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I saw PM Modi's interview on TV recently and I'm shocked at the state of Indian journalism

Valson Thampu
Valson ThampuJan 25, 2018 | 15:27

I saw PM Modi's interview on TV recently and I'm shocked at the state of Indian journalism

I have never been accused of circumspection. Those who know me, and know better than me, have always chastised me for my impulsiveness. Aristotle, for the reason that he could not advise me directly for having preceded me by over two millennia, wrote a book in which he did the same. The hallmark of the virtuous, he wrote, is their deliberateness, the circumspection with which they walk and the stately slowness in which they talk.

Well, here’s the first instance in my life in which I have grappled with myself in light of this golden rule. I thought and thought and thought. Thought about it very deeply. But no amount of thinking would change, or mitigate, the inner unease I felt about it. My plight now is such that unless I write, howsoever mildly and indirectly, my thoughts about this matter, I won’t be able to sleep. And, pardon me, I can’t go on forgoing sleep forever. So, I better write.

I chanced to see a channel interview of the prime minister. Two anchors were on the job, armed with sheaves of questions. Now, interviewing a prime minister as mythologically unapproachable and forbiddingly serious-looking as Modi is, is a privileged experience. It can overwhelm almost all worthies. It will certainly overwhelm me, even though I am not worthy.

So, it would neither surprise nor disturb me if the two journos, melting with gratitude for the rarest of privileges imaginable, looked overwhelmed, moon-struck, confused, befuddled, scatter-brained, and so on. I would have empathised with them, reading my own plight vis-a-vis the prime minister even at a distance of nearly 3000km.

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But that was not how I found these journos. I found them worshipful to the extent of seeming to be obsequious. They were seen looking at the PM with eyes wet with wonder and dilating with amazement. Their mien bordered on adoration, gazing at the interviewee, without batting an eyelid for unnaturally long spells (unmindful of how it punished their poor eyes), as though they were apprehensive that one moment of relaxation on their part would cause the dream-situation to vanish like a pageantry in the clouds.

There was a time when being discreet in the way one did important things was deemed basic to the style, if you like, of doing them properly and professionally. Lack of such studied holding back used to be considered a sign of being green in the domain. Explicitness used to be regarded, besides, as a sort of insult to the reader/viewer; for it was premised on a poor view of his/her powers of comprehension.

It is like designing books for children in extra large fonts with naive illustrations. Illustrating the obvious is a permissible trick in children’s books. But treating adults in a similar fashion is a slight, an insult.

Now, journos are human beings. That being the case, it is understandable that they have their personal loyalties and affinities to personal pantheons. What is not natural or professional is eradicating the distinction between private and public domains. There is a difference between staring at the face of objects of our personal and idiosyncratic adulation in our parlours, and doing the same on the screen. Explicitness is even a virtue, a sign of freedom and spontaneity, in the private domain. It is tawdry in public; especially in undertakings that belong to the sphere of art. 

Flattery is an art. And all art forms stand on the "explicit" being draped in the indirection of implicitness. Often, it is by artfully concealing a sentiment that you make it all the more powerful vis-a-vis the reader or spectator. No work of art the significance of which is explicit, splashed on the surface, is worth our time or money. It is kitsch. It will fetch next to nothing at Christie’s. So, if flattery is to be taken to higher levels of artistic suavity, it has to be doctored with delicate and deliberate indirection.

Furthermore, the artist should not take the place of the public, or the connoisseur of art. His job is to give expression to his creative urge and talent. If ever an artist is seen standing near his work of art and praising it fulsomely, his very enthusiasm is sure to off-put even his ardent admirers. This is the quickest way to lose admirers.

Journalism, in case we have forgotten, is a genre to which the irreverent is closely and keenly aligned. The journalist is the reincarnation, in our times, of the old-world prophet, who was distinguished by his fierce, fiery independence. Such independence was a necessary pre-condition for speaking the truth to power, which was the essence of journalism.

In those days, flattery was largely the preserve of the courtier, who shaded his eyes, even as the king entered the court, presumably to protect his eyes from the blazing radiance of the king’s visage. (The courtier did not, in this instance, say - with the help of some 600 questions - that the king’s face was shining like the sun. That was left to the rest to infer. Once again, implicitness was the secret of his artfulness.)

A courtier praising his king was routine. It was expected of him. But a prophet praising the king was a scandal. Praise higher than this could not be thought of. All instances of praise partake of the scandalous, one way or another. A visible element of self-abasement is intrinsic to praise. It surfaces fulsomely in flattery. The difference between the two is one of degree, not of kind.

The tragedy of contemporary monarchs is that prophets are no longer available to them to utter even a syllable of appreciation, which would have been a million times more powerful and valuable than hours and hours of prime-time media complaisance or growelling obsequy.

When journalists conduct themselves like courtiers, they damn journalism. It is a loss not only to journalists, but also to the country as a whole. It is a worrisome loss, think of it, even to those who are laved with this ballast of soulless flattery. 

Flattery aims at creating a factitious effect. The courtier does not have to make a ritual of shading his eyes from the face of the king, if the face in question could emit even a feeble ray of light. In fact, it is precisely because the king himself knows that such rays of radiance are wholly absent from his visage and person that he feels elated at the acted piece of make-believe.

Now, instead of the journalists shading their eyes, in a fashion that mimics the courtier’s flair for make-believe, if they were to denounce the insincerity of courtly flattery, it would do far greater good to their calling. This would help in two ways. One, the public will know that courtiers, unlike journalists, abase themselves through flattery. Second, insofar as all courtiers are doing it, they might be tempted to think - “If so many courtiers are struck by the radiance on the face of our king, there must be something in it, after all.”

What this means is that a little bit of taste, a spoonful of common sense, a touch of self-respect, a tinge of regard for viewers’ intelligence, a modicum of familiarity with the premises and principles of propriety, even a feigned respect for truth are all basic to the vocation, especially in democracy, of journalism.

No one needs to tell us that these are days of cut-throat channel competition. So, it is understandable that a channel goes overboard in milking the last drop of privilege from a coveted opportunity.

But, it would make sense, and greater profit, if it is done in a journalistically befitting manner. What is the fun in coming upon a bumper harvest and making a hash of it with sleazy unprofessionalism?

As ordinary citizens, our concern is that phenomena like this signal the sure decline of journalism. Arguably, this has been in the making over a period of time. But never before has it broken out so fulsomely.

And if exercises like these are going to boost TRP standings, we shall stand condemned for our own boorish lack of taste.

Last updated: January 25, 2018 | 15:50
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