Those opposing Justice Katju’s suggestion of minimum qualifications for journalists are out of touch with reality

Some years ago, the journalism entrance test at a career development institute in Mumbai had this objective-type question: Kofi Annan is (a) a Nigerian footballer (b) lead singer of a Sierra Leone pop group (c) a Sri Lankan delicacy (d) Secretary-General of the United Nations. The 100-odd candidates who appeared for the test were graduates with a sprinkling of post graduates. For nearly 25 of them, Kofi Annan was a Sri Lankan delicacy.

At a TV Bachelor of Mass Media (BMM) university examination, where students were asked to identify and comment on a recent war which had divided the United States of America, more than a dozen students, obviously from the same college, elaborated on the “Vitamin War.” Another TV BMM class was learning the basics of book reviews. The teacher was shocked when the 40 plus students admitted that none of them had ever read a book outside their prescribed course of studies.

The BMM course, where students could opt for journalism or advertising in their final year, had proved to be extremely popular. For 11 years I taught almost all subjects at many of Mumbai’s best colleges. Earlier, I taught journalism at some of the best institutions offering PG diploma courses in the subject. It was an exhilarating but often despairing experience. I was still an active journalist and often wrote on the need to improve standards at the BMM level. Now, the irrepressible Press Council of India (PCI) Chairman Markandey Katju, has spoken clearly on the same issue. It is shocking that his comments are being attacked fiercely by (of all people) senior journalists. The PCI Chairman also appointed a committee to suggest qualifications for those who wanted to be journalists. He pointed out that though journalism schools operated in India, many of them were of poor quality.

Then and now

A senior journalist like Vinod Mehta admitted he had a poor academic record but that did not prevent him from becoming what he is today. Mr. Mehta dabbled in advertising before becoming a journalist. That was decades ago. Today, a non-graduate would not be accepted in any journalism school nor get a job except perhaps in shady, third-rate publications. More important, journalism has become a highly skilled profession needing not only education but also expertise. Yes, in the “good, old days,” young men, mostly from the South, landed in Bombay with copies of their SSC examination and shorthand and typewriting diplomas. They quickly got jobs as stenographers, clerks and, if nothing else was available, joined the Free Press Journal daily because of their “superior” knowledge of English. Many of them learnt on their jobs and became outstanding journalists but nothing much was expected from the profession. Life was simple, journalism was not asked to handle the myriad problems of life.

Mr. Katju argued that if other professions like medicine, law and management required adequate training, why not journalism. Dickens created two immortal medical students in The Pickwick Papers, Bob Sawyer and Benjamin Allen (Sam Weller called them “Junior Sawbones”), who relied on “bleeding” to cure all ailments and relished talking about it. Could they have functioned in the modern era? That was why it was shocking that professionals like Vinod Mehta and Barkha Dutt dismissed Mr. Katju’s comments with such contempt. Yes, learning on the job is fine, but how? A cub reporter assigned to cover a major event would not know how and where to begin or end. On the desk, can an untrained sub-editor cut a long story to its required length, provide subheads and give a suitable, catchy heading? Will the journalists who made snide comments on the Katju remarks appoint young people without previous experience in their publications or channels? How proud is Ms Dutt of the interview techniques of the modern TV reporters who thrust a microphone near the mouth of a woman who has just been assaulted and exclaim breathlessly, “Aap ko kaise lagta tha?” Or the ones assembled at Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital when Amitabh Bachchan was admitted for some illness who came out with brilliant “Breaking News”: “Amitabh Bachchan ate khichdi” or “Amitabh Bachchan had orange juice”? Didn’t our TV editors find all this embarrassing?

Live on TV

There was a time in print journalism when editors prided themselves on their “intellectual superiority” and cared only for their weekly edit page pontification which they believed changed the world. For them, the rest of the paper did not exist. The same is happening in today’s TV journalism, where anchors seem to care only about their daily shouting matches, gift-wrapped as “discussions,” where they seldom allow panellists to speak or bother about how the rest of the news is presented. I would argue that formal training should be given not only to newcomers but also to senior editors and anchors on how to speak calmly, eliminate their bias, treat panellists with less contempt and perhaps go back to school to learn basic courtesy and good manners. Their present attitude does not reflect their public school education or Oxbridge/Columbia School of Journalism background. Once this is done, they could think of educating and training their juniors.

In the classroom

Meanwhile, journalism schools must improve. Mumbai University granted affiliation to dozens upon dozens of BMM and BMS departments without caring to examine whether they had any kind of infrastructure, like library facilities, classrooms and qualified teachers. After a couple of years, the university, in its wisdom, abolished entrance tests and decided that applicants to these courses should be admitted on the strength of their standard 12 marks, completely ignoring the fact that the cramming habits of and inflated marks awarded by junior colleges are not enough to judge the different needs of a journalism course. Teaching was another farce. With trained senior journalists unwilling to devote their time, teachers with no background or interest in journalism were roped in. Of course, some of them took pains to study topics like regional journalism and managed. But others were disasters. One such faculty member asked me how I taught reporting. “How many times did you put on disguises?” he asked in all earnestness!

The ultimate depressive moment came with the fact that most students were least bothered with current affairs; not even to the extent of reading at least one newspaper regularly. Nor did they watch TV news shows. “Projects” were cut and paste jobs from the net. Students who found financial journalism “difficult” and who could not even differentiate between surplus and deficit, turned in immaculate 3,000 word projects with quotes from leading economists. The net was the source. The college authorities often pressurised the teachers including the visiting faculty to give high marks to project work so that their students would figure in the university merit list.

Our stars in elite journalism who blamed Mr. Katju for speaking out of turn hardly know what is going on in most journalism schools. How can they? The average student who is keen to learn journalism is left in the lurch. If the media world refuses to listen to men like Mr. Katju, the deterioration in existing standards will continue.

(V. Gangadhar is a veteran journalist.)

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