Snakes and the rope trick

Political journalism has always been more partisan than other disciplines of the media. Other disciplines have to perforce deal with facts. Political journalism can get away purveying opinions as facts. Ideological and personal loyalties do play a role in shaping the tone and content of reportage in all fields, but in political journalism they rule the roost.

One can easily put most political journalists in identifiable boxes. When I was at the prime minister’s office, I had my storehouse of such boxes like pro-Congress, pro-BJP and pro-left. Within each box one could identify and place sub-boxes. The Congress box had pro-Sonia Gandhi, pro-Pranab Mukherjee, pro-Arjun Singh and such like. My task was to create a pro-Manmohan Singh box and fill it up. The BJP box at that time had only pro-A.B. Vajpayee and pro-L.K. Advani boxes. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to fill his box impressively. Though one must recognise that at least ten to twenty per cent of political journalists remain true professionals, identifying them and recruiting them is always a challenge for an editor.

In the early 1990s, The Economic Times chose to open a political bureau because an increasing number of investors were concerned about political risks. Most investors, who trusted the numbers and the facts in a business paper, also wanted to trust political reporting. It was in that context that The Economic Times scouted around for a reliable political journalist and hired P. Raman. He was left-of-centre in his outlook, but never in his reporting. One could trust his report. He was a true professional.

So, I am delighted that Raman has devoted his energy and time to write his memoirs recording changes in Indian journalism post-Emergency. His book, The Post-Truth: Media’s Survival Sutra, A Footsoldier’s Version, strings together fact and opinion, walking us through the transformative years of Indian journalism.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

It is widely recognised that Emergency was the hothouse in which a new genre of journalism took roots. First political journalism (1977-85), and, then, business journalism (post 1985), saw fundamental changes in style of reporting and focus of reportage. Raman reminds us that till the early 1980s the media section at the All India Congress Committee was referred to as “Press Room”. In 1985, at the Bombay Session presided over by Rajiv Gandhi, they had a “Media Centre”. At that session, Raman also noticed the Congress media managers paying more attention to women and non-Delhi journalists.

The second major change in the media came with the arrival of news television. As a lifetime print media loyalist, Raman was worried, like many in his generation, whether political reporting on TV would kill print. His conclusion is brilliant. Quoting a tale told by Adi Shankara, Raman says that he had imagined TV reporting would be the snake that would kill print. In the event, the snake turned out to be a rope.

Professional political reporters like Raman are still to be found largely in print. Like him, they lie low, gathering information and reporting it. They are not always recognised by their own profession and could not care less not getting one or the other high profile media awards. They have chosen to remain the source of news, not become the news itself.

I recommend Raman’s book to every young student of journalism. Raman’s sketches of all the key players in the Delhi media are the truly entertaining part of the book. For all those who imagine that journalism was somehow a more noble profession in the past than today, Raman’s memoirs would be sobering. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more it changes, the more it is the same thing).

Baru is an economist and a writer. He was adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.