Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sainath's ACJ convocation address

I recorded this talk, but my new recording device screwed up. It is not publishable quality, so here is a brief summary.

Asian College of Journalism is a Chennai based educational institution which provides a one year diploma course. It is run by Media Development Foundation, a trust currently driven by N.Ram and Sashi Kumar. Sashi Kumar is the head of the institution.

Sainath also teaches at ACJ a course on 'Covering Deprivation'. Here, his topic was 'The Moral Universe of the Media', a title which, he says, was inspired by Prabhat Patnaik ("an economist and a good human being, though usually the two do not go together!").

George Bush and Condolezza Rice had set the talk up nicely for Sainath. As I had predicted earlier, Sainath started with this and quickly jumped to his statistics that in the last 10 years, the average consumption of Indians has gone down by around 80 gms per day, per capita. Which means an average Indian family is consuming 100 kg less food per year.

Sainath's focus was that the media has a disconnect. It does not cover issues of major ramifications and instead focuses on frivolous issues. Agriculture coverage is going down. Sports is going up. Politics is going down, fashion and crime going up. He backed up his theory with numbers. In the height of agrarian crisis in Vidharba, when there were around 6 journalists to cover, more than 512 accredited journalists covered Lakme India Fashion Show, an hour of flight away.

He criticised Times of India without naming the paper and kept using the names of Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal and CII as corporate villains. ToI came for some real sharp criticism for its owner doing private deals with companies whereby Bennett and Coleman will take a stake in the company in return for assured good coverage in the paper. The comment by Sainath's ex-boss that "journalism is a business" came for criticism. Sainath contended that Newspaper is a business, Journalism is a calling. One can run newspapers without journalism - as one very successful paper is already demonstrating!

Sainath's talk was witty, but mostly a rehash of topics that he has been covering in the recent days. Nothing new. Indian journalists do not cover deprivation. Indian journalists and news media are not interested in 70-80% of the people. They are not interested in important issues. They are only interested in what is good for the big businesses, celebrities etc. Gandhi and Mark Twain were outstanding journalists.

Besides the agrarian crisis, Sainath touched upon internal migration as another major issue that no one has covered.

Gandhi, just before his death gave this talisman (so quoted Sainath): "I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."

Sainath said he used to give this advice to all his journalism students. But then it is time to change this. Then he made an ulta of the above quote, brought in big business and Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal and ended his talk with the comment that, "In the last 10 years, journalists have failed in covering real India and real issues. Perhaps, the new breed of journalists can do better."

The wittiest portion for me was when he recounted his ex-students calling him about their newsroom bosses.

Ex-student: "I want to kill my boss. He is rude, he is crude, he is obnoxious."
Sainath: "Don't rush. Just answer one question. What will you do with the body? How will you dispose it off? If you know the answer to this question, go ahead, and be my guest."

[Last year, in a function to felicitate Sainath, he gave a lecture on 'When rising inequalities threaten Democracy'. The audio of this talk is available here.]

1 comment:

  1. Great insights. Witty indeed.
    Interesting stats on the food consumption. Still the per-capita consumption does not in anyway indicate that the middleclass is consuming less. We may be heading into serious trouble with declining stress on Agriulture and industrialization without heart.

    The next major thing I belive would be a demand for food. The demand for cultivable land might in near future become like the demand for oil reserves. India could cash on or just keep being the world's back office.

    Gandhi's words are inspiring. They will be put easily on plaques than taken into heart.

    Thanks for sharing the info.