Being an old-fashioned kind of guy, brought up in an old-fashioned sort of home, I came to believe that the duties of a newspaper were to inform, educate, and entertain. It was about a decade ago that I first learnt that, for large sections of the English-language media, these three duties had been superseded by or subordinated to a fourth—the duty to titilate.
It happened this way. A man I knew slightly but admired a great deal had died. His name was Krishnaswami Swaminathan, and he had three careers. The first was as an inspirational teacher of English literature at Presidency College, Madras. The second was as the editor of the Sunday Standard, as the highly regarded weekend edition of the Indian Express was then known. The third was as the Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, based in New Delhi. It was in 1958 that Swaminathan assumed this post, after the first editor had died and the second decided to take up a Governorship instead. When he began the job a mere two volumes had appeared; when he left, thirty years later, a further ninety-eight had been published. His accomplishment was both mammoth as well as meticulous; for thousands of letters had to be deciphered, and hundreds of speeches dated and validated. References and cross-references had to be provided, and indexes prepared for individual volumes as well as for the series as a whole. Luckily, Swaminathan had a dedicated team working with him; still, the main job was his, and he executed it superbly.
When Swaminathan died, in 1994, I was living in New Delhi. I knew that his career as a teacher and journalist would not command much attention in that city, but I had hoped that his work on Gandhi’s collected works would. I was mistaken. No Delhi daily would carry an obituary of him, despite my entreaties and those of the distinguished scholar Rajmohan Gandhi. This silence regarding Swaminathan was all the more galling because these same papers had just carried multiple obituaries of a fashion designer whose contributions to India were a fraction of the teacher-editor’s. However, the fashion designer was young, he was glamorous, and he had died an unnatural death, of Aids—reasons enough for the Delhi newspapers to devote dozens of column inches to him while failing to note the death of a far greater Indian.
I was reminded of my failure to have K. Swaminathan honoured in Delhi while watching the coverage of the shooting and subsequent death of the BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. On the day he was shot, I switched on the TV, where a senior reporter, when asked to describe the incident, spoke instead of his personal grief and the closeness of his ties to the Mahajan family. Through the long week that the politician hovered between life and death, the media—printed as well as electronic—focused with a fascinated obsession on the stream of rich and famous visitors who flocked to the hospital. After Mahajan died, the anchors on television waxed lyrical in their tributes. On one channel I heard him being described as a man of ‘kinetic energy’, on another as ‘one of the few politicians with a modern mind’.
By the standards of Indian politics Mahajan was young—he had achieved high office when he was still short of fifty. He was, if not exactly glamorous himself, on first-name terms with major film-stars and corporate titans. And he died a bloody death—at the hands of his own brother. These factors go some way in explaining the hours spent on him on television and the pages on him in print.
When writing or speaking of the lately deceased one can follow one of two models. The first is contained in the old Latin saying, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, speak only good of the dead. The second is Voltaire’s injunction that while we may flatter the living, the dead deserve nothing but the truth. While Indians in general tend to follow the former, one would expect (or at least hope) that professional journalists would take heed of the latter. Certainly, the decorum imposed by death precludes a brutal frankness. One did not expect the journalists covering Mahajan’s passing to describe him as, shall we say, a fixer. Still, it was striking that, first, the praise was so effusive, and second, that it was generalized rather than specific. What modern policies did this politician have to offer the Indian public? Or was being a habitué of five-star hotels enough to qualify as being ‘modern’? One knew of Mahajan’s abilities as a networker and fund-raiser, but in which concrete ways had his ‘kinetic energy’ helped the people of India? Instead of substantive answers to these questions, all one got by way of specifics was, once again, anecdotes of this or that journalist’s intimacy with the departed politician.
Being an old-fashioned kind of guy, I could not but compare the media’s treatment of Pramod Mahajan’s demise with the reaction to the death some years ago of another senior Indian politician, C. Subramaniam. Now ‘CS’ was a leader of whom it could truly be said that he had a modern mind. And his achievements were real. It was he who reformed the system of agricultural science, to make it an effective handmaiden in the Green Revolution that in turn made India self-sufficient in food and thus also independent of Western pressure and influence. After he retired from public life, CS worked tirelessly (if in the end, unsuccessfully) to reform the electoral system, hoping to free it of money power and muscle power.
C. Subramaniam died a natural death, of old age. That said, the neglect of his life and work by the press was shameful in the extreme. The only decent obituary appeared, ironically, in the London Economist, which saw, more clearly than our own newspapers, what this Indian had done for his country. A foreign paper understood that CS was a man of real distinction and achievement. Our papers knew only that at the moment when Subramaniam died, he was not a man of wealth, power, or celebrity.
Pramod Mahajan himself claimed that while in the early stages of his career, a politician needed the media, once he had achieved power it was the media which needed him more. His own career certainly exemplified this. While he began by cultivating journalists, in the end it was journalists who were cultivating him. Of course, his case was by no means exceptional. In Delhi, the closeness of journalists to politicians is both ubiquitous and legendary. Editors and columnists are flattered into believing that because of their proximity to power they somehow enjoy and exercise power, too.
To be a journalist, and yet successfully escape the corruptions of the Indian press today, one needs one of two attributes. It helps if one is old enough to remember and be influenced by a time when politicians were public-spirited, and journalists themselves independent-minded. In Delhi itself live two of my journalistic heroes, B. G. Verghese and Ajit Bhattacharjea. Both are utterly honest, non-partisan, and interested in the world beyond the hotels and offices of the capital. Both, however, are close to eighty years of age.
As for the other escape route, I must declare an interest—I am a Tamil who grew up, in an intellectual sense, in Bengal, while the two periodicals I regularly write for are printed in Kolkata and Chennai respectively. That said, it does seem that newspapers published in cities distant from Delhi have succumbed somewhat less to the seductions of power or the cult of celebrity.