibility while doing little to improve the situation at the hospital in question.
Another instance of pointless journalism is Cobrapost's so-called expose on CNN-IBN of the use of black money in Bollywood. It is as much of a revelation as that the Shankaracharya is Hindu. Do we need a sting operation to know what is common knowledge? Without specifics and real examples of wrongdoing, the story just fizzles out. I see it as entrapment, not expose.
If the media is more feared than respected, as Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, said at the recent launch of a book on media ethics, it is because it is inordinately focussed on keeping eyeballs excited than on being true to its calling (which is to enlighten, not incite). When I asked the director of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Kangra why he did not advertise the fact that an international fashion brand wanted his students to design and supply a few thousand pieces of Chamba rumal (kerchiefs embroidered with religious motifs), he feared that the media would be more interested in the malign effect of the short dresses of his students on local morals. Put differently, if it is not negative, it is not news.
The media has done a splendid job of speaking truth to power and exposing corruption. The growing intolerance of politicians and the judiciary reflects this vigour. But as N Ravi, former managing director of The Hindu, said at an Editors' Guild seminar (on 6th July, in Delhi), a greater threat to the media is 'plain bad journalism,' by which he meant 'incorrect or unfair reporting, invasion of privacy and insensitive portrayal of women and victims.' Speaking from the same dais, Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, said: "There is no threat to media except from ourselves - our greed, our bloated egos and our limited intellect."
Media freedom has not been bestowed by any law. It is the result of a social contract that was forged during the Emergency and annealed by the judiciary. That contract is fraying because of the excesses of the media. These may be the exceptions, as Ravi said, but they shape popular perception.
Competition will be levitating, said Raghav Bahl, founder of the Network18 Group, speaking from the Editors' Guild platform. But diversity of titles will not help if the media behaves like a cozy club. We need a dog-eat-dog attitude. While tearing into others, we should be unsparing of ourselves. This column is written in that spirit.