DVG's Expositions on Journalism as a Crusade and Press Freedom

This article is part 54 of 57 in the series Life and Legacy of DVG

This progressive degeneration of Indian journalism in DVG’s own lifetime—by reducing its high standard as a sacred calling to a routine job and thereby destroying its worth as a profession as well—prompted him to note[1] that what “we need for our country is a Government of the people, not a Government of journalists.” Here, DVG, the Ekalavya surpasses his journalistic Dronacharya, W.T. Stead who wrote an influential tract[2] unambiguously titled, Government by Journalism, in which he openly called for editors and journalists to don the role of rulers.

The very conception of journalism as an instrument of government is foreign to the mind of most journalists. Yet, if they could but think of it, the editorial pen is a sceptre of power, compared with which the sceptre of many a monarch is but a gilded lath… In him are vested almost all the attributes of real sovereignty.

In hindsight, it can be argued that this idea germinated in Stead’s mind while he was serving a prison sentence in the notorious Eliza Armstrong case,[3] an expose which was also the highest watermark of his journalistic career. DVG describes Stead’s life in prison quite[4] movingly:

He bore the trials of prison-life with the cheerful fortitude of that comes naturally to a man of true, steadfast faith. From the very beginning full of spiritual longing and devotion to all that is godly…he grew more introspective in the solitude of the gaol and…conceived the idea of combining the Churches with newspapers in the work for the moral regeneration of the people…

Without diluting Stead’s deserved eminence, and purely with the benefit of more than a century of history, it can be said that Stead did harbor a pint of bitterness when he wrote his Government by Journalism. While that tract was equally influential, it simultaneously earned Stead the unflattering moniker: muckraker.

In his characteristic style, DVG broadly agrees with Stead that the “editorial pen is a spectre of power.” In fact, he goes a step further when he says that the “newspaper is a great weapon.” But it is a sacred weapon to be used for the well-being of the citizen. And then he delivers[5] another quotable quote: “the weapon must not induce stupor within its wielder,” and further notes how “this alarming development has already occurred in Europe and America. My fear and hope is that it must not occur in India as well.”

****

W.T. Stead’s monograph houses within itself perhaps the greatest danger built into journalism: activist crusade leading to unpredictable political upheavals and societal tumult. In this context, we can recall DVG’s warning[6] against political activism and agitation as substitutes for reasoned debate and forethought about long-term consequences. Indeed, he offers a sterner warning to journalists who think that journalism is some sort of crusade. The entire section[7] is worth reproducing at length.

Our youth are fired with the zeal to start newspapers. Their minds are enchanted with these grand dreams—let us sound the bugle of justice; let us condemn the officials who have the capacity to frighten the whole world; let us sit in public gatherings and show the sharp spike of our pen to the speech-giving mammoths…However, these youth don’t realise that this enchantment is merely a veil and that the stuff inside is far from being enchanting.

My routine response to any young person who approaches me for advice on becoming a journalist is “no.” The profession of journalism is fundamentally injurious. Those who wish to take it up and hope to succeed need to have enormous amounts of external and internal wealth. I have personally realized this truth after fifteen years of experiencing all varieties of travails. Anybody who sets out to offer knowledge and happiness to the world through this profession—no matter how enthusiastic he is—will undergo disappointment that is many times greater than his enthusiasm. He will then retreat from the profession cursing the same world he wanted to please.

At the risk of sounding trite, we notice yet again, how the realist and the pragmatist in DVG is wide awake to the foibles and pitfalls of his own profession. On the one side while DVG assigns the high status of philosophy to journalism, he also alerts us to the fate of failed philosophers, to extend the same metaphor. And then, he gives some guidelines for the honest and dogged aspirant of journalism in an extraordinary section[8] titled Kashtajivana, or the Hard Life.

A person may regard journalism as a sacred, lifelong vow, or regard it as a profession. But if he systematically pursues it with vision, insight, patience, and competence, he will become useful to the entire country. For such a pursuit, he must be willing to live the Hard Life. It is a profession that brings severe exhaustion. It constantly creates distress in the mind, and for this reason, the body also gets fatigued.

A journalist is akin to a solider or police who stay awake at night so that the city or town can sleep. The journalist must work by forgoing his own happiness so that the society can remain happy. He must be lost in thought and contemplation when his friends are having fun. When his peers are earning good amounts of money, he must be content with what he gets…

It is indeed easy to preach this lofty ideal but who said it is easy to live the ideal? This is the reason I don’t encourage youngsters to take up journalism. When he is new, the zeal which is natural to youth makes him forget the fatigue of this profession. After five or six years, it will inevitably induce boredom in any person…

In our country, this profession lacks the following: resources, money, books, research, relevant literature, printing facilities, sympathetic friends and support of the general public.[9] Amidst all this, the journalist’s family would have grown. His youth will be progressively declining, his strength, deteriorating, and his boredom, increasing.

If a young person unaware of all these, is brought into this profession, he will begin to regret his decision, and may choose unsavoury paths and hanker after profit and fame. It is also unsurprising if such a person eventually lets out this curse: “Neither do I need my countrymen nor do I want any Punya.”

If a good journalist becomes a national asset, a journalist who falls to disgrace because he is unable to be good, becomes a national threat.

Intertwined with DVG’s warning against the crusader and activist model of journalism is his brilliant chapter[10] on journalistic or press freedom. Independent India has indeed come a long way in this regard from the frequent press gags and the hawk-like watch over newspapers in the pre-Independence era. This journey is also marked by the highly regrettable and unconstitutional first Amendment of our Constitution [Article 19 (1)] which was bulldozed by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Parliament specifically to restrict press freedom. The reason was to throttle the stringent criticisms directed against him by the press. The first Amendment was also the first precedent where Parliament would bypass the verdict[11] of the Supreme Court by passing legislations specifically meant for circumvention. Ever since, our dominant political class since independence has liberally used Article 19 (1) to target or stifle critical voices emanating both from the press and outside of it. It is thankfully, largely a thing of the past now. However, what we have today—especially after the advent of the Internet—is absolute freedom of the press of the worst kind.

DVG’s exposition encompasses both these aspects.

We can begin with the second point first: about the absolute or more accurately, unhinged freedom of the press we have at present. The nakedly heinous and vulgar public discourse that has become so commonplace in what passes off as journalism today is repeatedly justified as the “freedom that the press/media enjoys.” Embedded in that justification is a demand for immunity against unaccountability. DVG puts press freedom[12] in perspective:

Nobody should forget the fact that press freedom is the same right that all citizens enjoy, and that the press is not granted a special freedom. If he does not become dependent on an external power, the full benefit of press freedom will accrue to all citizens…

Newspapers are not greater than the citizen…In fact, the informed citizen is the greatest constraint and the most powerful watchdog of newspapers.

DVG notes that the press is also subject to the same penal laws that are applicable to all Indian citizens and that it must behave responsibly and fairly in order to maintain this freedom. Alongside, he says that while the press must play the role of a watchdog of the Government, it must not become its adversary. In DVG’s words, the duty of a newspaper is not merely to question but to do something higher than mere questioning. If this is not done fairly and fearlessly, the “national life of our country will be akin to living with a permanent lie in our domestic lives.”[13] DVG traces the logical conclusion[14] of all such failures:   

If there is no Government that gives space for a truly independent paper run on these ideals of fairness and accountability, there will emerge papers that will favour such a Government. These are words from my experience.

More fundamentally, he asks and answers a question[15] inextricably linked with press freedom among other crucial aspects using his patented allegorical style:

The hotelier prepares items that people demand. Whether it is harmful to health or no is not his concern. What he needs is business, money and profit. The matter of health is left to the doctor.

The question before newspapers is similar: should they follow the popular trends of the people? Or should they uplift the people?

If national well-being and progress is the paper’s chief objective, it must not rest with giving the fashionable to the people. On the contrary, it must provoke and inspire people to read the material which will elevate and ennoble them. The greatest responsibility of newspapers is to stimulate knowledge and wisdom. This is true national service.

To be continued

Notes


[1]D.V. Gundappa. Sankeerna, DVG Krutishreni, Vol 11, Government of Karnataka, p 171.

[2] W. T. Stead. Government by Journalism, The Contemporary Review, Vol. 49, May, 1886, pp. 653-674.

[3] The Eliza Armstrong case was a massive scandal that erupted in England in the late 19th century uncovering widespread child prostitution that flourished most notably in London. W.T. Stead in his capacity as the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, wrote a four-part series sensationally headlined, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. It was a detailed investigative report on this social evil and sent shockwaves throughout England. To demonstrate the truth of his findings, Stead and his team arranged to “purchase” a 13-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong, daughter of an impoverished chimney-sweep. The first instalment of this series was sold out in record numbers and was traded in the black market for twenty times the original price of the copy. Stead’s daring feat was enormously influential. George Bernard Shaw named his lead character in Pygmalion as Eliza Dolittle. The expose also resulted in the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, also known as Stead’s Act. However, it also landed Stead in jail because his detractors caught hold of a technical law point: that he had failed to actually secure the permission of Eliza’s father for the aforementioned “purchase.” See, for example: Gretchen Soderlund. William T. Stead and the Soul of Sensationalism in Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917. University of Chicago Press, pp 24 – 66.

[4] D.V. Gundappa. W.T. Stead: Our Journalistic Ancestor. Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa (in four volumes). Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore, 2019-2020, p 335.

[5]D.V. Gundappa. Sankeerna, DVG Krutishreni, Vol 11, Government of Karnataka, p 171.

[6] See Chapter 7

[7] D.V. Gundappa. Sankeerna, DVG Krutishreni, Vol 11, Government of Karnataka, p 180.

[8] Ibid. p 184. Emphasis added.

[9] This extract is from the aforementioned Presidential speech at Bagalkot that DVG delivered in 1928. As such, this specific paragraph should be read keeping that period in mind.

[10] Titled, Vruttapatrika Swatantrya: Literally, “Freedom of Newspapers.” Sankeerna, DVG Krutishreni, Vol 11, Government of Karnataka, p 189-98.

[11] For the full verdict, see: Romesh Thappar vs The State Of Madras on 26 May, 1950. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/456839/

[12] D.V.Gundappa. Sankeerna, DVG Krutishreni, Vol 11, Government of Karnataka, p 190, 192. Emphasis added.

[13] Ibid. p 248

[14] Ibid. p 238

[15] Ibid. pp 273-4

 

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