The Dynamics of Political Journalism

Prof. R.S. Joshi*

– Part I –

What is politics and why is it imperative for a student of media to understand its relation with journalism? In my reckoning, politics is a powerful instrument to manage human affairs, regulate society, and govern the country. It has multitude dimensions that are manifested through different political systems that are run by various political parties of mutually differing ideological persuasions. Hence, it is important for a student of media to comprehend politics and its functioning in relation to journalism, for, she/he is an agent of change in the symbiotic relationship between the state and its people.

In fact, politics and journalism have always been inseparable entities since the human being first felt the need to communicate with the masses through an organized medium. The relationship between the state and the society has passed through various stages of development of communication technology (folk to electronic communication), social needs, and forms of governance over a period of about three centuries. The two-hundred year old declaration – “press is the fourth pillar of democracy” or that “the fourth estate of modern state”- simply echoes the inseparable relationship of journalism from the politics of the day. In modern times, all political systems, regardless of their mutually conflicting ideologies, policies, and programmes, need an effective media with a wide reach that covers every nook and corner in the country. The media acts as a powerful, sensitive, and multidimensional bridge between the people and the state in a democratic set up. In fact, the very existence of democracy and its vibrant functioning is deeply and widely entrenched in the healthy working of today’s media. In the age of globalization, information explosion, the ever-expanding web of multinational corporations, and the changing contours of traditional sovereign nation-state, it is expected from a media student to grasp the dynamics of age long relationship of politics and media in radically changed times.

Students of political journalism (PJ) should bear in mind that its history is old and rich. It played a crucial role in social and political upheavals of European and North American countries during the period of the 18th and the 19th centuries. During the age of French revolution, the American war of Independence, and industrialization in the West, political newspapers and periodicals awakened and sensitized the masses through publishing news, views, and intellectual discourses related to democracy, liberty, equality, justice, and other scientific ideas. Also, during Russian revolution of 1917, PJ touched new heights. Vladimir Lenin, the architect of the revolution in Russia, was essentially a political commentator and a polemist.

During India’s First War of Independence in 1857, the historic contribution made by vernacular journalism including Bangla, Urdu, Persian, Hindi etc acquired an inspiring place in India’s history of freedom movement. In fact, India’s PJ inherits a rich heritage from the works of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Subhash Chandra Bose, Arvind Ghosh, etc. They were great political communicators and journalists of their times. They edited and published political periodicals like Kesari, Maratha, Indian Opinion, Young India, and National Herald inspired Indian masses through their political thoughts and writings. They functioned as a lighthouse during colonial India.

Undoubtedly, that was an era of missionary political journalism. However, the time has changed now along with the challenges and issues faced by PJ. The whole character of media has undergone a sea change, from mission to professionalism and now to commercialism. For example, in the age of hi-tech media and Foreign Direct Investment, we see overseas capital flowing into Indian media and influencing trends in the domestic media market. While staying tuned with the changing trends, it will be unwise to compare today’s media with that of the bygone days. However, despite this radical transformation of the media, the basic principle of PJ remains unchallenged. Certain basic principles that were laid down by the contemporaries of political journalism before Independence are still relevant, and will remain so like a beacon for young aspirants of PJ, regardless of temporal boundaries.

The rich tradition of PJ was further enriched by successive political journalists in the post-independent India. Through their reporting, editorial writings, and edit page articles, successive editors, columnists, and field journalists echoed the cause, aspiration, and agenda of secular and non-aligned sovereign India under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. That era was marked by abolition of untouchability and zamidari system, introduction of land reforms and five-year plans, development of infrastructure, industrialization, experiments with socialist mixed economy, etc. Landmark steps initiated by the then Nehru government, during first two decades after independence, were adequately reflected in the editorials, comments, articles, and news reports by eminent political journalists such as Chelapati Rao, S. Mulgaonkar, Frank Moraes, Shamlal, Ajit Bhattacharjee, MV Kamath, RK Karanjia, Inder Malhotra, Prem Bhatia, Kuldeep Nayar, and a host of other vernacular journalists in Hindi, Bangla, Malayalam, Marathi, and so on.

In subsequent years, BG Verghese, Pran Chopra, S Nihal Singh, Arun Shourie, Rajendra Mathur, Prabhash Joshi, Shekhar Gupta, Tarun Tejpal, Vinod Mehta, Dilip Padgaonkar, MJ Akhbar, Praful Bidwai continued the trend and made significant contributions to the world of PJ. The current crop of political journalists is equally efficient and is adding new dimensions to this tradition, while working within certain professional constraints of ‘commercialized’ media. As far as PJ is concerned, language media, especially the print media, is more active and far-reaching in sensitizing the Indian masses by reporting and analyzing grassroots politics. This trend has given a fresh push to PJ at the regional, district, and tehsil levels, with the result that vernacular media has expanded by leaps and bounds.

In comparison to the other forms of journalism, PJ leads the hierarchy as it deals with the society and the state in holistic fashion. It covers the entire world of activities related to the three vital organs of the government: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. In addition, culture, economics, science, diplomacy, war, and peace are the subjects that come within its area of professional functioning. It keeps a strict vigil on the activities of the government, alerts the state against its potential failures, and helps maintain a healthy democracy through critical examination of the nation’s life and its various institutions. Plainly speaking, PJ is a watchdog that highlights the system’s achievements and deviations in discharging duties/responsibilities by the government. It is politics that controls and navigates all sectors of the country, which determines the real character of the state. The decisions like arming a nation with nuclear weapons or waging a war against other nations, privatizing or nationalizing the property, making a state theocratic or secular, running the country based on democracy or dictatorship, essentially originates from politics and its various implementing agencies.

It is a general perception that an average student of journalism harbours a dream of making a career in political journalism. It is, undoubtedly, an attractive profession with glamour, power, and prestige as its byproducts. A political journalist has an easy access to the corridors of power and maintains a close proximity to the authorities. However, all this may appear attractive but is, in fact, delusional. Power is an illusion and rests with none. Therefore, a rookie runs the risk of falling prey to this false notion of being one among the power players. This hollow perception of power is enough to mislead an incautious journalist and make him/her compromise with the profession. Against this background, it will not be out of place to suggest that a political journalist should stay on guard to resist such temptations.

A successful career in PJ demands a comprehensive and an in-depth understanding of the socio-economic and political structure of the country. A thorough knowledge of the constitution, government formation, electoral system, and the way various political parties function lays a firm foundation for someone aspiring to be a political journalist. This is one of the reasons why political beat is usually assigned to an experienced and mature reporter, who is well familiar with the local as well as national political climate.

– Part II –

For convenience sake, PJ can be divided into two major areas: Field Reporting and Editorial Writing. Let us take filed reporting first. A political reporter should start his professional journey by covering the affairs of local self-governments such as municipal corporations, municipalities, district board, village panchayat, etc. With time and consistency in efforts, the reporter can develop a firm grasp on the pulse of politics and graduate to the next stage of covering state assemblies’ proceedings. As a state assembly is comparatively a higher body of decision makers, it legislates over the matters concerning the state and its local bodies. Hence, the coverage of legislative proceedings demands greater attention and preparation. It becomes necessary for the correspondent to equip himself/herself with a good knowledge of the assembly’s history, its functioning, business transactions, procedures, structure and functioning of the respective state government, rules and regulations, and the composition of the House. The designated correspondent should also study the functioning of different ministries, especially the ones that count the most like Home, Finance, Education, and Agriculture ministries.

Assembly reporting bears a great responsibility on the correspondent, once he is permitted to cover it from the press gallery. While covering the debates in the House, minor slips in taking notes of members’ statements on the floor of the House can cost him/her the cancellation of his/her accreditation to the assembly. On certain occasions, exchange of un-parliamentary words and remarks become part of heated debates between the ruling party and the Opposition in the House. Following objections raised by certain members against the use of impermissible language and a close examination of the case by the Speaker/Chairman of the House, such objectionable words are removed from the debate. Despite this decision of the Speaker, if the expunged words or remarks still appear in the media, the erring correspondent is made to face the music. Attentive watching, careful note taking, proper studying of question-answer sets and other important documents (like ministers’ annual reports, budget proposals, Public Accounts Committee reports) are the basic requisites for an active correspondent covering the Assembly. In fact, bills introduced and various reports presented in the House contain valuable information for public interest; a conscious journalist will always make good use of such documents. State and national budgets, Public Accounts Committee reports and Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports, and major ministries’ reports, Defence in particular, carry potentially explosive materials. It is up to the wisdom of a political journalist to make good use of his/her journalistic acumen and determine the best way to play with such telling material while not distorting facts. The news reports based on such material attracts response from parliamentarians and the public.

In style, parliamentary reporting and the coverage of legislative proceedings share the same rules. A correspondent accredited to either Lok Sabha (the Lower House) or Rajya Sabha (the Upper House) has to go through almost a similar procedure. A firm grasp on national and international affairs can spell success for a journalist covering parliament and the union government. S/he interacts with a wide spectrum of affairs as they cover press briefings of political parties and ministries, report the state visits of foreign dignitaries, and joins the VVIP’s as part of the media delegation on state visits abroad. However, such crucial assignments like VVIP state visits overseas demand through preparation ranging from good knowledge of relations between India and the host country to the insights of over and covert objectives of proposed official visits by Indian VVIP’s. A reasonable grip over diplomacy and international affairs adds and edge while filing stories from abroad.

A political journalist is also deputed to cover the activities of different political parties. In order to report regular press briefings, s/he should begin by getting familiar with the constitution, policies, programs, and the election manifesto of the party concerned. Without having a fair understanding of the party’s leadership and its style of functioning, the reporter may not be able to do full justice to his/her assignment. Hence, a clear understanding of the Indian party system is imperative to learning political journalism.

Political parties are formed on the basis of certain ideological commitments, national, regional or local interests, and class-caste-creed affiliations. As our society is not homogeneous and is instead divided into innumerable heterogeneous sections and sub sections, political parties have to take into considerations all these divisive factors. All these forces voice their expression and mark representation through competitive politics. It is the political parties that control various channels of politics by the way of contesting elections. Each political party has its own constitution, flag and election symbol. It is for the student of journalism to understand such dynamics of politics as meaningful political journalism emanates from a careful understanding of this sensitive character of our society. As politics is not uniform, it is divided into different ideologies: communism, socialism, capitalism, progressivism, conservatism, secularism, communalism, nationalism, regionalism, casteism, etc. In journalistic parlance, the parties that subscribe to these ideologies are generally branded as leftists, rightist, centrist, left/right of the centre, communalist/fundamentalist, pro-Dalit and OBC, extremist or ultra radical, and so on. A good grasp over the social-political pulse of the society helps a journalist produce a substantial text.

Election coverage also comes within the domain of political journalism and demands special skills from the reporter. A reporter on an election assignment interacts with the complete cross-section of society. Good communication skills and are the tools that help the reporter establish a quick rapport with voters belonging to disparate social strata and geographical settings, peep into their minds, and gauge their response. As a journalist, the reporter covering elections should base his /her reports on independent election polls and informal and impromptu interviews with candidates. Reporters should be well versed with this various techniques of interviews. A thorough study of election issues and the problems of constituencies being covered is a must for that reporter. As the election atmosphere is generally fraught with rumors, gossips, planted stories, baseless allegations, mudslinging, and deceptions, discrete and judicious approach should be used in the field coverage so that an objective picture is presented to the electorate. Election results greatly impact national and regional politics, and its coverage demands an experienced hand to deal with electoral battle. It is for the reporter to understand that in a democratic setting, a voter hungers for unbiased news in order to make an enlightened decision about the ballot.

-Part III-

Let us turn to the second category of PJ. It is primarily a synthesis of field experiences and contemplative-cum-analytical expressions. In fact, PJ consummates itself through its second category. To attend the stage of consummation, one has to pass through a long journey of field experiences in PJ.  Field exposure opens up the world of opportunities for journalists to cover and interact with the diverse social, cultural, economic and political forces of the country. This interaction sharpens their understanding and makes them critical and analytical towards the functioning of systems operating at various levels, including national and global levels. The reporter’s area of PJ expands automatically as political journalists use their rich experiences in contemplative articles and editorials. This category of PJ also throws up a large number of opportunities to reflect timely on various topics that range from local to international affairs. Between these two poles, a seasoned political journalist is always prepared to critically react to major or minor issues of the time (such as political economy of the country, nuclear policy, politics of education and health, employment and environment, communalism and terrorism, devolution of power and grassroots democracy, reorganization of states and electoral reforms, corruption and crony capitalism, judiciary versus executive and legislature, unipolar world, democratization of the UN, neo-imperialism, and WTO etc).

For contemplative journalism is based on interdisciplinary approach. Consummate journalist always keeps himself in touch with various streams of knowledge including economics, history, sociology, diplomacy, politics of arms, war, energy, corporate sector, literature, etc. To become a worthy political journalist, one has to transcend one’s boundary of limited knowledge and look beyond field reporting. It does not suggest that one should entirely cut off from the field; instead, what is needed is to link the field experiences with thoughts, concept, interpretation, projection, and conclusion.

Scientific analysis of the available data is imperative to drawing conclusions that may be useful in policy framing for decision makers. Some elementary knowledge of research and data analysis methodology will make journalistic writing sound and substantial. Such political journalists produce a research-based document that has potential to spark off debates in the public and state spheres; publication of political diary and notes are generally used as a reference material. It is beyond any doubt that the semi-academic style of journalistic writing ensures a unique identity in the realm of political journalism. Through editorials, topical commentaries, and books, a political journalist can play a role of an interventionist or an advisor. PJ is a powerful medium through which political advocacy for underdogs in the society can yield desired results. In fact, in backward and developing countries like India or Pakistan in South Asia, political journalists act as opinion-makers for both the public and the government.

To conclude, whatever has been discussed in this chapter has basically originated from personal experiences and observations gathered during the course of my PJ. I began my journalistic career as a political reporter in the mid-1960’s. I have spent more than four decades in covering wide-range political events (local bodies, state assemblies, parliament, VVIP’s state visits overseas, the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the disturbances in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, assembly and parliament elections, and media education etc). It is my firm opinion that the role of PJ cannot or should not be belittled despite the multitude effects of globalization across the world. Of course, the commercialization of media and the emergence of corporate and financial journalism are posing a strong challenge for PJ. However, undermining PJ is bound to affect the media as a whole, which   may result in weakening the democratic roots in the country. To repeat the historical facts again, it is the political economy that plays a role of compass for any nation-state of modern times. Therefore, dynamics of PJ has to be properly understood and followed by the students of PJ.

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