Selective silence leads to calamities

C.K. Prasad | File   | Photo Credit: G. Ramakrishna

The explanations provided by the Chairman of the Press Council of India, C.K. Prasad, in defending the body’s intervention in a petition filed in the Supreme Court show a limited understanding of the role of a responsible press in a democracy. Justice Prasad’s letter to the Chairman of The Hindu Group Publishing Private Ltd., N. Ram, brought out this myopia in an unequivocal manner. The Chairman of the statutory watchdog of the press, for the press and by the press came up with a bewildering separation of “individual right and national interest”, thus reducing the right of the press to an individual right.

News is a public good

The rights of the press do not pertain to the right of any individual reporter or media organisation. The freedom of the press represents the collective will of the people. It flows from Article 19 of the Constitution. The rights and privileges of the press are devised to provide crucial information to citizens so that they can make informed choices in a democracy. So, it is very disturbing that this public good is being converted into an “individual right”. In his interview to HuffPost India, Justice Prasad prioritised the state’s interest over the people’s interest when he declared that in his personal opinion, “some news is best not reported”. He came up with a three-way conflict of interests: public interest, national interest, and freedom of the press. Justice Prasad fails to understand that these three are integral to a democracy and are related. They cannot be disaggregated.

Some readers wanted to know whether I am prepared to reconsider my opinion in the light of Justice Prasad’s view. They felt that my column, “Information blackout leads to silence and exaggeration” (August 12), which argued against the idea of institutionalised curbing of media freedom, had been effectively countered by Justice Prasad. There is a vast difference between bearing witness and a voyeuristic gaze. Journalism is not an instrument for wishful thinking but a mirror that reflects the views of citizens. It is through journalism that we get a glimpse of reality. When this intrinsic value of journalism is replaced by the instrumental requirements of the ruling elites, the world becomes a very dangerous place.

Recently, Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian, initiated a Twitter thread on this particular peril that has plagued journalism for nearly a century. He sought examples of wishful thinking colouring news judgment in journalism. He cited the case of the “Express [in the U.K.] 1936-1939 repeatedly telling readers that there’d be no war because no-one wanted another war”. Mr. Rusbridger said he was looking for cases of wishful thinking (“I hope this will be for the best”) that turned out to be false prophecies (“there will be no war”), and hence showed “corrupted reporting”.

The problem of wishful thinking

Of multiple responses to Mr. Rusbridger’s tweet, I would like to share four examples. One person responded that the press “did no due diligence” when the U.S. claimed that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq before launching a war on that country; the press, especially the Western media, simply bought the propaganda lock, stock and barrel. The director of the journalism fellowship programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Meera Selva, pointed out another example: “Business pages cheerleading Jon Moulton of Alchemy Partners as he bought Rover, as a sign that the UK car industry could still be saved.” Former executive director of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen, Jeffrey Dvorkin, said everyone believed that the “Arab Spring will succeed in bringing democracy to the region because everyone has a smartphone”. Andrey Mir cited the example of the study by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz on how the New York Times had consistently skewed coverage in favour of what its editors wished would happen: “That the Bolsheviks would continue Russia’s involvement in the war against Germany, and then, after the war, that the various White Army factions would defeat the Bolsheviks.”

These examples explain the huge cost paid by humanity when the media is reduced to a tool of wishful thinking. Whatever be the magnitude of the crisis, it is vital for citizens and policymakers to know the truth. Not reporting some news may provide momentary comfort, but it will hurt the social fabric in the long run.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 12:16:07 AM |

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