The sentencing of gangster Chhota Rajan and eight others for the murder of crime investigation journalist Jyotirmoy Dey has brought back the haunting memory of the netherworld of Mumbai while perhaps making citizens repose their faith in the judiciary. It is also an opportunity to explain to the present generation, often found unaware of the fundamentals of the profession like the difference between news and views, what real journalism is. It is not what some well-dressed men and women are heard screaming on television every evening or what the same and a few more characters tweet, ratcheting up their subscribers’ emotions. It is the act of blowing the lids off scandals of people in power. It takes a lot more courage to question a mafia kingpin dominating a small pocket than a politician or a big-time industrialist who may have a much larger area of influence. For, high profile people do not eliminate their enemies in a brazen manner, thumbing their nose at the law. When they do, the trail of evidence hardly reaches them. The rate and concentration of murders such as that of Dey are high where either a parallel economy is vibrant, as it used to be in Mumbai, or where the economy is in a shambles, as the murder of a scribe in Bihar’s Siwan in 2016 exemplified. There, journalists continue to be honest, hardworking and yet so low profile that they seem to be doing a thankless job. Opining about Narendra Modi, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal et al is lazy, safe journalism but, unfortunately, these ‘thought leaders’ have hijacked the profession to the peril of the real workers.
But then, the corners of society where journalism is still genuine has its own share of shady characters. Today, the MCOCA court may have acquitted former journalist Jigna Vora, who was charged with instigating Rajan to kill Dey in 2011. However, if he was suspected of involvement in the crime, some of his activities must have been questionable. Jealousy, though not unique to the profession, manifests in a distinct manner in journalism. The jealous, of course, rarely go to extremes like plotting a peer’s murder, which would be more likely in a high-income job that these little-known journalists were never into. Spreading canards about an achiever is commonplace. One at the receiving end of slander may not be clean either. With due respect to the departed soul of Dey, it must be said that crime reporting has been an obsession with many a crime reporter who refuses to accept promotions on the job. They either represent the voyeuristic section of society that relishes people’s misery or, worse, they are pawns in the hands of the very gangs, or their rivals, they ostensibly appear to be up in arms against. Or else, crime — like city reporting — is among the first beats of a reporter. What was a man in his middle ages doing on the beat, which he should have left behind some two decades ago? During the Niira Radia scandal, what Vir Sanghvi had claimed to be his act of “stringing along” (making the subject believe you are part of his or her clique so that he/she reveals more insider information) is often not that innocent an act. On the beat of crime, such “stringing along” can cost the journalist his life. The hack becomes privy to so many secrets that his criminal ‘friend’ gets apprehensive about exposure and gets the journalist liquidated.
The fourth estate would serve the national interest better if the seniors concentrate on investigating white collar crimes like economic frauds, entitlements in Union and State ministries, the inefficiency of government offices, nepotism in the executive and the judiciary, etc while leaving the job of interviewing the Mafioso, bandits, hoodlums, smugglers, etc to the new recruits in the media house. On the one hand, understanding petty crime does not call for coverage by a seasoned correspondent. On the other, ministers, secretaries, heads of national parties, etc, whom the seniors have access to, would, more often than not, refuse to entertain cub reporters. The trainees and juniors also do not have access to the ministries. At the same time, a journalist in his/her 20s is also less likely to strike an unethical deal with a goon, which may go wrong and risk his/her life. The rookie is unlikely to get into the kind of trouble that Shivani Bhatnagar got embroiled in, which led to her murder.
Finally, it is a moral responsibility of media houses to promote reporters (who do the primary job of breaking news) more than commentators (who do the secondary, laidback, convenient job of commenting on a fact society is already aware of). While, normally, reporters alone enjoy the privilege of a byline on the front page of a newspaper, the bylines along with photographs of columnists on the edit and op-ed pages marked the genesis of the lopsided priority of editors in the 1990s. Either that practice must end, or a reporter’s byline must accompany his/her image. Reporters are the necessary foot soldiers in journalism. They carry real risks and their job demands initiatives. Editors are journalists too, albeit secondary ones; they are important as conscience keepers of the media house who are also better at articulation. Commentators are but the undeserving bourgeoisie hogging the limelight unduly. The sooner they are brought down from their ivory towers, the better it would be for the profession of journalism and for society that needs information more than opinions.