Madam Speaker, which news should we not report – poverty, lynching or corruption?
Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan's advice to journalists to “avoid reporting unpleasant truth at times” can be understood against the background of the event where she spoke. As the event was organised under the auspices of her party's parent organisation – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, it can be understood within the context in which RSS operates.
First, what did she say? That journalists must “maintain objectivity in their work, use beautiful language and sometimes avoid telling the unpleasant truth”, reportedly.
She reportedly cited an ancient shloka, saying, “Satyam Bruyaat Priyam Bruyaat, Na Bruyaat Apriyam Satyam”.
The full shloka, as mentioned in the Manusmriti, goes, “Satyam Bruyaat, Priyam Bruyaat, Na Bruyaat Satyam Apriyam. Priyam Nanrutam Bruyaat, Esha Dharmah Sanatanah.” Roughly translated, it means, “Say what is true, say what is sweet, but do not say what is true but not sweet, nor say what is sweet but not true”.
Why ignore unpleasant truths?
Ignoring Manusmriti's politics for a moment, anybody conversant with even the basic tenets of journalism will know this is not what journalism is about. Even for non-journalists, those familiar with even basic history will know that news coverage is not about ignoring unpleasant truths. Rather, it is about specifically “not” ignoring them.
What are these unpleasant truths Mahajan is talking about? When poverty runs writ large in a country, should journalists ignore the task of telling better-off sections about hardships of their deprived fellow countrymen? Where heinous crimes are the order of the day, should news organisations ignore telling the society about the ills it is infested with?
Where corruption permeates government as well as society leading to exploitation of the poor, should media avoid exposing scams? When radical ideologies start occupying minds of public at large, should journalists stop alerting about the spread of radicalism and threat to democracy? It is impossible to imagine even faulty democracies without a thriving media.
Ideal journalism is very clear about its relationship with the government. Journalists are always and always supposed to show a mirror to the government, pointing out to it where it is going wrong. Governments must be shown their weakest points so that governance can be improved. If that doesn't happen, at least the record of the government will be clear in the voters' mind when they go to the polling booth.
Narad as a journalist
The event at which Mahajan was speaking was a journalism awards function organised by RSS-affiliated Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra. The “Devrishi Narad Jayanti Patrakar Samman Samaroh” was organised in the name of the sage Narad, who is often labeled the first journalist, according to Hindu mythology.
Narad was considered the bearer of news because he is supposed to have the ability to freely move between all imaginable realms and therefore be aware of happenings everywhere. However, in popular depiction, he has also often been shown as a gossip-monger, engineering fights by planting provocative information strategically.
The latter image quite fits the brand of journalists who are working at the behest of the establishment presently. For that reason, it makes sense for RSS to project Narada as an idol. However, real journalism cannot be practiced within mythological contexts. Journalists have to be fair and bold and always be on the lookout for unpleasant truths, rather than ignoring them.
RSS's approach to journalism
Mahajan's statement is also reflective of the RSS' approach towards journalism. The shadowy organisation hardly ever gives interviews and whenever it speaks, it is mostly through media outfits run by itself. In keeping with this tradition, leaders of RSS and BJP rarely give media interviews and whenever they do, they resist tough questions. When some reporters persist and ask uncomfortable questions, the leaders either just leave or hush them up.
It is quite possible that the said awards function honoured only those who have contributed to the propagation of the views of the RSS and the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in states. Some of them were not even journalists. Take Shilpi Tewari for example, who is an architect but was felicitated at the function for “effective use of social media to raise issues in the interest of the nation”.
Honoured to receive the Devrishi Narad Journalism award for effective use of Social Media to raise issues in the interest of the nation. pic.twitter.com/4zOUfcvO1q— shilpi tewari (@shilpitewari) June 21, 2017
Tewari is a former aide of Union Minister Smriti Irani and had attracted a lot of attention in March 2016 for allegedly circulating a fake video of the events inside JNU, at the peak of the “nationalism” controversy. So basically, she was awarded for being a Hindutva troll and propagandist. That says a lot, in one stroke, about the function, the organisers and their approach to journalism.
Another case is that of Francois Gautier, who has been given the India Narad Samman for being the “best foreign reporter on India”. Gautier was recently caught posting fake predictions by Nostradamus hailing Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For Mahajan, her statement evoked some brilliant responses and she was served a generous helping of advice on social media. Here are a few tweets.
"Avoid reporting unpleasant truths at time" and generally just be nice to govt, speaker of Indian parl advises media https://t.co/zix9GgEYSQ— Stanley Pignal (@spignal) June 22, 2017
See? The Govt is afraid of the truth and no less than the Lok Sabha speaker is 'advising' media to not report truth. https://t.co/QTD0LZxgC6— Gaurav Pandhi (@GauravPandhi) June 22, 2017
Morality is the basis of things and truth is the substance of all morality: Mahatma Gandhi— INC Mumbai (@INCMumbai) June 22, 2017
CC to LS Speaker
At journo awards event, SoH tells journos what they already practice: "sometimes avoid telling unpleasant truths". 😁 https://t.co/NAZyKpsvtG— Rupa Subramanya (@rupasubramanya) June 22, 2017
In short, become govt's propaganda machine -Avoid reporting unpleasant truth at times: LS Speaker Sumitra Mahajan https://t.co/j7ddKbPocL— Anjali Rao (@anjali1604) June 22, 2017
Ostriches.https://t.co/t4HgHLryTf— Sanyukta (@kyahaibae) June 22, 2017
Lets learn from Shri Ram,chose forest over kingdom! https://t.co/zsgrl6NT4w— Nayantara (@Richa_Kasana) June 22, 2017