Here in Orissa, at the
moment, we are working on a project that’s really about feature
journalism. And, it’s funded, the project, with a very specific aim of
giving greater coverage to tobacco related issues; so issues to do
with tobacco industries, to do with advertising, to do with public
health, to do with child labour and trying to raise the profile of those
issues in the Indian media generally. And, obviously, since we are here in
Orissa this week to raise it in Orissa now.
And, we do that by
providing local journalists with a course in feature journalism and we
hope in that endeavour that they will do some features on tobacco
issues. But we also think we help them in their everyday work. As I
said, there is not enough training for journalists, there is not enough
opportunity for them to sit and discuss their work - to say, this kind of
story worked, this one didn’t work so well, and we help in a way to
provide a forum for that.
I think it’s more about
how journalists, as a professional, go about dealing with that in the
Indian journalism has
got a huge amount to be very proud of. But I think there are lots of
problems. And a lot of them, as I have mentioned, have been due to lack
of training. It’s not bad will, it’s not as if journalists who make
mistakes are evil. So the real need is for high quality training of
India journalists in-service, for working journalists. There is a strong
emphasis on journalism courses before you join journalism, and almost no
talk about training for working journalists, and working journalists
actually need training far more.
I am happy to talk about
this project by BBC World Service specifically. Which is a project that is trying to get a particular issue
covered more in the media. We are not saying it needs to be
covered in this way or that way. We don’t want the issue to be
covered by plugging a particular line. But we are saying, this
issue - tobacco control needs more and better quality coverage in
the Indian media.
I think there
has been an obsession with high politics, and business, but
there aren’t enough social, health, people’s stories. And,
that’s what we are trying to change here.
I think there has
obsession with high politics,
and business, but there
enough social, health,
people’s stories. And, that’s
we are trying to change.
I picked up one
newspaper here today and didn’t see any good feature story. The kind
that tell you about someone’s life and make you think, or make you do
something differently. And, that’s what I think is lacking and we are
going to encourage more of. And, that we do across the country. These
are human interest stories which have an issue at their heart. Issue
based journalism is a good thing so long as it stand in human terms.
If you want to talk about child
labour, you don’t need to write an essay about it. You go and meet a child
or an employer, and get that story, bring it out. At the end of the
story, you might
have your conclusions and your more analytical points. Actually,
journalism in my view is about telling stories, telling true stories. They need to
be read like stories, look like
stories rather than like post-graduate essays. And, you know, it should be
about journalists going out, meeting people, coming back and filing stories,
this is how journalism use to be. It can’t all be done on the mobile
phone and the Internet. That’s what we are working on in our courses.
BM: In your view, where do
most Indian Journalists lack or, in the other way, where should they
need to be more and better feature stories, more human-centred,
person-centred stories which begin with a part of someone’s life story.
And, for me not only is it right that you should be doing those stories,
most readers, most viewers will remember those stories. If you ask an
ordinary member of the public to tell you about the story they remember over
the last year, it will usually be a slightly off-beat, interesting,
different story. It won’t be the interview with the leader of the
opposition because people are fed up a lots of the time with politics. They
want stories; they want things that tell them about people and the
world. They do not want this party or that minor party might split if
such and such happens.
Journalism in my
view is about telling stories, telling true stories. They need to
be read like stories, look like stories
rather than like post-graduate essays.
I think there
are some good feature writers around, particularly in the
magazines where there is more time to report. And, that’s one of
the hardest things for a journalist. To do a good feature story
you need time, you need to work on the story, you need to
follow up from different angles, you need to think about how you
are going to write it, how you are going to begin the piece…
whereas, with daily news journalism, you know, we can do several
stories in a day. But that carefully written feature story -
that isn’t a hard news item, it could run tomorrow or the next
day, doesn’t need to go today; these stories somehow feel lower
priority to the newsrooms. But it’s these pieces that the
BM: But In India, don’t you
see journalists are more interested in reporting politics than issues of
people living at the grass root level.
SM: I think that’s partly
about the status of politics within journalism. The higher up you go the
more you want to do the big political story and you go and interview the
Chief Minister etc. And I think that’s the problem. I would love to see
more senior journalists take up social and economic features, health,
environment, these kinds of stories. And, they often don’t do these. You
know, they often get given to the junior person in the office.
BM: In a country of one
billion people where over 70% do lead a miserable life, how do you see
the role and responsibility of journalists in bringing them up?
SM: I think, the
responsibility on Indian journalism is to tell their stories, make sure
people know their story and define interesting ways of doing and telling
their story. And, you tell the stories of the rich as well. But,
ordinary lives can be interesting. You can meet anyone around here, you
can plan a story, spend sometime with them, they trust you, you speak to
them in common language, there is a story they can tell! They can be a
part of your next feature!
And, you know, as a journalist
sometimes you become obsessed by getting an interview with this big
famous person, and then when you get the interview, they say what they
have said in every previous interview. But those other people has never
been interviewed in their life, they may have an interesting story to
BM: In India, Journalists
working at grass-root level and bringing out the issues are being
targeted in the recent years. Even here in Orissa many of the
Journalists have been harassed while doing their job! How do you think
that the government and administration should take it?
SM: Any attempt to censor,
or to harass media would usually backfire. The media is quite powerful
so long as it’s broadly united; then it’s an incredibly powerful force.
And, a government that takes on the media as a whole is being very
foolish. What they are trying to do is, pick off one or two people whom
they see as trouble. Then they complain, you did the story about such
and so. And, which is why having some kind of media solidarity is so
important.. And, I would also say, to be honest being a journalist is
not a risk free job. It’s your job as a journalist to tell the truth as
you find it and telling the truth involves risks if you are exposing
people, if you are embarrassing people. That’s part of being a
journalist! I think while going into the profession one should realise
that it’s not totally risk free.
BM: There has been a boom in
Indian media sector. How do you see this boom? Has it helped improving
the quality of journalism in India?
SM: I am not
convinced it helps. It doesn’t necessarily hinder either. And, part of
the problem at the moment is too many of the channels and newspapers are
copying each other. They are not willing to stand up and be different.
Or, from a business point of view, they should aim for different
segments of the market rather than all reach out for the same segments
and end up copying each other. I would love to see more innovation and
more difference in Indian media.
You know, there is some
superb journalism and some very fine journalists working here.
I would wish and, I think, many of them would wish that they got
more training. They should also get more opportunity to discuss
their work, more training to improve their technical skills and
their editorial skills.
You know, I
worked for many many years for the BBC. One of the best things
as an employee has been every year there has been some kind of
professional training. It’s seen as part of being a Journalist;
that, being a journalist isn’t just about doing a story, but
it’s about learning and developing and improving your own skills
in a word.
a journalist is not a risk free job. It’s your job as a
journalist to tell the truth as you find it and telling the
truth involves risks if you are exposing people, if you are
embarrassing people. That’s part of being a journalist!
BM: What will you say about
ethical standards in Indian Journalism today?
SM: Every organisation
should have its editorial guidelines which it’s willing to publish,
which it is willing to adhere by. I think it has been a good development
that The Hindu has a readers’ editor. I think that kind of person who is
half inside, half outside the organisation is a very good way of
checking on the extent to which editorial guidelines and other
guidelines kept. So, I would recommend that.
In the end, it’s the job of the
editors to ensure that their editorial guidelines are met.
You know, I come from an
organisation which is neutral. It tries to be objective. Where as, other
media organisations which are quite open that they support such and such
a party. I am not saying that’s wrong so long as they are open about it.
If you think of American Fox News,
I don’t like its content and the style of journalism. But I will support
its right to exist because it’s absolutely clear where it stands. It
says, it supports the right wing conservatives in America.
BM: Yes. In fact, you know,
during these days, there has been lot of changes in the practice of
journalism. Like, in India particularly, sting operation kind of
journalism is becoming popular even though it’s still controversial to
say whether it’s good or bad. So, how do you see the changes in practice
of journalism in India during your stay in this country?
SM: There are certainly lot
more stings and they are of variable quality. But, when there are so
many of them, people stop paying attention. They stop being the big news
they should be.
I think there is also an obsession
with breaking news. And often it is not really very breaking, it’s just
news! I think the idea of breaking news should be reserved for a major
event, a major story that’s just emerging. And, we have sometimes seen
breaking news which turns out to be someone from that same channel
winning an award. That’s the worst.
BM: People from non-news
background are now coming into news business and are controlling not
only the business but the editorial aspects as well. How do you see to
SM: What is most important
among journalists is that there is a common understanding of what
journalism is, what its core values are. And, obviously, the danger is,
with more people who haven’t come from a journalistic background that
common understanding be diluted. My point, I will keep repeating is that no one was born
a journalists. We learn to be journalists. And, if
someone stops being a lawyer and decides to become a journalist, it’s
good, bringing their outside experience to the profession. But it is
absolutely critical, when there are people who join the profession, that
understand the profession and get training in the profession.
BM: But in India, you must
have observed, people without any understanding of the profession are
coming in and are using Journalism as a tool to achieve their other
SM: As I said, it’s a part
of the business relationship. I think, that happens in most countries
around the world. Obviously I deplore it. I think it’s very important
that the media regulates itself. Otherwise governments do it, but
governments regulate it very badly and often for selfish reasons. So,
the problem is if media begins to lose its credibility, and it will if
it doesn’t keep to journalistic standards, everyone loses.
for those people you are talking about and who aren’t really journalists
they will still see a longer term business interest in them maintaining
the credibility of their organisation. Because if they don’t, in the
long run, they will lose viewers, they will lose readers.