A few days ago I watched the movie Fair Game. Its based on real life incidents leading to the 2nd Iraq war and its fall out on an American family. Everyone knows the story – the Bush junior government leaked the name of a CIA operative to newspapers, endangering her life and those of her children and husband. This was because her husband – Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat and Ambassador to Niger, stated that American claims of yellow cake being exported to Iraq for their nuclear programme was completely false. He made that statement because the American government had sent him to determine whether these claims, initially made by the British, were actually true. Ambassador Wilson went to Niger and found that these claims were baseless.
While working in the CIA Valerie Plame, the Ambassador's wife, had successfully argued that a waylaid shipment of Aluminium Tubes enroute to Iraq were not meant for the Iraqi nuclear weapon programme. This punctured the claims of Dick Cheney and Condellizza Rice who were hell bent on believing that these tubes were heading for centrifuges in Iraq's non existent nuclear facility. Valerie's report gave these war hungry officials less fodder to feed their cannon, aimed at Iraq, with. However, that did not stop Bush and his cohorts, including those from across the pond in the UK, from publicly using these false arguments to attack Iraq eventually.
Bush and Blair never found any weapons of mass destruction – but they did destroy a country and a people.
This would not have been possible if the media had not been cheer-leading the warmongers, lead by Bush and his merry men including Blair, into war.
The media whose role was to be unbiased and extract the truth failed miserably in their duty to report the truth and question their government in the lead up to the 2nd Iraq war. This was a result of human frailty, US was coming out of the 9/11 attacks for which the Bush government had also blamed Saddam, without proof. So everyone wanted to ride the 'wave' in every possible way.
Thus, for the media to go against the prevailing hysteria in the country would have been nigh impossible because many in the media too were affected by the 9/11 events. More importantly if that was the mood that was selling at that time it would have been suicidal to have gone against the tide.
So, the the media toed the official line and then went to battle with the troops in an arrangement termed as 'embedding' where reporters would tag along with troops to the frontline on the condition that their reports would be vetted by the military. Thus to sell their newspaper and news channels, media outlets sold the war to readers back home.
Would it be wrong to say that in its desire for breaking news and exclusivity, the media sold itself down the river? Did it lead to the current situation we have in Iraq and even Afghanistan?
It is not that this has happened only in the West, we have had our Iraqi moments too. Who can forget the 'live reporting' during the 26/11 which though farcical at times was enough to update Pakistani handlers who could then help their terrorists thereby endangering the lives of Mumbaikars and soldiers. Who can forget the Nira Radia tapes and kingmaking role that certain media personnel were playing a few years back. An immediate fall out of that was Vinod Mehta was no longer seen on NDTV as a commentator.
So its a bit unfortunate when people of the media say that for journalists “The best training is on the field.” The only response to that is - our society, readers and news viewers cannot be used as guinea pigs or held hostage as journalists gain experience and hone their skills in the field.
Which therefore brings us to Justice Katju's suggestion about minimum qualifications required to be a journalist.
That meetings in the news room go just beyond news to TRP, marketing and revenues is no longer fiction – the case going on between Zee News and JSPL and the Caravan article about TimesNow point to it. Advertorials are now passé, news reports in papers are regurgitated directly from corporate newsletters. So the need for a little more professionalism in the media is not something that is coming out as a bolt-from-the-blue.
The argument about such a move curtailing freedom of press, decreasing opportunities for potential journalists and ignoring the special role that journalism plays in society is fallacious. It would seem that those arguing against the Katju idea of minimum qualification think of it as a 'pedigree'. This is unfortunate, a minimum eligibility has to be seen as a 'immunisation' against the potential hazards a journalist will face which could either make him an inadvertent transmitter of news, or lead him to act or commit acts, that goes against journalistic ethics, at the very least.
The point that can be argued is what kind of minimum qualification would be required? Would that qualification be an outcome of an educational course? Or could that qualification be tested and be reflected in a potential journalist's communication skills, knowledge of a variety of topics, understanding of the ethics and responsibilities of this profession?
The fact that there are no qualifications for entry into journalism puts the responsibility on the line managers to mentor these young reporters. Besides mentoring, the question of taking onus for the errors made by novice journalists also raises its awkward head. More importantly these trainee journalists may not have a benchmark, especially of the do's and dont's, that they can compare with and thus can easily be swept into the flood of unacknowledged perks that come along with this profession that also wields a lot of power. Basic qualifications can provide future journalists with certain markers that can guide them in their profession. That is not to say that those with such qualifications wont be fallible, pedigreed hacks with higher qualifications have been found wanting in more than one occasion.
If highly qualified and experienced media professionals can falter leading to grave repercussions for society, one can only imagine the threats from those learning on the job and the consequences it has on our society. The need is to create and foster inbuilt mechanisms that allow journalists to gauge professional and moral grey areas so that their choices reflect the needs of society – which is what journalism is about. I am not a mind reader but it would seem that this is what Justice Katju is aiming for and this can't be a bad idea.