Fake Outrage Over Fake News: Why The Editors Guild Is A Joke And Needs To Be Disbanded

Fake Outrage Over Fake News: Why The Editors Guild Is A Joke And Needs To Be DisbandedFake news.
Snapshot
  • It is time to disband the Editors Guild of India and look for a new organisation that truly represents the new journalism evolving in the country, which is greatly in need of leadership and dynamism.

There has been much fake outrage over ‘fake news’ following the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s hamhanded efforts to penalise journalists for generating fake news. Among the measures proposed were withdrawal of the accreditation of journalists accused of generating ‘fake’ news. Thankfully, the Prime Minister’s Office intervened, and Smriti Irani’s guidelines went into the dustbin.

Let us be emphatic: there is no need for the government to step in to decide what constitutes fake or genuine news. Fake news comes in many shades – from concocted stuff to slanted news to news generated through sheer ignorance and misinterpretation of facts (eg: church attacks) – and the government should be the last one trying to get a foot in the door. If anything, the I&B Ministry ought to be disbanded, for there is no need for a centralised institution to decide what media should be doing, who should be accredited, etc.

Accreditation, which is important for journalists who cover government and ministries, can easily be handled by the various ministries themselves, based on transparent criteria. For example, if you cover the fertiliser ministry, knowledge of the industry and some years of reportage on fertiliser issues can be prescribed as the basic qualification for an accreditation. There can be various categories of accreditation, too, ranging from limited accreditation for people who want to cover a ministry once in a while and those who need to visit it daily.

However, the media outrage over the fake news guidelines was vastly overblown. Reason: it has simply not done enough to self-regulate by calling out bad journalism; it has largely outraged over the occasional fake news by mischief mongers who may not even be journalists. Very often, the outrage is not about the old media’s biases and doubtful reportage, but the fact that social media has a long memory and keeps pointing out journalists’ biases and hypocrisies.

Ask yourself: When was the last time the Editors Guild of India (EGI), the Press Council of India, the News Broadcasters’ Association, or any media institution, for that matter, strongly ostracised one of their own members for bad journalism? If journalists are reluctant to act against other journalists who go rogue, governments will get into the picture. So, all the outrage over Irani’s moves is so much bumf and hot air.

In fact, along with the I&B Ministry, organisations like the EGI either ought to disband themselves or make themselves more accountable to the reading or viewing public. It makes no sense to excoriate Irani for her efforts to clamp down on fake news when the grandees running the show at the Guild have done precious little about it.

The Guild statement, while rightly condemning the guidelines on fake news as an intrusion, is full of puff and bluster. One doubts that the Guild holds itself to the same standards.

After the first condemnatory para that denounces Irani’s guidelines, the Guild says it “acknowledges the intervention of the Prime Minister's Office to withdraw the I&B Ministry's notification, but remains deeply disturbed that faith continues to be reposed on the Press Council of India to deliver justice on such issues. The recent reconstitution of the Press Council of India has been done in a manner that gives rise to doubts over the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire. The Guild's nominees to the Council were disallowed on technical grounds. Also, the recent reconstitution of the Central Press Accreditation Committee has raised questions over the non-transparent processes being followed by the I & B Ministry as the Guild's application was ignored.” (Italics mine).

If one were to read between the lines, clearly the Guild wants to be the arbiter on decisions involving journos and accreditation, when it has done little to deserve these powers. In fact, it is possible to substitute the words Press Council with Editors Guild of India and the statement would still hold true. The Guild itself is run non-transparently, and can hardly be called a “neutral umpire” that can adjudicate on the quality of journalism.

First, the Guild is not a representative body of journalists today. It represents the old media establishment, the old Lutyens insiders, not the huge expansion into the digital and other domains. The future of journalism is going to be in the convergent digital space, but the Guild has almost no representatives from this field.

Second, its composition is that of a fossilised, old-school elite, as can be seen from the names associated with it. Starting from the bottom of the list provided by the Guild, as of early 2017 we had “special invitees” like Kuldip Nayar and Mrinal Pande. The former is a 94-year-old journo whose best days ended in the 1970s during the Emergency. The latter is now a formal member of the Congress ecosystem, having recently been appointed group editor to National Herald, a party mouthpiece. As for the rest, the less said the better: the list is heavily Delhi- and print-biased, and includes some old incumbents, who can no longer be called journalists, having moved close to political parties. The 2015 executive committee list, for example, included Harish Khare, who was part of Manmohan Singh’s PMO as media adviser. The rest came from the big newspapers and TV channels, from publications like Deccan Herald, Amar Ujala, PTI, Siasat, ABP TV, Ananda Bazar Patrika, Malayala Manorama, Indian Express and even Sakal, a newspaper associated with Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar. The Guild is currently headed by Raj Chengappa of the India Today Group, who carries some credibility, but there is no getting away from the reality that the Guild’s membership is largely old media, old establishment. It would be hard to find anyone under the age 60 in this group, when the real growth areas of the media are increasingly being run by much younger people, especially in the digital spaces.

Three, the Guild does not even meet the basic requirements of an institution: it has no website, no formal address or office, no schedule of meetings, not even a sensible structure with a virtual secretariat. According to one former insider, the Guild hardly ever meets, as most of its members have other things as priority. Some of the statements put out by it are the result of someone drafting them and passing them around for comments over email.

Four, the Guild has very little to show by way of commitment to being a non-partisan institution. Old members allege that when the Guild sends out fact-finding missions, sometimes they have accepted hospitality from state governments or governors, thus compromising their neutrality. As for the formal defence of journalists and writers facing state oppression, the Guild is often tongue-tied. Even as it worked up a lather over Irani’s fake news guidelines, it stayed mum when the Jammu and Kashmir judiciary issued a non-bailable warrant against Madhu Kishwar for a few negative tweets against a Kashmiri journo. The Guild did not cover itself with glory in defending free speech in this case. Nor has it stood up for the scores of regional journalists, who regularly risk life and limb to take on vested interests in their states.

Five, if the Guild has a code of ethics, it has kept them well hidden from public view. So we have no yardstick to judge its actions by.

The Guild is a peculiarly Delhi establishment, obsessed with its own importance. It seems more concerned about patronage and privilege than professionalism and propriety. It has a grouse with the Narendra Modi government, which gives it no importance. It is time to disband it and look for a new organisation that truly represents the new journalism evolving in India, which is greatly in need of leadership and dynamism.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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