Archive for June, 2014

They say you can take a man out of journalism, but can’t take journalism out of the man – however hard some people might try! How cynical we are about everything we see or hear has a lot to do with the way we are conditioned in our job.  And the longer we have been in journalism the more cynical we become. The funny thing is when we actually say something with all honesty, people refuse to believe us.

This thought came to me again the other day as I watched a show on a news channel about a young man who had been a victim of police excesses. I was visibly moved by his story. It is the tale of hundreds of young men who are allegedly picked up in the dead of night from their homes and put in solitary confinement. They are allegedly tortured, beaten and whipped until they ‘confess’.  It started during the Emergency and it has continued till date. Well, it started during the days of the British rule, but let’s not go that far back.

So anyway, my wife and I I watched the show with growing dismay at the way the man had been treated. After the show ended I thought about the manner in which the law enforcement authorities behaved all around the country. Look at the way they have been behaving in Uttar Pradesh and knowing their history nothing surprises me anymore. I sat brooding for a while and then my scepticism and cynicism got the better of me. There are always two sides to a story, I said to myself.

I called a very senior reporter I knew and asked him about this case, since they were both from the same state. What he said to me for over an hour in very minute detail left me quite shaken. Having worked with him and having known him to be a thorough professional I have no reason to doubt his word. After he had explained the entire case to me, since he had covered it, he went on a tangent.

He said something I have been hearing rather frequently in recent times, “I am getting tired of journalism. All we do is public relations.” He then launched into a diatribe of what journalism had become today.

“Leave alone investigative journalism, journalism itself is dead,” he said.

“Editors don’t want a story, all they want is PR couched as news,” was his next line. For a guy who prided himself on his journalistic skills and who I considered a crack reporter, it was a pretty astounding statement.

Just thought it was worth sharing, because we tend to carried away by what we see on the Idiot Box. Is that why it’s called that?

Of course, now everyone is agog about some industry veterans shown the door, and how corporate India is taking over the media.

But after what I saw about the chap who was ‘wrongly accused’, I really don’t know whether it really matters who owns the airwaves!


Reading about the assault on the Pune couple by highway robbers on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, makes me wonder how we can all forget the basic rules of driving on the highway. I am sorry if I sound unsympathetic (I am not, because I too use the highways and e-ways), but I really don’t understand why people must stop in the dead of night on lonely highways and expressways for any reason, except for a breakdown or an emergency that needs immediate attention.

This is not the first time that such an incident has happened on the Mumbai-Pune expressway and definitely won’t be the last. It is notorious for such incidents and the cops are helpless because they are just not equipped to deal with them – be they robberies or accidents. This gentleman stopped across the road from where a petrol pump was, which must be a good 50 metres away from where his car was parked. As kids we were taught by our parents to go to the loo and carry a bottle of water or some biscuits with us before setting off on a bus or car journey. How is it, that as parents we forget that cardinal rule?

There is no point blaming lack of lights on the highway or the cops for not doing their jobs. I read in some newspaper that someone asked for lights on the highway! Where was the last time you saw lights on the highways, except when the highway approaches city limits? It’s a ridiculous suggestion. As for the presence of cops, they can’t be everywhere. So why take chances? Unless you’re literally dying of thirst or your bladder is about to empty itself in your pants, can’t a bottle of water or a toilet break wait till you get to a food mall or a petrol pump?

Secondly, the Indian traffic police for all the hard work it does, is incapable of doing its job efficiently because it is drastically under-manned, poorly equipped and badly trained on how to react in an emergency. In the event of an accident it is the medical services that should land up first, not the police. In India it is usually the cops who do, and they inform the medical services. Even we, as we are conditioned to do, call the police first and the hospital next. An accident victim’s life is more important, the investigations come later.

Whenever I travel long distance with the family we keep at least a dozen bottles of water in the car. It became a necessity because we used to travel with our son who was then six or seven. Now he is 17 but we still follow that practice. Even on the expressway, two bottles of water are always in the car.

DNA, Pune has done a story in today’s edition on the front page where they have pointed out the dangerous spots on the expressway! Oh really? Just five such spots? Are the highway robbers going to keep to those spots only? I think we need to learn as drivers that we need to stop only at designated spots like petrol pumps or food malls, not anywhere in the blue yonder. I often see people stopping their vehicles on a lonely stretch on the highway to relieve themselves and my first reaction is ‘what an idiot, can’t he wait?’

Let’s accept it, we are not in Europe, where we may stop and even take a nap on the lay-bye and still be safe, or wait for a breakdown van to pick us up. Sure, our highways are not infested with monsters who prey on innocent travellers, but while our roads might have improved dramatically in the last decade or so, the mentality of the people has remained unchanged – be they law-abiding citizens or highway robbers!

I remember, before one of my drives to Gujarat and Rajasthan in 2009, I spoke to HV Kumar, a passionate motoring enthusiast and a gentleman who runs a forum on Facebook and websites where he posts updates of the traffic situation on the highways. I always do because I trust the man with my life and that of my family, even more than I do myself. He has over 10,000 members on his Forum and he can tell you about any road anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice, so extensive is his network of friends and motoring enthusiasts who keep him and the forum updated every minute.

We had driven from Pune to Chittorgarh and I remember talking to him about the roads in MP and while he praised the state of the roads there, he also told me to top the tank at before we left from there because he said there would be no petrol pumps for long stretches. He was right, because the first one we saw was around 150 kms after we left Chittorgarh. We were on our way to Sawai Madhopur. For miles we saw nothing, not even a village or people. We saw just barren land and nothing else and I remember thinking, what could happen if we were stuck in the middle of this place for some godforsaken reason. Since then, I have never stopped on the highways, not matter what the reason!

While doing a story in 2011 when I worked with an auto magazine, on the excessive speeds on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, I interviewed the Highways SP. He told me that it was virtually impossible to man the entire 97 kms of the expressway because one, he did not have the manpower and two, because he did not have the infrastructure. Incidentally, he told me then that they had just two speed-guns, on either end of the expressway. They actually had six, but four were under repairs. They needed at least a dozen more. I don’t think the situation has changed at all, since then.

The photographer and I also decided to check on the safety aspects on the expressway. Remember the phones that dot the expressway, which you can supposedly use during an emergency? They are a nice publicity vehicle for the phone company that installed them, but as far as their use is concerned, they are worthless pieces of junk. I say worthless, because sometimes even junk has its uses. We inspected every phone along the e-way and none of them worked. So every time the government talks of improving the infrastructure on the highways, I want to ask them why they don’t improve the system that already exists.

The rest of the world is monitoring traffic through satellites and even more advanced systems but we are still in the bullock cart age. No amount of high-speed expressways will help if our mentality and driving habits do not change. Apart from the speed freaks that we run into on the highways and the expressways, there is always the fear of running into unsavoury elements in the dead of night. Stopping on the highway for any other reason except a breakdown is asking for trouble.

Whether the police reached on time or whether the IRB personnel were asleep on the job, is all really irrelevant, when you are under attack. All that doesn’t matter when you or a family member is lying there bleeding to death, knifed by some hoodlum. No harm in being a little extra cautious, is there? All one is trying to say is that it’s really up to us to protect ourselves and our families from such incidents. Automobile magazines don’t care about such issues, at least they did not when I worked there. The best place for such issues to be highlighted would be blogs and driving forums. Will they take it up on a war footing?

Why is there such a hue and cry about the perceived threat to press freedom with a business magnate buying up a news network? Is there a rule against an industrialist with a lot of money buying up a media house? If he wants to make the network a mouthpiece of the present government who are we, lesser mortals, to complain? It’s his money and his mouth. The message to all employees across the board in even independent media houses or those owned by business houses is short and terse: If you don’t like it here, you can take your idealism someplace else. Some go but most stay.

No media house is in the business of social service. There are around 20 lakh NGOs in the country and even they are not all in it for the pleasure of serving humanity. Like it or not, business interests come first – ALWAYS. The profits from the business pay the bills, and media is no more about a small printing press run by an idealist, his daughter and a peon. There are hundreds of people to be paid, and overheads to be looked into. So anyone who believes that a free and fair media is being bought over by big business, and in the process being compromised, he is right. But there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. This is the reality today.

When a corporate house takes over a media house it brings with it, positives and negatives. It also brings its share of downsizing, and that is the fear that lurks in the heart of every employee. For example, a company may not want a staff of 300 in their media house. So maybe 100 people may be thrown out and 200 will be doing that much more work at the previous cost. Journalists are then faced with the classic George Bush catch phrase – you’re either with us or against us. Most of them just buckle down quietly and carry on, because no one, not even editors, wants to lose a job.

So when I hear these protests about integrity and ethics being compromised, it makes me want to laugh. How many editors have the courage to refuse something that comes down to them from the Corporate Office? For that matter, how many editors actually stand up for their juniors? Those days are long gone when editors were respected by the owners for their sheer presence, so let’s not kid ourselves and get sanctimonious about press, freedom, integrity and ethics being sent to the cleaners. The freedom to write is still there, as long as you know where the thin blue line is. Integrity and ethics are there too. You just need to figure out, as India Gandhi’s minister once said, whether you want to bend or crawl.

The story was different in 1970s and the 1980s. Things went pretty much downhill from the 1990s. Around the time we entered the 21st Century, and advertising began to play such a huge role first in print and later in broadcast media, the whole debate on ethics, integrity and press freedom was put in cold storage. The threat of advertisements worth crores of rupees being cancelled can put a stop to any dreams of editorial freedom and journalistic ethics some journalists might be nurturing!

So when celebrated news anchors exercise their vocal chords every night, it is not because they have the freedom to say what they want, but because the louder everyone screams at each other on the TV screen, the more people watch it and the more advertisers want to use that medium. Like my son says, it’s no different from watching Big Boss! As for the newspapers, let’s be very honest. There are very few ‘exclusives’ that appear nowadays anyway, because you don’t know who you might end up offending. Most of the stuff being churned out is from press releases or briefings, for which very often even seniors take bylines. Then the issue of ethics and integrity does not bother them?

I worked in five media houses and I can honestly say that except for a brief while in one of them, not one of the editors ever stood up to the management or for their juniors, unless they were his favourites. A good reason for that not happening is a lot of editors (or resident editors as they are also known in smaller newspapers) are no better than glorified bureau chiefs or news editors. I am not deriding either editors, bureau chiefs or news editors, but since the business side of the newspaper is usually in the hands of a DGM or GM, who is the de facto unit head, the editor’s job is to control just the flow of news (which the bureau chief or the news editor do anyway) and engage in public relations exercises. Of course, there is always the exception to the rule, but of the people I worked with, none of them, with one exception, ever had the opportunity or did anything out of the ordinary.

A former colleague once told me about the time he unwittingly did a report on a company of the proprietor of the newspaper he worked for in the mid 1980s, which very nearly cost him his job. The proprietor was also a well-known builder who owned a stone crushing machine. Officials of a school close by had complained to the newspaper of the pollution the machine generated when it was run, and forced them to keep their windows shut. So some time later, this colleague, who had just joined the newspaper did the story which was published with pictures on the front page.

The next day, as soon as he reached the office he was told to meet the proprietor. The gentleman complimented him for doing the story, but told him he should have confirmed whether the builder was still using the stone crushing machine. He then told the stunned reporter that the machine belonged to him and he had stopped work as soon as the people around complained to him. The young man kept his job. I would like to see how many journalists in today’s day and age keep theirs, if they do something like that.