The loss of Aakar Patel

Why journalism is activism enough.

 |  4-minute read |   29-06-2015
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Though Aakar Patel was technically my first editor at a newspaper, neither does he remember me interning at the Asian Age, nor is my memory of him greater than cowering fear at the whole new news business and the appalling conditions in which journalists worked besides his booming voice and personality in that tiny Prabhadevi room. After that I spoke to him twice while in my two years at Mint. Neither did I impact nor was I impacted. So I claim no personal sense of sorrow at his leaving the profession to be the country head for Amnesty International.

However, like the troll army that believes he should not be taking over the position, I too believe his loss is inappropriate. Primarily because the profession loses a clear, strong editorial voice in his departure. But more than the provocative columns he churned out – poking fun at right wing ugliness and newly discovering that the south of India is far more progressive than the all-noise-and-no-substance north (good morning!) – whether you agreed with him or not, he was one of the few editors and writers unafraid to take a stand. And he took it clearly and often, rudely. Thus, he was read and debated and understood or misunderstood, as he pushed his lines.

While asking around, someone said to me: “Well, given the government action against NGOs, we now need someone strong to stand up for India’s human rights records.” Which is great. More power to those fighting for causes they believe in and important counters to balance India’s journey towards progress. I couldn’t help thinking: "Must it be an editor?"

The reason why journalists are not activists is because we perform a different function. We may not align when we speak for. This is what the troll army latches on to when they say we are not on their side. So right. We are not because we are not meant to be. There is a critical cleft between empathy and agreeing or disagreeing with.

Patel was a crucial voice in his disagreements. Whether he was pointing out Modi’s "Kaante" stride or exposing VP Singh’s understanding of the internal language of the BJP, as editor and journalist, his opposition came with journalistic licence. Even as he aligned his barbs and shots, as a reader, you (we journalists read vociferously too) believed he was fulfilling the obligation to be non-aligned himself.

Objectivity in journalism is lent to us by the profession of journalism itself. You may, as reader perceive our publications to pick a side or not, but our systems do not permit us to as much as you would like to believe. Three levels of editing later, any apparent slant is a carefully considered choice, has been counter balanced by an editor who will fling it back at you, or remain a stand the paper or magazine has chosen to go with for a carefully considered reason. That point of view is liable to be contradicted if circumstances so demand. The decision is always collective and never inadvertent. This is also why several of the newer news modules still aspire to mainstream credibility – which comes from passing through the mainstream system’s verification process – diverse and lumbering as it is, it insulates from dangerous individualisation. We journalists are protected from the fallacies of our delusions, by the equally self-important delusions of our peers.

When the troll army today decries Patel’s ability to "skew the human rights statistics of India", I worry more that I would wonder at all if it would be true. Would he? Could he? Why activism? Why does one of our sharpest editors now believe that the pen is not mightier than the sword?

Several editors and journalists lower down the rung quit journalism routinely for high paying corporate jobs and activist work or even to write books or study further. Journalism pay grades are not so high as to keep us in despite all that is without. Journalists come, journalists go. The profession survives its stone pelters.

Yet to lose voices like Patel’s to the potential non-objectivity is disheartening. Because at the end of the day, the only voice you can really trust to tell you what’s going on out there is the journalist’s.

While I disagreed with you often, I am now obliged to doubt you Aakar. I mourn you because I will never read you the same again.


Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri Jayaraman @gayatri__j

Mumbai-based writer, reporter, editor. Currently writing two books.

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