On faith of the Journalist

Mr. Justice M. N. Venkatachaliah
Former Chief Justice of India and Chairperson National Human Rights Commission

The great institution of the ‘Press’ which has been and still is the largest single influence on the civil and political society does not seem to inspire the same respect for its legitimacy as it did in the past. Its vision of objectivity seems to have been blurred by the excitement and rewards of sensationalism. This is also an age of irreverence and hypocrisy. Privately distrusted but publicly proclaimed futile and mischievous views on social problems are not washed with cynical acid any more. Truth has lost its ultimate ability to win out in the intellectual marketplace. Free interchange of ideas, which is the foundation of liberal democracy, is in great peril. A sense of sin seems capable of generating a sense of pride. There is an epidemic of immorality and benumbing of the sense of moral responsibility.
There is need to rethink the role of a journalist in the grim struggle for a new economic and social order. Economic development by itself does not necessarily mean enhanced social opportunity. Impurity of political climate and corruption in public life have become critical for our very survival.

Journalists individually have their own fair share of moral dilemma. They have, themselves, been examining moral problems of all other professions. They have indeed ‘anointed themselves the public’s guardians against moral failures of others’ and act as the moral Ombudsman of the polity and society, often trespassing, quite consciously, into forbidden fields. The commitment to decency and truth are often disregarded. No code of conduct however noble and lofty can fully be effective. The righteous do not need them; the unrighteous do not need them. Chesterton spoke of the ‘mine owners’ not only not knowing anything about ‘mining’ but, what is worse, not knowing anything about mine owning itself. May it be said with some justification that some ‘Press owners’ today not only do not know journalism but also know nothing of ‘Press-owning’ itself!

The press had a significant role in the evolution of law and educating public-opinion.
What then ought to be the journalist’s faith when he incessantly, compulsively and deliberately intrudes into, and seeks to shape our lives, collectively and individually? Press enjoys the privilege of a great freedom. It has enormous influence on the civil and political society. It can shape many dreams for society’s future. It can also, in a non-trivial sense, enhance the quality of justice and equity in society.
The journalist must have the vision of the future of a philosopher, the insight of a scientist, a passion for truth of a seeker, a great sense of justice and equity, great dignity and compassion. His words spring to life only when there is experience behind them. When I say vision, I am aware, that some body defined vision “as a mere re-arrangement of our prejudices”.

More than the freedom of the press, its moral obligations not to libel, not to invade privacy, not to be distasteful, only publish facts which are confirmed, etc. are part of a higher culture. Some journalists seem to place ‘Truth’ higher than the methods for its unfoldment; and attach to the freedom of the press a transcendental importance because, for them, moral standards seem trivial by comparison
But the journalist who does not respect the higher sources of professional legitimacy is a small man. Small men cannot become great journalists and share the exciting burden of their noble responsibility.
Journalism, like all other communication is intended to persuade. It is the permanent dimension of any message. To persuade what? Persuade perhaps to the right vision.