Arnab Goswami’s Arrest in a Post-Journalism World
A commentary on the near-total downfall of journalism and the myth of fair and objective media in India
It is surprising that it took so long for the Stalinist arrest of Republic TV’s founder and chief editor Arnab Goswami by a toxic cocktail of a government headed by a former hobbyist photographer and now full time Chief Minister. It was the final nail in the coffin-in-making of Uddhav Thackeray’s desperation, which shares the same traits as Indira Gandhi’s desperate Emergency and will likely share the same fate as her post-Emergency electoral annihilation.
The real nature of the inseparability of the Emergency and the media was best described by L.K. Advani’s immortal quote that the “media crawled when it was merely asked to bend.” The media crawled because it was already bent.
The Thesaurus gives these synonyms for bent: twisted; crooked; kinky; corrupt; bribable; buyable; underhand; rotten; unscrupulous; untrustworthy. Interestingly, the legal dictionary gives the synonym, malfeasant. As an exercise for aspiring writers and intern journalists, take each of these synonyms and read the history of the Indian media since Independence. You will find a real journalist and editor that perfectly embodies each synonym.
One of the enduring myths about Indian media is that it was “independent” and “objective.” This myth was amplified in a million ways by that staple stereotype of a journalist, the now-extinct species of the craggy, cigarette-smoking, Hawai-chappal-wearing, impoverished, bearded Jholawala who got his food by fighting against all sorts of injustices of which there was plenty during a five-decade spell of Congress-Communist socialist tyranny. Ironically, this wrinkle-clothed Jholawala hailed from the same socialist or progressive or communist cult. The same forces of history which the Communists were so fond of and thought were on their side heralded the arrival of blogging, which slowly punctured the fat and outworn tire of this myth, and social media completely blew it to shards.
This was also roughly the time the post journalism world was birthed. It is good in a way because the battle lines which were blurred so far by the thick smoke emanating from the toxic Far Left factory has now been permanently lifted. In India, we know for example, that “objective” journalism = naked support for the Congress and its political clones.
Which brings us back to the aftermath of L.K. Advani’s quote. What the media did after the Emergency was lifted was worse than crawling. Like a seasoned harlot, it jumped directly into bed with the Congress Party, just a phone call away. Reading this 2013 column lends credence to the speculation that some sections of the aforementioned media even had a dedicated hotline: DIAL-A-JOURNALIST-10-JANPATH-24-AKBAR-ROAD.
Which in turn, brings us back to the basic question: when was the media in India ever free from the Congress Party’s thrall? Here is a snippet from a Bombay-based weekly, The Current dated sometime in 1948-49:
Indeed, that Congress Party sponsorship to the media continues unabated till date. History shows that as long as the Congress helms political power, there is no difference between the Party and the Government. The late editor and journalist, B.G. Verghese nonchalantly writes in his autobiography about how he was commissioned by the Nehru Government to visit the Hirakud (or Bhakra Nangal, I forget) Dam and other Government projects and “report” on them. One wonders what happens to objectivity and “telling the truth to power” under the groaning weight of such obligations. Actually, we don’t need to turn to Mr. Verghese at all. We have it straight from the horse’s mouth: The Press must become a unit of the government.
That was the spineless Congress President, Pattabhi Sitaramayya in a public speech delivered in late 1948. And what would happen if the Press did not become a unit of the Congress Government?
The answer was supplied in Madras in January 1949 by Devdas Gandhi, son of Mohandas Gandhi and editor of the Hindustan Times: all such Press organisations would be branded as “Yellow Press.” And as the head of the All-India Editors’ Conference,
This is the very brief history of how the Congress bent the media from Day One. As for the much-celebrated stories of grit, determination, and courage in the annals of journalism, they are largely the work of dogged and honest, individual journalists whether working alone or employed in these bent media organisations. Which is also why these stories can be counted on the fingers of your hand. For every such story of courage, there are at least a hundred that were casually smothered by editors and owners. Neither is this phenomenon restricted to India alone. In India, it stands out like an open, pus-oozing wound because our political class wears brazenness like a badge of honour and our servile media is only happy to sugarcoat or whitewash the flagrance.
Throughout the world, self-respecting journalists have always remained independent. When the entire media complex in the United States ganged up and ensured that “Izzy,” I.F. Stone would not get a job, he started his own iconic weekly, which made senators and Congressmen shiver, and earned him both subscription and goodwill from the public. Aged about sixty-five, I.F. Stone went back to the university, taught himself Greek and then wrote an extremely erudite book on Socrates. The same thing can be said about Stone’s more distinguished predecessor, the legendary W.T. Stead who travelled to the US, met the pioneering media buccaneer, William Randolph Hearst and said to his face, “I want to see you because I want to find out if you have got a soul.”
In my own state, we have the even more distinguished example of the venerable D.V. Gundappa who described himself as a journalist till the very end of his life and remains one of the greatest philosophical minds of the last century. In his classic work, Vruttapatrike (Newspaper), he elevates journalism to the standard of philosophy, and to borrow from him, a thorough grounding in philosophy and classical literature should be made a pre-qualification for journalists. You can’t plant the Congress weed (that’s what the unwashed masses called parthenium as) and expect a harvest of Alphonso mango.
The predictable consequences have turned into an ongoing nightmarish reality. Roughly over the last two decades, there seems to be not a single column or essay that can be read for the sheer quality of its prose. The overarching blanket of politics has nearly smothered quality writing itself. Here is an example of political writing that is exquisite. A classic in its genre. Perhaps on the verge of extinction.
It increasingly appears that the current crop of journalists seems to have forgotten the first rule: a journalist is first a writer. As if to validate this appalling downfall, today, every rookie journalist wants to “do video.” The greater the scorching heat of video dominates, the faster the art of the written and read word will evaporate. The death of video causes no real loss while writing, like speech, is one of the original and irreplaceable creations of the human species.
And then we have something called “data” which has replaced the irresistible magnetic pull of compelling narrative storytelling with zero damage to the selfsame “data.” Should fact, emotive intensity, and fine prose be at war with one other?
Even in the realm of something as ephemeral as journalistic writing, what is also increasingly, dominantly noticeable is a speedy dissolution of the sort of patience and humility that is required to write not just a good but a superlative story. It is this quality that gives the said ephemerality a tinge of semi-permanence. Read this extraordinarily picturesque prose on a grave. Or this obituary to T.S. Eliot, which is in many ways better than Eliot’s body of work.
This might sound like a nostalgic yearning for the old way of doing things. It is also easy to blame the changed times, lack of attention span, falling revenues, and scores of other causes why it will be impossible to return to the “old way.” Some of these reasons might be true as well. What is also true is that blame is often the best refuge of the slothful. Indeed, some of these problems are nearly as old as the time when the written word first came into existence. Except that with every age the same problems appear wearing new clothes.
If we set aside the purely political battleground that the media has today become, there remains that other perennial question: how is media success currently measured? The well-known answer: purely in commercial terms at the expense of everything else. The trajectory has been along expected lines: gradual dilution of the elevated and the sublime leading to their slaughter at the altar of the crass and the vulgar. And the destruction of even the most valuable elements of the larger culture. And how long would it take for the destruction of the larger culture itself as a whole? The answer is playing out before our eyes.
The other definition of a post journalism world is a world bereft of culture, refinement, and sublimity.
If I’m accused of being old-fashioned, I am happy to plead guilty.
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