Book Title: The Changing Mediascape
Author: BRP Bhaskar
IN 1921, CP Scott, editor of The Manchester Guardian, wrote a piece to mark the newspaper’s centenary. Laying out his thoughts on what a newspaper ought to be, Scott wrote that its “primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul, it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. It is these ideals that have guided veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar, whose career spans more than 70 years, traversing print media, news agencies and satellite television news. His vast experience and varied roles in the media accord him the vantage position and authority to reflect on the changing dynamics of journalism. And this is exactly what Bhaskar sets out to do in his book ‘The Changing Mediascape’.
Journalism literally ran in Bhaskar’s blood. As a student, he contributed to Navabharatam, a Malayalam newspaper founded by his father and freedom fighter AK Bhaskar. He was just 20 when he formally started his career with The Hindu. He was one of the founding members of Patriot, had a long innings with the news agency UNI, and was associated with various other media outlets. In a style that is informal and informative, incisive and witty, Bhaskar tells you the story of journalism in his time.
As TV channels break their heads over breaking news, one episode in the book makes one wonder whether integrity is a fading virtue. As a reporter for UNI in Ahmedabad, Bhaskar recalls a meeting with scientist Vikram Sarabhai, who was then heading BARC and was also chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar). Sarabhai envisaged what space technology could do for developmental purposes. Bhaskar realised a big scoop was being unravelled. But his hopes were dashed when Sarabhai revealed that the information was classified. Nevertheless, the journalist in Bhaskar prepared a short report and sought out Sarabhai to whet it. But when Sarabhai insisted that premature publicity could stymie their efforts, Bhaskar decided to forgo the scoop.
In the Preface, Bhaskar touches upon the conflict of interest between Truth and Power. In one chapter, he recounts how a senior employee at The Hindu was sacked ostensibly over trade union activities. While Bhaskar himself took up cudgels on his behalf, the matter moved from court to court. Finally, in a negotiated settlement, the employee was not reinstated but compensated. Ironically, the person invested the money in an advertising agency even as the newspaper itself underwent a sea change by dropping classified ads on its front page in favour of news.
In the chapter titled ‘Third World Journalism’, Bhaskar recalls how at the time of Independence, a group of newspaper owners scuttled a deal between Reuters and PTI that could have catapulted the Indian agency into a credible international outfit. The owners had no problem living with a global information system dominated by the West, he writes. Later, efforts to break this dominance and have third world countries pool in their media resources and share stories also didn’t materialise.
Bhaskar articulates his helplessness when often political interests overrode professional principles. He has a word of caution for journalists against jumping the gun and illustrates the report on a “wonder girl” from Coorg who was purportedly living without food and water for several days. The story achieved some level of credibility when a judge who visited the girl claimed she had saintly powers. All the fuss led Prime Minister Nehru to order a medical examination. Finally, the mystery was solved when the girl’s brother was caught one night fetching food for her!
Bhaskar recalls an assault on him in Srinagar, witnessing the birth of Bangladesh up-close and the muzzling of press freedom in Pakistan, visiting East European countries at the time of their disintegration and marking the 50th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre with a special report for which UNI correspondents scoured Punjab to find two witnesses. While the book has two chapters on Emergency, one wishes there were more.