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Moral compass and secular reporting

One of the senior anchors of the news channel Headlines Today, Gaurav Sawant was “forced” to delete some of his tweets where he questioned the hypocrisy of the mainstream media when it came to reporting “communal” behaviors of different religious groups.

Following is the set of tweets that were apparently deleted:

Deleted tweets by Gaurav Sawant
As I write this, the first (left hand top) tweet is still on Gaurav’s Twitter page, the rest three were deleted.

Only Gaurav can explain why he deleted the tweets, even as conspiracy theories float that his new boss asked him to do so. I will not subscribe to those conspiracy theories, one, because I could be sued, and second, I prefer to give benefit of doubt to people.

However, one thing is clear that he was “forced” to do so – by motley of secularism ke sipahi on Twitter; frontal attack by foot soldiers with moral guidance from high priests:

I won’t go into merits of Gaurav’s tweets here, but I would share an experience I had as a TV journalist. Yes, I was with a Hindi news channel for around three years – my first job.

It was sometime in late 2003 if I remember correctly, when VHP had organized some meeting of its workers in Ayodhya, leading to a “tense” atmosphere.

VHP had claimed that the proposed meeting was a non-religious gathering and thus not against the orders of the Supreme Court, which had banned any religious activity in Ayodhya around the disputed site.

Obviously VHP was being as honest about the nature of the congregation as Pakistan is about peace talks with India, and thus government rightfully deployed police forces in Faizabad and Ayodhya. Normal life of local people suffered due to all this drama.

In such a situation, media took upon itself the responsibility of “responsible reporting”.

Nothing wrong with that, though fundamentally I believe that such suo-moto “responsibilities” mean that journalism is politics; not power politics, but politics nonetheless. Maybe something on that later in some other post on this blog, but this tweet of mine hints at what I want to say.

Anyway, coming back to the “responsible reporting”, it meant that no undue platform was to be given to VHP where they could promote their agenda, while news reports that showed that local people were not a part of this politics by VHP were to be highlighted.

Still, I’d say nothing wrong with it.

The next level of this responsible reporting also meant highlighting reports that showed that despite such divisive politics by likes of VHP, local residents were actually united.

Fantastic, I would say.

And such a story arrived at my desk very soon. The local reporter had sent a news report about some Muslim maalis (garland sellers), who used to supply garlands made of flowers for puja in Ayodhya temples.

The report claimed that these Muslim garland sellers were indulged in this activity over generations and they didn’t want to leave this work just because atmosphere was tense due to politics.

In fact, the report, handwritten by the local reporter and faxed to the headquarters where I worked, said that the garland sellers derived some divine satisfaction by being in service of Ram Lalla.

Perfect story depicting our communal harmony, I’d say.

If I were working for a magazine/newspaper or for a website, I’d have just typed out the story and forwarded it for copy-editing to my senior, who’d then take the report live.

But since I was working for a TV channel, I had to do a little donkey work. I had to go through the entire video footage sent by the reporter and identify relevant sound-bites that would support the script.

So, armed with an earphone, I sat through some half an hour of video recording to find those lovely words that would drown out the loud speeches by the VHP leaders.

And I couldn’t find any.

The garland sellers essentially said, “Yes, we have been selling these garlands that are used in temples, but we are not educated, so we can’t do any other work. We can’t leave this work just because VHP people are here; how will we earn our living?”

One of those went on to say, and rightly so, that he would leave this menial job if he finds a better paying one.

Perfectly normal sentiments and one could still sympathize with plight of these poor garland sellers, but it was nowhere as romantic and harmonious as the script sent by the reporter made it out to be.

So I asked my editor what to do.

My editor asked to me to not go into such “technical details” and get a story that was as near in tone and tenor as possible to what the reporter had sent, because it was a “good story”.

So, I, a young TV journalist, used my newly acquired skills and used only the “We can’t leave this work just because VHP people are here” part of the sound-bite. Rest of the script conveyed what the local reporter had imagined or wished the situation to be.

This is one of the most benign versions of “responsible” and “secular” reporting I witnessed, and pretty early in my career.

Do note that what was aired was fabrication and manipulation, albeit for a “greater cause”, because media thinks that the “moral compass” must point towards what they think or imagine is the right thing, not the actual situation on ground.

After all many religions and philosophies believe in “lying for a greater cause is not lying”, and our journalism is no different than that.

And that’s why when Gaurav Sawant did some plain speaking and pointed out the actual situation on ground, his moral compass was found malfunctioning.

This communal, I mean, collective “moral compass” asks you to always tread in a set direction, and anyone straying from there has to be shamed into finding their own moral compass.

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