Not a compromising position

The danger to journalism is not that journalists meet political actors; it is that they don’t meet them enough

Published - December 10, 2021 12:15 am IST

CHENNAI: 24/01/2021: FOR CITY: TAMIL NADU : RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat at a function in Chennai. PICHUMANI K / THE HINDU

CHENNAI: 24/01/2021: FOR CITY: TAMIL NADU : RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat at a function in Chennai. PICHUMANI K / THE HINDU

A recent meeting of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat with a select group of journalists in Delhi raised a few eyebrows. What should be the desirable terms of engagement between journalists and their interlocutors is a rather complicated question. The fall of journalistic standards is a reality of our times, and too much proximity between journalists and the people they write on — politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, etc. — is one reason for this. But the increasing tendency to look for sinister conspiracies in such meetings is silly. It is like looking for a scam in every government decision. True, if the invitees at a select briefing are vetted based on their willingness to be pliable in the past, then the meeting is no longer a credible exercise. That said, my complaint about Mr. Bhagwat’s meeting with journalists is not that some people participated in it, but that I was not invited! Let me explain.

The RSS is the most influential organisation in the country today. Its views shape not only our present and future, but also our notion of the past. I have striven hard to meet leaders of the RSS and been occasionally successful. But with Mr. Bhagwat, never. Once, I tried to meet the former chief K.S. Sudarshan without an appointment at the RSS office in Delhi, but was rebuffed by a stern elderly man who lashed out at me for my ignorance about the culture of the Sangh. I tried to reason that I wanted to overcome my ignorance, but it did not cut much ice. To make up for this limited access, I listen to the numerous speeches that Mr. Bhagwat and his colleagues give.

A journalist has no commitment to the person he meets or interviews. Again, it is sad that actors across sectors and political parties try to predetermine the agenda and outcome of their meetings with journalists and vet questions before interviews. This is truer for films and business than politics. Journalists who are competing for a scoop often give in. This has led to the understanding now that if you are meeting someone, that ought to be an act of compromise in itself. The absolute requirement of separation between paid advertisement and editorial content is also being stretched by grandstanders: whether paid advertisement is nationalistic and patriotic enough, whether the advertisement is true or not, whether an ad is moral or not. But how does a platform distinguish between the claim of an advertiser that karva chauth is a great tradition and another that proclaims the virtues of a soap or soft drink?

I have met convicted murderers, law-evading scoundrels, kidnappers, fraudsters, and underground activists besides several prominent shapers of Indian politics over the years, and all that has helped me understand how they think and function. That is very essential to my own functioning as a journalist and hence, I am relentless in pursuing meetings, even when people are not initially welcoming. Among the people whom I have tried hard to meet but have not been able to until now include Steve Bannon and Mayawati. The RSS chief is on top of the list of the people I would greatly value meeting, but alas!

The danger to journalism or democracy is not that journalists are meeting political actors. The danger is that they are not meeting enough, they are not being allowed to meet, or are being allowed meetings only with conditions. The moral police among the tribe need to take a deep breath and relax.

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