Addressing a capacity-filled hall on the final day of the FICCI Frames 2011, held at the Renaissance Powai, in Mumbai, Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief, The Indian Express Group, spoke about the rising trends and the changing face of Indian journalism.
Gupta's discourse was replete with jibes and anecdotes that met with much applause from the audience. But, despite an element of cynicism, Gupta was fairly optimistic about the current approach to journalism.
Gupta went to talk about the various responsibilities he's undertaken over the years. "I have worn several hats - I've been in marketing, circulation, newsprint, human resources and most importantly, payroll. However, the one that fits the best is that of a journalist."
But, Gupta did not want to dwell too much on his achievements. Quoting The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Gupta said that if you talk too much about your own self, you either have too much time, or you are running out of ideas, or both.
On a lighter note, he added that had it been a prominent politician singing Gupta's praises at the same platform, news channels would have gone berserk with headlines such as 'minister praises newspaper editor at a corporate conference'.
"I was trying to make a serious point here," Gupta remarked. At the end of the day, a journalist must be able to look squarely at himself in the mirror, he said. He observed that journalists in India are probably spending too much time discussing what is irrelevant.
"What do we tell youngsters who are starting out as trainee reporters or trainee editors? How can a news channel report something that never happened and is completely fictional? Why is an editor shouting and screaming as if all of us have lost the television remote control? How can a major national daily editorial run a main page article written by a very senior editor celebrate a youngster playing 'football in Commonwealth Games', when there is no football in Commonwealth Games?" questioned Gupta.
Going back to when he began his career, he said, "I began reporting in 1975. And, that was the first, and hopefully, the last time that our freedom of speech was withheld."
Gupta said, "Freedom of the press in India is not something that is mandated or directed by the Constitution or by any specific law in the country. It was only when freedom was denied in 1975 that the people of India overwhelmingly embraced the notion of press freedom." According to Gupta, people decided that no matter what happened neither the government, nor the politicians would be allowed to take away the freedom of the press.
"This led to the arrival of the greatest social contract in our democracy and it is this contract that has guaranteed our freedom; not the court, not any laws, and definitely not our Constitution," Gupta said.
Having said that, Gupta went on to speak about responsible journalism. He repeatedly attacked the habit of journalists not willing to check facts and not report what is the truth and is authentic.
"It is getting difficult to speak the truth because it seems like breaking a pack - the way journalists today have become like wolf packs," said Gupta.
He pointed out that never before have journalists been ridiculed in popular culture as incompetent and the people who have the most fun at the journalist's expense are the ones in power, those who should actually be under a journalist's scrutiny.
He attacked the concept of sting operations calling it 'shameless hit jobs'.
"Why are sting operations carried out on leaders of only one party? This is not investigative journalism," he said.
Narrating incidents from his career, Gupta said that there is ample scope for journalists to deal with responsibility under dire circumstances, especially, with the kind of technology available these days. However, often in their reportage journalists either exaggerate, trivialise or sensationalise.
He said that the new media and technology is creating a new sense of empowerment, which could work as a positive force, too. Gupta brought up the subject of sting operations once again, saying that while The Indian Express frowns upon such practices, there have been instances when such operations have helped expose corruption.
Gupta talked about the power of the media, technology and the growing awareness among citizens. He cited the example of the Satyendra Dubey murder incident, the callous way the government in power (BJP) handled the issue, and how the media and the public raised a voice against it.
He also cited the example of the UPA government's stress on austerity in the recent past. He termed it as the height of hypocrisy when at the same time, an Indian Express reporter found a couple of politicians living in a five-star hotel when their houses were being renovated. After the story was broken, journalists from news channels hovered around the hotel, forcing the erring politicians to move out of the hotel.
Gupta recalled the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 as one of the most shameful chapters of Indian history. He said that had there been as much media presence at the time as there is now, many lives could have been saved.
Gupta also discussed the idea of 'Breaking News'. He said the concept had become so trivial that no one believes or considers it important anymore. Gupta once again stressed on the importance of credibility that according to him, defines good journalism.
Gupta said that in news content, besides the '5 Ws and 1 H' -- who, what, where, why, when and how -- there will be an added W -- 'what next'.
Towards the close of his address, Gupta said that there is a need for journalists to take a relook at this exciting profession.
"We have to get off our high horses and lock those horses in a stable for a while. Far too much journalism space is being taken up by with what I call 'pout rage' as against outrage," he said.
"Freedom of the Press will be the first casualty, if we employ shortcuts and hit jobs. Everybody in power spins. The government spins, corporates spin, NGOs spin to do everything to ensure that people do not get to know what they don't want them to know," added Gupta.