Not Amusing

The publication of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's much-talked-about "Musings" in leading Indian newspapers in early January, and the post-publication recriminations in the national press, register quite clearly the depths that Indian journalism is plumbing at this stage. Central to the unseemly quarrel was the exclusive rights to use verbatim the prime minister's policy sermon composed in Kerala.

The stampede to publish Vajpayee's two-part contribution was followed by vehement protests and expressions of deep hurt, once the newspapers realised that they were being made to share the booty from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

It all began when the prime minister, on a year-end southern holiday, was driven indoors by rain and security considerations. He whiled away the hours by penning his "Musings", a rambling discourse on the Babri Masjid affair, the Kashmir dispute and the nation's future, a thinly disguised attempt to cast himself as a statesman in the Nehruvian mould. The prime minister's men decided that these passing thoughts had to be brought to the people, so the PMO's PR outfit devised a strategy to distribute the contribution to more than one newspaper. Among the 'chosen' were The Times of India (TOI) Bombay edition, The Hindu Madras edition, The Hindustan Times (HT) Delhi edition, and The Tribune of Chandigarh.

The rivalry between the TOI and the HT is fierce, particularly in Delhi. After the publication of "Musings", the two papers carried follow-up stories of how they were tricked into believing that the two-part piece was given them as an exclusive. There were insinuations about the PMO's partisanship, including that of H. K Dua, media advisor to the Prime Minister (who served as editor of both the HT and the TOI) and Sudheendra Kulkarni, a bureaucrat who often writes the PM's speeches.

There is cause for reflection on the state of the Indian national media when an issue like this becomes cause celebre without going into the heart of the matter. It is one thing for newspapers to comment on or appreciate the oratorical talents of political leaders. It is an entirely different matter to get into altercations over exclusive claims to publish so-called articles, which in this case was speech material dressed up in essay format. During the past decade, there has been a trend towards soliciting readymade pieces from political heavyweights, particularly former prime ministers (now abundant, given South Asia's increasing lifespans, and more frequent downfall of coalition governments), and camouflaging their writings as interviews and articles. This, despite the fact that the bulk of such contributions is the handiwork of ghostwriters. Practically the entire length of Vajpayee's meandering sermon consists of passages like this one:

The beginning of a New Year is always a time to look back and to look ahead. A year is but a speck in the life of an ancient nation like India, which is ever youthful in spite of her great antiquity. However, unlike our nation, all of us have a limited life. Each new generation, therefore, has to give a worthy account of itself in its own lifetime, aware that its contribution to India's progress will be judged essentially on two counts: One, how many 'legacy problems' inherited from the past has it resolved? Two, how strong a foundation has it laid for the future development of the nation?

By fighting over each other to publish unabridged contributions such as this, the Indian national press has been compromising the principles of reporting and editing. As every sub-editor knows, speeches are to be summarised and unwieldy articles are to be edited down. Sycophancy should have no place in the editor's cubicle, and the editors should understand that readers have standards. A newspaper is not a mouthpiece. If there is a compulsion, the (ghost) writings of politicos should go into the edit (or op-ed) pages.

It is so simple: Prime Minister Vajpayee's musings should have been published and distributed in toto by the Press Information Bureau. It is not the role of the independent media to print such pieces, and much less to fight over the issue of exclusivity.

The tendency of editors to publish political twaddle of party chieftains is only one recent trend. It goes hand in hand with the commer-cialisation of newspaper publishing as a whole, where the bottom line guides the media houses rather than editorial content. In the process,the rich legacy of Indian journalism is being squandered.

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