The perpetual whipping boy

The year was 1989. It was just another routine night shift for a sub-editor in a news agency in Chennai, then Madras. But when the phone rang past midnight it wasn’t just another call, for the caller was none other than the then Chief Minister of the State, who went about venting fire and fury over a story which the agency had carried about the security hassles for a press conference, earlier in the day, arranged by the government and addressed by representatives of the LITE. When the line became too hot to handle, the sub-editor politely told the CM to issue a denial, if he felt the story had been, offensive. After a few choice words were delivered on how journalists in particular and the profession in general should work, the line went dead. The sub-editor promptly alerted his bosses, who then verified the credentials of the story in tune with the ‘advice’ of the CM and found nothing wrong with it. In fact several newspapers carried stories on the same subject on their own. When the agency bosses wrote to the CM quoting the phone conversation, and the matter tended to become a big issue in the media, the CM simply denied making any such call!

A few days ago, the same person who is back as CM has hit out at the press for carrying allegations against him made by his political opponents, ‘without verifying the facts’ and has even threatened legal action on newspapers which carry such statements. He had even made a remarkable discovery that the papers are using such words as ‘reported’ and ‘allegedly’ to escape legal action. Well, we are truly stumped by the CM’s ability to unravel our trade secret. Being a newspaperman himself, as he keeps reminding us at every opportunity, we are unable to refute this inside information and no doubt we have been caught with our pants down.

In the same vein, he then seeks to rebuff the allegation that had irked him, and goes on to accuse the earlier regime of accepting illegal gratification (Bribe is offensive), which was reported by all the newspapers, much against the advice of the CM. The press knew only too well that the Chief Minister’s reprimand applied only to statements made by his detractors and not to himself.

For, how else can one explain the silence of the conscientious Chief Minister when several of his unquotable quotes make its way into the pages of several newspapers quite regularly. The Chief Minister certainly knows that whatever he speaks is news. Instead of exercising restraint when talking, it is now clear that he will only make scapegoats of the media for just quoting him. So when he accuses the STF of chasing and molesting tribal women, without bothering to even verify the facts, the same gets printed by the newspapers. But it is only the latter who is blamed of indiscretion. When he says that so and so is sure to go to prison for corruption, thereby pre-empting a court enquiry and the same gets published, it is the press which is inviting the judiciary’s contempt. When in every press meet the CM resorts to his favourite pastimes of digs, puns and jibes, it is the press which gets accused of playing to the gallery and not the script-writer. In short the present incumbent does not miss a single opportunity to use the media to good effect and shoot his mouth off at the drop of a hat against his opponents, knowing full well how to deliver a good copy so that the reporters will simply lap it up. But when the same press bites him he screams for safeguards against libel and also ventures to lecture to the fourth estate on how to conduct itself. And we in that estate are supposed to listen, understand and act according to the advice of the father figure who also whenever he is not the Chief Minister, belongs to the fraternity.

Media in general and newspapers in particular, only mirror the day to day developments in various spheres of life. And politics has almost always dominated much of the room space in all newspapers, if only for the influence it generates on our daily life and also for the grist it offers for readers. Whoever said man is a political animal probably never contemplated this veritable zoo which we see now with specimens of all types adorning the political arena. The stink and din generated by this class has singularly contributed to the all pervasive decay in virtually every realm of activity. The palpable state of degradation, which we find ourselves in is precisely because of these animals’ penchant for rhetoric and utter disregard for action and constructive thinking. And nothing can reflect this state of affairs more than the media. If the real is bad, then the picture is also bound to be so, There is no use blaming the mirror. And if the papers sometimes seem dirty, it is primarily because of the mudslinging between politicians of various hues. They slander, in haste only to deny in leisure and the media faces the music for publishing both.

Their unrestrained tirades get into print, more because Editors are sometimes forced to decide on the basis of who said it and not what, for if the latter yardstick is applied most of the utterances will be found unprintworthy. So a Chief Minister, who talks of policemen chasing women and a Central Minister who describes a brigand as a true hero, get quoted even if their remarks sound ridiculous or atrocious.

The use of the words ‘allegedly’ and ‘reportedly’ does not really offer the type of protection to newspapers as imagined by the Chief Minister. It is more to guard against the politicians’ known habit of denying their utterances, when it becomes imperative for the newspapers to carry their denial too. Politicians, if they so desire, can still sue newspapers. Some in fact do so, or at least send notices, which are to be construed as a warning. Most often we are let off ‘magnanimously’, which is only an alibi for their disinclination to be seen as anti-press. But we now see that our Chief Minister has been emboldened enough not to bother about that stigma and he no doubt means business. His enchantment with the media, which ‘allegedly’ brought him back to power, has obviously dried up. Beware, Editors there is a Super Editor keeping watch.

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Jawahar T R