Justice Katju has once again stirred up a hornet’s nest — this time by suggesting a minimum academic requisite for journalists. Somewhere he fails to understand that the unintended consequences of a well-meaning prescription may undermine the wellsprings of democratic entailments.
First let us look at Justice Katju’s template for improving journalistic quality as enunciated in a press release. He says: “For quite some time an issue has arisen about the need for a qualification for entry into the profession of journalism. In the lawyers profession an LLB Degree as well as registration in a Bar Council is required. Similarly, for entry into the medical profession the necessary qualification is an MBBS Degree and also registration with the Medical Council. For becoming a teacher a teacher’s training certificate/degree is required. Many other professions have the requirement of some qualification before one can enter that profession. However, at present there is no qualification for entry into the profession of journalism. Hence very often persons with little or inadequate training in journalism enter the profession, and this often leads to negative effects, because such untrained persons often do not maintain high standards of journalism. For quite some time, therefore, it has been felt that there must be some legal qualification before one can enter the profession of journalism. There are no doubt many institutions which impart teaching in journalism (some of which is very unsatisfactory) but there is as yet no legal requirement for having any qualification before entering the profession.”
This template is conceptually limited in its understanding of journalism and its societal role. Journalism as a profession cannot be compared to legal, medical or scientific jobs. Its sibling is politics. Journalism, like politics, is an arena for a larger democratic engagement. Politics and journalism have intrinsically inscribed multiple functions that bequeath them the special space in our societies and there cannot be an entry barrier to these professions. Does it mean we have perfect systems to make our journalism and politics excel in delivering for the people? We are very far from any such ideals.
Let’s first list out some of the inalienable rights that need to be protected for journalism and politics. Both should be accessible to every one regardless of one’s class, caste, gender, linguistic and academic station in life. The governing term for these two professions is inclusion and both cannot have anything that suggests exclusivity or entry barrier. People shall have their choice of how they are going to be engaged with these democratic practices.
Like our polity, our media too is not a monolith. It operates in multiple levels, with multiple skills and having the task of simultaneously addressing the general requirements as well as particulars. The central element in this imagination is that any reader can be a writer articulating his or her view and any voter can be a potential political candidate representing the desires and aspirations of the people.
In his eminently readable book, India after Gandhi, historian Ramachandra Guha writes about the first general elections in detail. He says: “India’s first general election was among other things, an act of faith. A newly independent country chose to move straight into universal adult suffrage, rather than — as had been the case in the West — at first reserve the right to vote to men of property, with the working class and women excluded from the franchise until much later.”
Guha also quotes a visiting Turkish journalist Ahmed Emin Yalman’s observation about the first election: “The main credit goes to the nation itself; 176,000,000 Indians were left alone with their conscience in the face of the polling box. It was direct and secret voting. They had their choice between theocracy, chauvinism, communal separatism and isolationism on the one side; secularism, national unity, stability, moderation and friendly intercourse with the rest of the world on the other. They showed their maturity in choosing moderation and progress and disapproving of reaction and unrest.”
This is where we need to draw our lessons for media. It is true that journalism today is facing a crisis. So is our body polity. But, no corrective attempt should undermine the most enabling option provided by these two major interfaces between the populace and the instruments of governance.
Having said that, the focus should be on setting high professional standards, good ethical practices and having a series of refresher programmes for journalists to deal with the new challenges. Elsewhere I wrote that 30 years ago, LPG meant Liquefied Petroleum Gas and GDR meant German Democratic Republic. Today, LPG means Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation and GDR is the abbreviation for Global Depository Receipts. The changes were rapid, and they continue. There were few resources accessible for journalists to make sense of these major shifts in the policy framework and its impact on our livelihoods. There is a real need for on-the-job-training for journalists to keep in pace with the changing reality. And, this comes at the level of mid career and not at the entry level which may deny media space for the less privileged.
This article has been corrected for an editing error.