Topic : Responsibilities of the Conventional Media in the age of Proliferating Social Media

Speaker : Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor, India Today Group

Chairperson : Dr. S B Mujumdar, Founder and President of Symbiosis Society and Trustee of PIC

Date : 27th November 2017

Venue : Symbiosis Vishwabhavan Auditorium, Senapati Bapat Road, Pune

Full text of lecture :

Dear Latika Padgaonkar, the Padgaonkar family, Dr Majumdar, trustees of the Pune International Centre and friends.

I deem it a huge honour and great privilege to have been invited here today to deliver the first Dileep Padgaonkar memorial lecture. I owe Mr Padgaonkar, or Dileep as we always fondly called him, a huge debt. That he shared my father’s name is purely fortuitous. But the truth is Dileep was like a father figure and a mentor in my formative years in journalism. I still recall writing a note to him some time in October 1988 at the behest of a common friend, Rahul Singh, seeking his advice and guidance on the way forward for a young aspiring journalist. I had just returned from Oxford a few months earlier and had begun practising in the Bombay high court. But my heart was in journalism and the world of news rather than in the stuffy air of the courts. Within days of my writing to Dileep, I got a response asking me to meet him the following week. At that first meeting itself, Dileep, who was then executive editor of The Times of India, offered me a job as a trainee assistant editor. Maybe I mistakenly believed that an assistant editor is only a notch below the editor, or maybe it was Dileep’s kind and gently persuasive manner, but whatever be the reason, I jumped at the opportunity and left the world of law for the Old Lady of Boribunder.

I still remember Dileep telling me at the time, “We need to freshen up things around this place, too many veterans around; we are looking for younger people.” He said it with such a genuine enthusiastic spirit that I was instantly attracted: it was a quality that would always endear Dileep to me. Then, whether it was politics, cinema or music, he was the original enthusiast, a bon vivant, kindred spirit who was always delightful company to be with. From the firmly hierarchical world of a law firm, to step in then to the more egalitarian worldview of a dyed in the wool liberal like Dileep, where there was no apparent senior-junior divide, was probably just the lucky break I was looking for in life.

In the six years that I was in The Times of India, it was Dileep and my resident editor in Mumbai, Darryl D’Monte, that I always turned to for support and guidance. They were quite simply the nicest and most encouraging bosses a young journalist could have asked for. They gave me opportunities beyond my wildest imagination: I could write the main article for the edit pages that until then was reserved for only seniors. I was given front page bylines, could cover major national stories like LK Advani’s rath yatra, was even sent as a special bonus to cover a cricket tour in South Africa and a World Cup in Australia in 1992, and was made the chief of the news service in Mumbai at the age of 26. So much so, that I was seen in the newsroom as Dileep’s favourite, amidst accusations that I was benefitting from the fact that The Times of India editor and I were both Saraswat Brahmins from Goa.

I don’t know how much the Saraswat connection played a part in fashioning my journalism career but it certainly meant that Dileep and I had one common attraction: food, especially fish. Every time Dileep came to Mumbai, he would take us for lunch to Anant Ashram in Khotachiwadi in Girgaum. This wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Mumbai was famous for its crab curry and fried clams or tisryo that Dileep seemed to relish. It was my father’s favourite restaurant, too, and also, I might add, of the original Hindi cinema superstar Rajesh Khanna. As anyone who might have met Mr Padgaonkar would know, food was a great passion with him and he could discuss the intricacies of the menu with the same excitement that he would debate caste and community politics or indeed, French cinema and classical music.

I remember coming back once from a fishy lunch to office and finding the redoubtable RK Laxman waiting for us anxiously. Laxman, of course, was pure vegetarian and would refuse to accompany us on our culinary adventures, preferring to get his frugal meal from home. “Why do you like fish so much?” he would ask with a typically quizzical look. “It’s good for the mind,” Dileep would tell him with a smile. “So, editors have minds,” was Laxman’s sarcastic response before breaking into a laugh. That laughter symbolised the newsroom of the times, a comfortable, easy-going place free of the noisy breaking news syndrome where today’s news is the next hour’s history. It was an age of innocence, an era where journalism was a more humbling, self-effacing profession, where even if you belonged to rival publications, you could be friends who shared a drink and plenty of gossip together in the Press Club. There was a camaraderie, a brotherhood among the tribe of journalists: sure, we competed for stories but it was done without the constant one-upmanship that is now so much a part of the media landscape.

There is another reason why I owe Dileep a huge debt, which is perhaps less well-known. He played Cupid in my marriage to Sagarika [Ghose]. She returned from Oxford in 1991 and had joined The Times of India in Delhi. We had known each other briefly in Oxford but it was at TheTimes of India that love seemed to blossom. If a long-distance relationship did not falter, it was because Dileep turned a benign gaze to the endless phone calls we would make from the office hotline. Remember, this was the pre-mobile age, so the long-distance phone call was a luxury but Dileep’s intervention made it that much easier. He even allowed me to spend a few weeks reporting from Delhi, if only out of pity at a young couple seeking to take their relationship beyond phone call conversations.

Liberal, democratic worldview

Sagarika, in fact, perhaps had more in common with Dileep than I did. As a student of history and international relations, she was deeply engaged in the world of books and ideas. Dileep was again very encouraging, even once taking her with him to meet the great public intellectual Isaiah Berlin. For Dileep, the liberating world of ideas was at the core of his being. His was an open, liberal democratic worldview, one originally shaped by the winds of change that were sweeping the world in the late 1960s when he was a young correspondent in Paris. His was the world of the great intellects of our time, from Sartre to Solzhenitsyn, driven by a spirit of inquiry and rebellion, creativity and dialogue, but above all else, a call to conscience. Which is why The Times of India’s editorial page under Dileep’s stewardship reflected an inclusive democratic spirit that combined wit with wisdom: few other editors would have been able to accommodate the contrarian views of a Swapan Dasgupta and an Arvind Das, a Chandan Mitra and a Praful Bidwai under one tent. Remember, this was a period of intense political upheaval, of the divisive Mandal and Mandir movements, of a growing polarisation in society along caste and religious lines. It required the steadfast moral compass of a Dileep Padgaonkar to ensure that The Times of India was not swept away by the shrill rhetoric. He offered a crucial equipoise, or balance in an age of extremes, a democratic approach that was firm but also accommodating. I sometimes wish the edit page meetings of those times had been filmed: they would be an education for generation next in the art of conflict resolution.

I still recall Dileep’s stirring front page editorials after the Babri Masjid was demolished, almost 25 years to this day; his equally impassioned writing after the Mumbai riots and blasts. In his writings at the time, you sensed the anguish of a law-abiding citizen who was wedded to the republican ideals of an India that was plural and truly inclusive, one that accommodated dissent without ever resorting to anger or violence in thought or deed. In a time when politics was becoming fractious and society more violent, he truly believed in the power of the pen to act as a balm and provide the healing touch. In that sense, he was one of the last editors who saw himself as an honest arbiter of the public dialogue, a true liberal who valued the spirit of that ancient Indian tradition of samvad rather than vivaad, where civility in language and a humane approach marked the discourse. Maybe it was the Punekar spirit in him that shone through: this, after all, is a city where once the likes of Agarkar and Ranade, Tilak and Gokhale debated issues fiercely without any abuse or name calling. Which is why the newspaper under Dileep became a happy space for competing ideas and ideologies, a space for tolerance and mutual respect. It is that tolerant spirit that is missing in the newsrooms of today, where a regrettable them versus us, national versus anti-national narrative now has filtered into daily journalism and coarsened the atmosphere.

More of that later but let me give you an example of how Dileep ensured that TheTimes of India did not succumb to the ugly noise of the times. The Shiv Sena had dug up the Wankhede Stadium cricket pitch in 1991 protesting against the visiting Pakistan side. I had written a strong editorial protesting the Sena action and called it a national shame. The editorial seemed to attract the eye of the Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, who then warned The Times of India and me specifically of Sena retaliation in a public meeting. When Dileep heard about it, he asked me not to worry and said that there was no question of backing off. “Just make sure that we don’t allow our personal opinions to creep onto the news pages, the rest I will handle.” I am told that Dileep did speak to Mr Thackeray and made it clear that The Times of Indiawould not change its editorial stance. We later even wrote a critical book, When Bombay Burned, on the 1992-1993 riots, once again exposing the Shiv Sena’s role in the bloody violence, confident that our editorial leadership would not be easily intimidated by any form of bullying tactics.

Contrast this judicious exercise of editorial independence with what we see happening in news journalism around us. As editors yield space to news managers, there is a growing fear factor that has consumed newsrooms, a fear that unless you are seen to bow and scrape before the ruling elite, you will be marginalised. I know Dileep and his ilk have been criticised for yielding too much space to the advertising teams of papers like The Times of India but this does not mean that they were fearful of the establishment when it came to breaking a story. Today, this fear has meant that many newspapers and news channels are simply unwilling to speak truth to power; it is almost as if challenging the establishment is a risk not worth taking. In recent times, a leading newspaper has allegedly even removed an editor because he brought out a “hate-tracker” that was diligently compiling a list of hate crimes in the country. Apparently, the hate tracker attracted the ire of the prime minister’s office and the PMO made it clear that unless the editor was removed, the prime minister would not attend the newspaper’s prestigious conclave. Shockingly, instead of standing by the editor, the newspaper chose to remove him. The prime minister, I am now told, has agreed to attend the conclave.

Take also the sound advice that Dileep had given me about ensuring that individual opinion be kept away from the news pages of The Times of India and contrast it with what we see happening in the news media around us. If you watch prime time on any news channel, there is almost inevitably a cacophonous gladiatorial contest that ensues on air. The news anchor is no longer a neutral umpire on the big stories of the day but a highly opinionated, self-obsessed individual who will choose to play judge, jury and prosecutor. In the process, the lines between news and opinion, between fact and propaganda are often blurred. The sanctity of the news has been lost as high-decibel debates have taken over. It is not enough to tell the story, there must be a dramatic, sensationalist edge to it: this often, most troublingly, involves, for example, pitting Hindu extremist voices versus Muslim fanatics on sensitive issues or, indeed, positioning fire-spewing Indian versus Pakistani generals in a no-holds-barred verbal fight. I have said this before; I wonder whether an India-Pakistan war will take place in a TV studio one day. Watching such polarising debates, Dileep’s refined soul must cringe. He is, after all, a product of a gentler time, one where editors consciously avoided a shrill, discordant and caustic tone, where the focus was always on how to be reasonable without being ineffectual.

Getting the story right

What might trouble Dileep and his generation of editors even more is the noxious echo chamber that the new animal in the media jungle – social media – has become. In an ideal world, social media can be hugely empowering, connecting people, building communities, speeding up communication. If someone, for example, urgently needs blood, one message on social media can bring instant results. During a disaster, social media can unify people, provide relief and rescue.

Sadly though, social media has come to play a seriously negative role also in our lives. Where once complex issues were spiritedly argued over lengthy, reasoned articles, now we are reduced to voicing opinion in just 140 short characters. Twitter is now an open house where thousands of handles, often under anonymous identities, are free to express themselves, often spewing venom against the other: be it a religious group or an ideological opponent, or an individual who is perceived as an enemy. The well-organised troll armies present a real danger to free speech since they seek to muzzle all contrarian opinion with a poisonous mix of abuse, slander and lies. Just look at the way someone like the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar has been attacked on Twitter or the violent threats to women journalists on Facebook . The ghastly killing of Gauri Lankesh should have been a wake-up call for a society that has allowed the mob to set the agenda. Instead, we now have Senas of all hues emerging with violence as their credo, creating a kind of competitive extremism that should worry all right thinking Indians who value their constitutional freedoms.

Maybe, a section of the tabloid rabble-rousing media has chosen to play footsie with such elements, often providing them the oxygen of excessive publicity. But what of those journalists who will not be cowed down by the mob? Sadly, instead of standing by the professional media, the political class has only seized the opportunity to push journalists who ask discomfiting questions of the establishment on the defensive: we are, in the eyes of the former Army chief-turned-minister General VK Singh, little more than presstitutes, while no less an individual than the prime minister has described us as “news traders”. We now even have criminal defamation being used as a weapon to silence dissenting voices.

But to return to the world of trolls on social media: the mantra here is that a good lie if told often enough is the manufactured truth, one that is made believable by simply repeating it again and again. On umpteen occasions, a video has been cleverly edited as a propaganda weapon, a false image is put up, wrong information is spread with the sole purpose of targeting an individual. Even an iconic figure like India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has not been spared. It is shocking beyond belief that pictures of Nehru hugging his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit were used recently on his birth anniversary on November 14 to suggest that the prime minister was a philanderer. That these messages were sent out by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s information technology cell chief makes it even more disgusting. That there wasn’t a single word of apology or remorse suggests that spreading lies is the new normal for some. Even more disturbing are the attempts that have been made to incite riots by using fake images of violence, or indeed, to demonise an entire community. I recall during the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, images from the war in Afghanistan were sent out as WhatsApp messages and spread with impunity as if the violence was taking place on the ground in Uttar Pradesh. One of the politicians who sent out the messages is now an honourable MLA in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, almost as if he has been rewarded for his role in fomenting communal trouble.

It is no surprise then that “fake news” has emerged as the word of the year as per the Collins Dictionary: with no editorial filters, little due diligence, we now inhabit a “free for all” news universe haunted by a depressing normlessness. It has been left to small news websites like Scroll.inand fact checkers like Alt News to expose this proliferation of fake news in our midst.

Sadly, mainsteam media, especially news television, instead of rising above the surround sound of social media, has fallen prey to its worst elements. News choices on channels and newspapers are often made on the basis of what is trending on Twitter: truth is, a farmer committing suicide will rarely be a trend but an outrageous, controversial statement made by a public figure invariably will, a story on health or education will not lead to a rash of tweets but one that takes up a religious issue almost always will. As a result, news priorities are increasingly skewed: real news has been replaced by more than a dash of trivia and titillation, page three has slowly become page one for some. But even more worryingly, an underlying hate politics has now poisoned the media eco-system to the point where journalists have lost their moral centre. We are now becoming rabble rousers, imitating the very politicians that we once shunned. I cringe when I watch fellow journalists engage in shouting matches with their TV panelists that are designed to cater to the lowest common denominator; it is a news universe where voices of sanity are marginalised even as those that represent extreme points of view are legitimised.

Truth is, the social media challenge must be met not by mimicking its darker side but by finding ways in which we can raise the bar of what constitutes good journalism. Social media does not investigate, rarely breaks down a story that is nuanced and complex with hard data, often chooses to resort to sharp, clever word play instead of actually giving a human face to a story. This is where the editor must step in to act as guardians of the faith, the sentinels of the fortress of journalism, true watchdogs of society.

This is an era where almost everyone could be a citizen journalist, where you could capture an image or a soundbite on your mobile phone and get it to go viral in minutes. But the worth of a story cannot be determined by how quickly it goes viral but whether it actually uncovers the truth. Which is why we need strong editors as gatekeepers. On social media pages, there are no editors; powerful platforms like Facebook and Twitter seem to be convinced that the laws of defamation do not apply to them: their USP lies in the freedom their pages offer to any individual. But any freedom must come with responsibility, one that is sadly lacking at the moment. I still recall my editors at The Times of India would diligently go through my copy with a red pen, often making me rewrite it more than once. I am not sure that news desks apply the same levels of due diligence in their rush to put the story out. There is now such an obsession, especially on TV, with being first with a news break that we sometimes forget that it is more important to get the story right rather than get it first.

Journalism over jingoism

There is another reason why the legacy of Dileep might be under strain. In 2010, Dileep was appointed to lead a committee of interlocutors on the vexed issue of Jammu and Kashmir. Dileep and his co-members approached the task with a firm commitment to preserving the integrity of the Indian state while recognising the aspirations of the Kashmiri people. Sadly, the fine report that his team prepared has gathered dust, caught up in a predictable political tug of war. Instead of acting on the recommendations of the Padgaonkar committee, the media narrative on Kashmir has drastically shifted from one of inclusion to that of exclusion. A nationalistic frenzy is being whipped up in the media and government that makes it almost impossible to find a crucial middle ground amidst the polarising voices. When the media itself chooses to polarise society as nationalist versus anti-national, then the space for any forward movement is reduced.

Who are we to hand out certificates on nationalism, I ask? Should journalists become warriors of the state or should we be guardians of the truth? Is there no space for compassion or empathy in our reporting even when young children are blinded by pellet guns or is that to be seen as a sign of weakness in the times in which we live? Do Kashmiris have to constantly prove their patriotism; do they become Indians in the eyes of the nationalist media only when they fall in line with pre-conceived notions of a long festering dispute? Will every Kashmiri be a victim of the stereotype of the angry stone-thrower and be seen as someone who cannot be trusted?

The Padgaonkar generation of journalists and editors saw themselves as patriots but they did not wear their patriotism on their sleeve, nor did they allow their journalism to be influenced by misplaced jingoism. Maybe, as I said at the outset, Dileep and his peers lived in a period when the media was not caught up in the maddening pressures of TRPs, breaking news and a tweet a second. As a result, it was possible to press the pause button and actually think of an issue rather than be on a high-speed treadmill where the news engine just hurtles from one story to the next. Maybe, that is why the Padgaonkar generation had time to pursue other interests that went well beyond the news. I really do not know of any editors today who could probably review a Fukuyama book, a Mani Kaul film, a Bhimsen Joshi concert, a French art exhibition, a Michelin chef meal and Sharad Pawar’s political moves with equal dexterity. Dileep is probably the only one I know who could, which is why he is so special. Which is why all of us who had the good fortune to know him will treasure his memories. And as a tribute to him, we should all hopefully strive to seek a better journalistic eco-system where news matters more than noise, and push for a better India where compassion triumphs over hate. That was the credo that Dileep lived by and that is what we sorely miss today

Once again, thank you so much for inviting me to speak on this special occasion. I shall cherish my memories of Dileep forever.