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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 18, April 18, 2009

The Newspaper as a Looking Glass

Saturday 18 April 2009, by Uttam Sen


The world of journalism is regularly split into various categories by external purveyors. English and vernacular, mainstream and regional, to name a few. In these classifications there is one constant: the employee or wage-earner, the sub-editor, reporter, news editor, special correspondent, assistant editor, or even editor. Given today’s emphasis on the product rather than the person who contributes to its creation, as ephemeral an item as a newspaper or magazine does not ostensibly leave behind any trace of the human factor. Yet journalism was once the centre of attraction because it was concerned with the experience or emotions of others. But there is life on the other side of the mirror. The ubiquitous public sphere, now simplified to denote the space between the family and the State for spontaneous discourse, defines a universe that is giving voice to an incessant lifeworld, a “stage that subjects may experience together”. There can be verifiable outcomes to the process as the world is witness to change that is often mediated by information, discourse and even deeds to achieve the aims defined by the route.

Like many others in the epoch of the argumentative Indian, the newspaper’s opinion columns provide the reader with the opportunity to survey the widest contestations. Such information and debate are critical to well-being, because they kindle our questioning propensities and determine the way forward. The “capabilities” approach to development indicates that the deprivations people suffer are often buried beneath the surface. A watchful public sphere, that includes the media in all its manifestations, literature, and the vast knowledge bases available in the digital age, helps to retrieve the situation to the extent possible.

The authorities can be alerted to the plight of people whose fetters are perpetuated in many invidious ways and ameliorative action taken by investing them with appropriate capabilities. Extensive discourse over the predicament of tribals in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, unravelled a particular human condition in which the distressed appeared to have been reduced to quarries of putative benefactors and adversaries alike when they tried to break their shackles. The classic cycle of information, debate and relief was sequenced in real time as several incidents of tribal killings were reported in the newspapers, picked up and dissected in reflective journals where prominent activists appeared to be contributing anonymously.

When the Prime Minister visited the State, he availed of a public address at a journalism institute to remind young scribes of the importance of securing the other point of view. A society with aspirations to inclusiveness values all shades of opinion and it was instructive to discover that both the establishment and the radicals were being subjected to rigorous and impartial scrutiny, leading to the identification of the problem. Interestingly, literature on the period demolished stereotypes that often create insurmountable barriers to a proper appreciation of a situation. Thus, for instance, the “idealist” under pressure could turn on his tribal protégé just as ferociously as his feudal predecessor. All of these again were not incontrovertible truths. For instance, an article appearing in a leading socio-political journal projected the “extremist” point of view, namely, that they were upset with “infiltrators” and turn-coats. But a number of conclusions largely endured, namely, that the tribals had to be given the freedom to grow and that both the State and its avowed adversaries had often to sue for peace to please civil society, members of which had been gathering in droves to make their point.

Given the fortuitous reality that the State in India is formally committed to raising standards uniformly, what the guru of globalisation with a human face, Joseph Stiglitz, finds most endearing about us is the prospect of our making the 250 million of a relatively affluent society custodian of the progress of the remaining 750 million. The story of contemporary Indian journalism could well provide the parallel for the way in which the human factor imperceptibly emerges to make space for the individual between the pervasive State and the wealthy corporate sector in the larger picture. The “ordinary” person or the common man who is routinely addressed in public rhetoric may not turn extraordinary as a result, but the tide of participatory democracy can rescue him from the void.

The substance that fills the breach is an appreciation of the entitlements, the mutually re-enforcing social and economic linkages, shared experiences and memories, which bind the individual to his hearth and encourage his growth. For the journalist, the product he once contributed to was an aggregation of the labours of the humblest to the loftiest, from the now-defunct proof-reader and linotype operator to sub-editors (now copy-editors), reporters and editors. Whatever the (political) complexion of the newspaper to its reader, its overall persona was an attribute of combined endeavour, often substantial sweat coming from the “subordinate” or even technically “non-journalist” staff working through the night to give an edition its distinctive physical shape and flavour.

Living conditions were dismal in congested localities on the fringes of comfortable neighbourhoods. There were questions people wanted to know at the shop floor of the printing press. Reporters were also probing. The State’s Chief Minister is now detailing the imperatives of a makeover from agriculture to industry for future employment and growth but back in the eighties’ answers were falling in driblets, for example, comprehensive area development for rural regeneration, dispersal of the city centre for reducing urban congestion, satellite townships for long-term urban demographic balance and development in them for employment.

News stories would be followed up by features and analyses. The occasional comment, question or curiosity regarding a macro-universe which we could not readily relate to would be connected by research, fieldwork and interaction with specialists. The makings of a nebulous lifeworld were on the anvil. One has only to look around for the results. To begin with, even people who are apolitical and apathetic appreciate by now that a certain level of awareness is necessary to create the climate for growth without which the subject of jobs and income will be at a discount. If the word is the basic building block of the text, much effort was spent on preserving its sanctity and meaning, not only through editing and printing but in the choice and display of items in The Statesman which in this writer’s case was the professional breeding ground. It bears recalling that in the seventies and eighties the paper’s stated raison d’ etre lay in safeguarding liberties that eventually drove its Managing Director into conflict with the executive in Delhi. Those battles were being waged on exalted turf, later to translate into celebrated resistance to the Emergency and the struggle for the freedom of the Press. But even closer to the ground the newspaper’s essential function of informing and being informed, catalysing discourse, at times precipitating executive action, was visible. Again, all this was achieved within the structure of a standardised newsgathering schedule while an eye was kept on the radio and TV (that is, Doordarshan) headlines and the political bureau’s list of priorities from Delhi, perhaps characteristic of a national newspaper because the bureaucracy and the State apparatus were even more integral to life than it is now. Violence in Punjab, Kashmir and the North-East was often on the news schedule.

The newspaper was a living organism with a momentum of its own, an entity shaped by many years of observation and skill that could not be arbitrarily re-invented without a price. It remains a curiosity that the foundational principles of modular make-up and design of the hot metal era are technologically respected in its electronic incarnation, but are sometimes beyond the radar of those who habitually thump computer commands. The computer was essentially a device to facilitate transmission of a pristine craft. “New journalism” may every so often be fashioning its protocols without adequate deference to the detail that continuity is irredeemable. The successful innovator adjusts to change with this in mind, unless the modification is extremely short-lived, to be discarded for a “new” one within days. A good example of the former unspoiled technique was the practice of going through teleprinter files on a subject, particularly a developing one, consulting one’s own source within the paper for local responses and organising make-up by opening up the print “rules” (horizontal or vertical lines) in between stories to convey to the reader that they were aligned in content, all within the bounds of the traditional format in which space was limited and the time defined by an unambiguous deadline. The job was exacting and required a certain amount of groundwork (and inclination) on the part of the night editor. The principle has been absorbed in websites or search engines that cluster exhaustive side links to their stories. Incidentally, the reliable (web) locations in the US are maintained by the renowned print publications. The better newspapers are becoming “hybrid” editions with websites that cater to readers with specialized interests. Rather alarmingly, some like the Los Angeles Times have gone over altogether to Internet production at the expense of their print publications.

Official policy, ownership structures and so on are distinct and critical dimensions but they do not overwhelm the total consciousness of the people who work for it or have done so in the past. Neither do they comprehensively define its entire character. That feature is an element of the amorphous public sphere which can render experience and memory into inputs in the discourse that is at times palpably touching us. One is going by personal experience and perhaps overstating certain propositions to demonstrate that the empirical is sometimes at odds with a priori assumptions, for example, that a mainstream newspaper represents certain interests in all their dimensions or that wider issues do not figure either in its columns or in the sensitivities of the people who deliver it. The internet’s facility of enabling readers to choose and read only what they want may be a logical human response to being restricted by a newspaper editor or establishment’s choices but is patently an idea before its time in India where human ingenuity creates its own room for an admittedly limited autonomy. Besides, not only have we not reached that stage technologically at the level of mass readership, life is generally less atomized here and the wider human canvas before the reader makes collective involvement less of an intrusion.

In the past neither radio nor television ultimately succeeded in upstaging print journalism though both ran it close. Despite declining circulation in the West print journalism has found a new lease of life in India with growing urban literacy. Demands are usually localised, often cashed in by vernacular publications based on immediate advertisement requirements for goods and services. Their world view tends to be conservative, often parochial. Television, particularly private cable networks, has jolted newspapers into presenting livelier facades though at times at the cost of content. Incisive analyses question the ersatz glamour particularly when it is being packaged and re-packaged to give the consumer more of the same. Yet they have tremendous potential of reaching both the reader and the advertiser constructively by underscoring local needs in a slightly widened context to include health, education and employment, the ultimate benchmarks of human security, and the highway to capacity building, apart from the usual run of stories.

Global exposure has also kept the rumour mills alive to a rush of foreign participation. If these financial flows are indeed part of the greatest capital movement in history, the first in the mid-19th century brought English language journalism (including the forerunner of The Statesman) into the country. But this time it has ended with a global meltdown rather than a world war as Paul Krugman would have it. Public investment in livelihood systems and capacity-building could well be among India’s responses to the global crisis, areas that sections of the media and public sphere have reported and debated relentlessly.

The proliferation of financial editions, significantly with foreign hook-ups, meets the demand for information and comment on the nitty-gritty of globalisation. The plural character of the readership has led to events like A.K. Sen, another advocate of globalisation, but with qualifications, appearing as guest editor for a day of the country’s largest-selling publication, associated in the public mind with the market, and piloting an issue on human development. There are experts other than Stiglitz and Sen who anticipate a heart-warming Indian success story if globalisation is properly understood and implemented, namely, through unimpeded information flows and debate and the growth of capabilities through the entitlement and empowerment of the vast majority flanking the formidable contributions being made by Indians in the international market place. India’s edge over other developing countries lies in its skilled technological manpower (and some familiarity with the English language), a result of the planned institution of specialised instruction after independence. Similar foresight based on human development could eliminate the stigma of uneven development within a determinate timeframe.

The craving for autonomy drives the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Journalism’s basic creative instinct is dependent on people’s intelligence in leading their lives. Modern technology and the ensuing economies of scale have theoretically invested the profession with boundless potential. But qualitative progress remains notional. It could happen with the change in attitudes in the wake of seminal global developments. In the past, immanent concern for the individual condition and professionalism had blended to create an outstanding liberalism in the sense of openness favourable to rights and freedoms. Malcolm Muggeridge had captured some of that mood in the corridors of Statesman House in “The Thirties”.

Specific outcomes could have provided significant anecdotage if all journalists had remained in the public eye. For many years a renowned writer and poet who had worked at the desk of The Statesman, held the attention of the cognoscenti through the publication of a couple of spirited political magazines which flourished on shoestring budgets. Several timeless legends continue to write their weekly columns for a North Indian newspaper that recognises the worth of good writing, which, like vintage wine, often improves with age. These are instances one is acquainted with. There could be many others, perhaps less striking. People carry over their journalistic entitlements into holistic horizons well beyond the brick and mortar or physical confines of their office spaces.

Just as much as in today’s news narratives, and the stories behind them that unfold through discourse in journals or dialogue among ordinary folk, the picture that emerges can be one of success and fulfilment. The newspaper’s culture, parti-cularly in periods when debate and discussion were integral cultural prerequisites, extended the individual, group or even the State’s conundrum to the public sphere’s conversations. If economic and social networks and common memories can be viewed as entitlements, this discourse continues in a newspaper community’s life well beyond the formal years of office work, as a kind of counter-point to the wider symphony of national or global events.

But what has solid basis in reality to society at large is revived through people whose reflections, with the benefit of considerable hindsight, make durable impressions. They continue their commit-ment to objectivity and integrity of thought and expression, attributes that can elude ordinary mortals.

The story that grips the reader has a tale of production behind it, not entirely dissimilar in origin and content. Once the journalist becomes a reader himself he is free to follow them to their logical conclusions. A sound newspaper with tradition plays a mirror to the narrative in progress and creates an eternal entitlement for both reader and journalist. The power of objectivity can be exercised to place contemporary happenings in perspective and sometimes make them part of an intelligible whole. But the impression can also be the opposite of what is “normal” or “expected”. Initially a product of the colonial establishment, The Statesman was often overtaken by its own professional momentum and commitment to professional values that challenged the existing order well before Independence. The most sterling demonstration of that attribute was made in reporting the Bengal famine of 1942 when the provincial administration was sitting tight while people perished. Whitehall used reportage from The Statesman to force the administration into action.


Terror, another face of hunger and insecurity, occupies similar space today. Mumbai turned into the city of dreadful night on November 26 as terrorists entered the southern part of the island city by speedboats from the sea and wreaked havoc on an innocent population. The body blow to India’s most happening city in terms of people killed and injured and the shock waves that would emanate from the shooting at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the domestic airport, hospitals, five-star hotels, prestige business area and bustling sidewalks and cafes of the multi-ethnic Colaba district, were distressing in themselves. The BBC’s deadpan comment on November 27 could be more loaded than initially apparent: Mumbai was probably the least affected by the global meltdown, at least before the terror strike. There were several straws in the wind, including the external theory that this was the Al-Qaeda acting on Indian soil against Western targets. Internally, a political or communal backlash could prove even more tragic.

But for the twin viruses of fear and violence to be healed, enlightened social and political leadership and responsible media coverage based on truth, objectivity and restraint would be critical. One could recall the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s interventions during the riots and the odd editorial one had managed to dig out of The Statesman’s archives. The legacy promises to live on and make a difference to the constructive thinking and action social activists are talking about, tracing the causes of deprivation and alienation to their roots and forming opinion that mends and rejuvenates rather than destroys. But there is another aspect: the country now has the political and material wherewithal to take out terrorism, an option many would want it to exercise. The newspaper as the looking glass brings the kaleidoscope, the constantly changing patterns, home to the reader, almost thanklessly, because the picture is never quite complete

There is an inexorability about the human determination to survive despite the odds that runs through the text, the printed content regarded in terms of content rather than form. The print journalist also learns to read the subtext, the underlying theme. He discovers fresh space, in this case the quest to overcome adversity.

Capabilities create income, promote livelihood systems and strengthen physical and social entitlements (namely, property, networks). Political empowerment gives people the freedom to vote, exercise choice in the running of their affairs. The space people acquire through socio-economic and political security helps them objectify, comprehend and express in concrete form, their own circumstances and enter into debate and the exchange of ideas that makes civil society a creative complement of the State as, for instance, in the discourse on Andhra Pradesh. But when human security and physical (military) security are at cross-hairs, communication can assume atavistic, visceral dimensions e.g. terrorism and mass killing in one country to drive home a point in another. The attrition witnessed through the decades assumes centre-stage in news coverage and discourse and widens public interest in security to include the intricacies of geo-politics. The attack on Mumbai ensured that.

The ordinary person’s participation in the dialogue should have been more integral to public policy than it is today in the subcontinent, particularly in the troubled region to India’s west. The American electoral process, which returned the common man’s candidate as President, was instrumental in having a lame duck executive sanction $ 800 billion to buy off loans and mortgages of the knocked-back citizen. This will enable him to withstand foreclosure and is testimony to what more responsive democracy can achieve. The Indian journalist as the common man is fortunate that sometimes his voice carries further than those of counterparts in his neighbourhood but can be even more so if he becomes an effective agent of capacity-building. The wanton destruction and killing in Mumbai was a sinister distraction the people of the region cannot afford at a time when even the world’s richest country mobilises public expenditure for its underprivileged. The country’s considerable diplomatic and intellectual resources should be employed to their fullest to efficiently root out the menace of terror without diluting the humanitarian welfare content of security.

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