Arun Shourie on the media and public discourse

BY shourie| IN Media Practice | 23/03/2003
Balanced journalism as practiced today amounts to neutrality between the arsonist and the fire-fighter.

Extracts from the text of Arun Shourie’s speech at the India Today Conclave, reprinted by the Indian Express. Arun Shourie is Union Minister for Disinvestment, IT and Telecom in the Indian government, and a former editor of the Indian Express.




And that brings me to the third point: public discourse in general.


Public discourse


Every decision is a choice — often between evenly-balanced alternatives. Often it is an act of faith in the face of imponderables. Every decision will benefit some, it will inconvenience and dislocate others. All objectives cannot be attained simultaneously — indeed, to attain one, often we have by necessity to postpone or even sacrifice another.


Today, the decision has but to be announced, and commentators leap to

champion some alternative — till that very moment, the alternative had found little space in newspaper columns. I am often struck by the sudden expertise that some of our journalists display the moment some particular weapons system is chosen — they suddenly seem to know so much about minute technicalities. Is it that they have some secret method of rapid learning? Or is it just that they are reproducing what some rival weapons peddler has given them?


The decision has but to be announced, and every one conjures up disasters. ‘‘But what if...?’’ The decision has but to be announced and our newspapers rush to the one who — because he is slow to adjust his ways — is going to be dislocated. And much of such ‘‘critiques’’ is complete invention: recall the stories that leading magazines and newspapers carried about workers being punished and put before boilers in the wake of privatisations of Modern Foods and BALCO.


How many stories have you seen since then reporting the fact that the wages of workers in these enterprises, in Paradeep Phosphates have gone up by upto thirty per cent since privatisation; that in case after case a host of allowances that had been withdrawn by Government have been restored; that production, and thereby the surety of employment has doubled in Modern Foods, that it has tripled in Paradeep Phosphates; that major expansions are afoot in BALCO, in IPCL, and this is what will increase jobs...? ‘‘Imports closing factories, Opposition denounces Government for bowing to WTO,’’ the headlines proclaim — but hasn’t the opening up that others have undertaken because of the same WTO agreements not helped our exports to grow by 15 per cent in spite of a world recession?


A policy has but to be announced for attaining one goal, and commentators get riveted on some other objective that the policy is not going to achieve: ‘‘Yes, this may increase yields, but will it not increase inequalities in the countryside?’’ ‘‘But it will do nothing for the landless...’’


Such ‘‘reporting’’, such ‘‘analysis’’ inflicts great harm. At the best of times, leaders have to contend with a host of pressing problems — you can imagine how many more they have to ward off these days. Like the rest of us, they would rather not take on more contention — but by raising the decibel level, reporting of this kind discourages them, ‘‘Why take on another headache?’’


Individuals apart, this focus — on the tonga maker, so to say, who has lost his livelihood by the introduction of the motor car — this conjuring up of miasmas, scatters national resolve. The country needs to do a host of things to improve the competitiveness of its industries. But when people are being led to believe that every obligation taken up under WTO is a ‘‘sell-out’’, when they are led to believe — howsoever subliminally — that getting out of WTO is actually an option, they are that much less willing to make the necessary adjustments.


I would therefore urge colleagues in the media:


• Stop rewarding disruptionists, stop highlighting disruptions: as reasoned, documented interventions in Legislatures find no place in newspapers the next day, and walkouts and halla always make it to the headlines, what are Legislators liable to do?


• Stop treating issues as yet another spectator-sport. Own the reforms you say have to be brought about. Be a part of the solution.


• Criticism, vigorous, unrelenting criticism, yes. But criticism that springs from investigation and study is the very opposite of merely repeating the allegation that someone — someone who conceives his very job to be to keep hurling allegations — has hurled. Contrariness is not independence.


• Shun what many are trying to make the reigning ideology of journalism today —superciliousness.


• Shun ‘‘balanced journalism’’: so many colleagues in TV, even in the press today adopt the easy, lazy routine — get hold of one fellow who is ‘‘for’’ an issue and someone else who is ‘‘against’’ it; ask each for his view — ‘‘in brief’’, of course; the story is complete — both sides have been covered! This is neutrality between the arsonist and the fire-fighter. It enervates. The reader is left with the comforting impression, ‘‘There are two sides to every issue,’’ and thereby concludes that he need do nothing. But there aren’t two sides to many issues. And it is our job as persons engaged in public discourse to dig out the facts that are necessary for choosing between the alternatives.


• And that also means that we must research the facts ourselves. We must eschew plants — by corporates, by political groups, by embassies.


• Informed circles within media must talk outside their circles. Most of us get satisfied with the acclaim we receive within our small circles — journalists from other journalists, politicians from other politicians who happened to have been in the House the day we made that speech. Thus we end up preaching to the converted. The consequence is as evident as it is debilitating: the intellectual argument for reforms has been won — in the economic papers, for instance; but our not having reached out to language newspapers, for instance, has meant that they continue to repeat the phrases and slogans of twenty years ago.


• One final thing: even though our job is reading and writing and speaking, we must work for closure, for ending debates, for finality. Today there is no end to disputation, to roadblocks being thrown at every turn. A firm has to be disinvested. How do we proceed? First the Disinvestment Commission studies the enterprise — sometimes over months, if not a year. Its recommendation is examined first by an inter-ministerial committee, then by the Committee of

Secretaries headed by the Cabinet Secretary, then by the Cabinet Committee on Disinvestment presided over by the Prime Minister. These decide, let us assume, to accept the Commission’s recommendation.


Then advisors, and valuers are selected — each advisor through international competitive bidding, each valuer through another elaborate process of competition. The bids for both positions are invited after inter-ministerial committees have agreed on the terms defining the task to be performed. Next, Expressions of Interest are invited from parties that intend to participate in the privatisation of the enterprise. Each Expression of Interest is then evaluated by inter-ministerial committees. The Qualified Interested Parties then begin due diligence of the enterprise and its books — and, as happened in ITDC hotels, in NALCO many feel free to disrupt the due diligence at every step. . . .


Anyone and everyone is free to move the courts at every stage: we have had forty cases in the last year-and-a-half. Fifteen debates in Parliament, over nine hundred questions answered. This time a new demand: ‘‘Get the opinion of the Attorney General’’. The opinion is obtained. ‘‘No, we must have the Attorney General here in the House to answer our queries.’’



Three fundamentals


Beyond such specifics, there are three fundamentals we must bear in mind.


We must make development the focus of public discourse. Today we are

bombarding the reader with so many distractions. But even getting through a high school exam requires us to focus.


Second, journalists and commentators must see the great injury they have inflicted by lionising sundry leaders as ‘‘a man (or woman) of the masses’’. These journalists projected uncouthness as ‘‘authenticity’’, they portrayed roughness as strength, they took lauding such persons as proof of their own commitment to the downtrodden. The results are visible in state after state — a police force now no more than the private posse of whoever happens to be in office; a civil service that is merely the stamp for completing the paper-work; universities, corporations that are now just fiefs for suborning cars and air-conditioners; cooperative banks that are tills of the influential. We must use but one touchstone for adjudging leaders: ‘‘What was the condition of institutions when this leader assumed office? What is their condition as he demits office?’’


Third, and perhaps most important, we must redeem the true meaning of being a ‘‘representative of the people’’ in a democracy. Today we take it to be the job of a person elected by a group — his castemen, his supporters in a constituency — to pander to them. It is his job, we assume, it is but natural for him to advance their interests — to get them jobs, to secure transfers and postings for the ones who will do his bidding. Indeed, things have gone farther. Today we applaud vulgarity as ‘‘the language of the masses’’, we laud that ‘‘man of the masses’’ for not being ‘‘artificial’’, for shunning affectation and hypocrisy.


 We applaud a leader who throws officers from posting to posting as evidence of ‘‘the downtrodden coming into their own’’, of their ‘‘throwing off the shackles of ages’’. Indeed, the way we have reconciled ourselves to the type who now man some of our legislatures, it seems that we have internalised a very specific notion of representativeness — as forty per cent of the people are illiterate, it is but natural that forty per cent of our rulers will be illiterate; as a fair proportion of our people violate the law, so what if ‘‘x’’ per cent of the Assembly have criminal backgrounds?


We must, Burke-like advocate the opposite. A member may have been sent to the Legislature from a particular locality or by a particular group. But he is there not to serve the interests of that locality, much less of that group. He is there to weigh on their behalf issues concerning the country. He is not to be representative in the sense of being the average — that much illiterate, that corrupt, lacking competence as much or having as much of it as the ‘‘average’’

citizen. The representative is to be the one who is best equipped to weigh alternatives, to draft and consider laws, to discharge the executive functions of governance — with but one compass as his guide, the interest of the country as a whole.




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