The ideas of accountability and public good in journalism are more than two centuries old. The institutional frameworks have been evolving over the last century — technological disruption has brought in a new set of challenges. However, the core concerns remain the same. For instance, the 1947 Hutchins Commission report about the media, “A Free and Responsible Press”, concluded that the freedom of the press was in danger.
Robert M. Hutchins, who served as the president of the University of Chicago, concluded in his report that the freedom of the press was in danger for three reasons: “First, the importance of the press to the people has greatly increased with the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication. At the same time, the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication has greatly decreased the proportion of the people who can express their opinions and ideas through the press. Second, the few who are able to use the machinery of the press as an instrument of mass communication have not provided a service adequate to the needs of society. Third, those who direct the machinery of the press have engaged from time to time in practices which the society condemns and which, if continued, it will inevitably undertake to regulate or control.”
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former ombudsman for National Public Radio (NPR), once observed that ombudsmen were in a privileged position to connect the audience’s need for accountability with media outlets’ recognition that they need to improve their work in our current times.
He summarised the role as being “a mediator between the expectations of the public and the responsibilities of journalists”. This framework gives a glimpse into factors that shape my concerns, fears and anxieties about the future of journalism.
When I became a journalist in 1985, most editors used to commission special stories on December 3 to mark the Bhopal gas tragedy, which remains one of the most terrible industrial accidents faced by humanity. After many years, we are yet to ascertain the exact death toll, the long-term impact of permitting toxic material in our atmosphere and permitting it to contaminate the groundwater. While the question of unfair compensation remains valid even today, the series of journalistic interventions helped make the Indian state act, albeit partially. December 3, in a sense, used to mark the importance of follow-ups.
Status of investigations
It is time for editors to commission stories on the status of investigations into crimes against journalists. My concern about quality journalism is firmly tied to the well-being of journalists. Though the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2013 that proclaimed November 2 as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’, crimes against journalists are unending and there seems to be a growing impunity for the perpetrators. The failure of law enforcement agencies across the world, including in India, is a disturbing feature.
As I am writing this column, I remember that editor Gauri Lankesh was killed four years ago on the same day. She was shot down by two assailants, widely believed to be part of a larger conspiracy to take out anti-Hindutva voices, outside her home at Rajarajeshwarinagar Nagar in Bengaluru on September 5, 2017. The next year, this newspaper carried a detailed report, “Unravelling the Gauri Lankesh murder case” (June 16, 2018), which had an interesting head deck that said, “The Karnataka police think they have cracked the case. Why they think so. And how they did it.” In February 2019, the Supreme Court had noted the murders of Lankesh, Kannada writer M.M. Kalburgi, and activists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were part of a “very serious case”. Yet, the investigations are slow and attempts to bring those who have committed grave crimes to book remain a distant dream.
Senior journalist Pamela Philipose’s tweet on September 4 captured the stark reality. “Tomorrow marks four years since the unconscionable felling down of India's dynamic editor Gauri Lankesh in her own home. So far the case involving 17 has not made it to the courts even as evidence of the direct involvement of the politically coddled Sanathan [sic] Sanstha surfaces,” she said on Twitter. Reports document how multiple pleas were deliberately made to stall the trial.
It is impossible to save journalism if we fail to save journalists.