After a brutal gang-rape-murder that inspired not only protests and outrage but also a suicide, new legislation and a heightened awareness of the very nature of womanhood in India, all eyes ought to have been trained on the judge on the day the verdict was to be pronounced.
Instead, most of the drama was happening outside the courtroom.
With the world’s media having descended on the Saket court complex, mismanaged arrangements by the court administration and the police began to cause confusion about which of the journalists would be let in.
And then suddenly, the crowded halls turned into the personal battleground of two reporters who started fighting over who got to go inside first; a petty rivalry that descended into blows and curses right in the middle of the melee.
The day that was supposed to be the culmination of the work of feminist and legal activists the morning after December 16 had become the occasion for an unseemly slap-fest.
While the foreign reporting corps looked on, somewhat alarmed – one tweeted relief at the fact that Indian journalists are not usually armed – the more shocking part was that, for local journalists, the scene was all too familiar.
A cut-throat industry made worse by an electronic media that prides speed over accuracy has made it easy for members of the journalistic fraternity to turn into entitled blowhards who believe the letters ‘PRESS’ on a card in their pockets provide them with a power beyond ordinary mortals.
And, although the breakneck take-no-prisoners atmosphere of TV news is plenty at fault here, this problem can’t be pinned entirely on the electronic media; the two reporters trading blows in Saket were, after all, print journalists.
Indeed, ask any reporter in Delhi and you’ll find no dearth of great anecdotes about terrible behaviour. Some of it is personal rivalry, stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in any other industry but is magnified by the public nature of the media: an anchor keeping a studio guest from going to another channel to ruin that former colleague’s show; a reporter resorting to tears to ensure her news channel gets an exclusive interview; an automobile journalist getting drunk before the test drive of a supercar in Italy only to crash the vehicle.
Other stories speak to the simple greed of our brethren, often explained away with a reference to our minuscule paychecks: an Oil India Limited official catching a journalist trying to ferret away more than 50 pieces of cutlery from a special event; an entire hall-full of crime reporters shuffling out of a presser while the Police Commissioner is still mid-sentence, because lunch has been announced; journalists lining up to receive blessings (and 500-rupee notes) from a southern godman after a press conference.
But the ones that truly rankle involve behaviour on the beat that affects ordinary people or sources. Think of the badminton player who was driven to tears because of the clamour, or the IAF officer who got a dressing down from a reporter just because that journalist lost out on a chopper flight.
A story from the days spent covering the Aarushi case, out in the ‘badlands’ of Noida, takes the cake. Having already made a royal mess of themselves, regularly drinking and leaving trash outside the Talwars’ residence, the reporting ‘mob’ turned up at the home of an old couple who had rented out a portion of their property to Krishna, the Talwars’ servant. After they had trampled all over the property, the old woman had had enough. She came out to complain that the place was being destroyed and the journalists need to handle things with care and be a little quiet.
With the calm resolve characteristic of our species, the journalists began yelling at the woman – using phrases that cannot be printed – and eventually ended up locking the elderly lady inside her own home.
This sort of behaviour is not without consequences. Since TRPs and circulation numbers are no reflection of the credibility of a news organisation, media observer Vanita Kohli-Khandekar turned to Bollywood – that reliable mirror of Indian society – in a recent column. There she found that the stock journalist character in Hindi films has gone from a serious news reporter to “bodies with mikes and cameras but without brains,” who are often stereotypically corrupt.
While the corruption that permeates the industry may be a whole other problem, it doesn’t justify the entitled manner in which journalists regularly behave around ‘civilians.’ And the custodians of the industry ought to be worried. Much of this comes down to trust: you won’t see an unruly battle happening for exclusives in a pool of close-knit reporters who interact every day, such as the Supreme Court corps, simply because they have to face each other the next day.
Pressure is equally responsible; even if viewers couldn’t care less whether one channel has broken news two seconds before the other, editors (whose audiences are each other, not the aam junta) won’t stand for a late newsflash. And entitlement – the belief that reporters have earned some special status within society simply by virtue of their profession – is one that has become deeply ingrained.
I’m not one to suggest this can be fixed. Kohli-Khandekar offers a three-point formula: increasing investment caps, bringing quality to DD to set the bar, and training editors and reporters. Only one of those measures seems plausible in the current climate, and even implementing the others wouldn’t fix the problem.
The fact remains, however, that the ‘peepli’ media has become a living breathing part of the experience of modern India – one we can’t ignore. Maybe it’s time the Press Council of India urges closer cooperation with other institutions; there really is no reason press representatives shouldn’t be talking directly to the Delhi Police and the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, to set down some norms about behaviour in a city where there will never be any shortage of sensational crimes and ‘trials of the century.’
It does us in the media no good to ignore what we’ve become and how we impact those around us. Maybe norms on some beats can percolate into the rest of the industry, or perhaps we need to be setting better examples within our newsrooms. But until then, I have to say, I’ve seen the face of modern Indian journalism, and it’s not pretty.
The writer is Junior Assistant Editor