Censored within the fourth estate

Disclaimer : This is a post written after a friend was ‘Tharoored’ recently by his publication for his use of social networking. If it is slightly politically incorrect or even incoherent, apologies. This is just a personal view.

Now why am I putting out a disclaimer already? Well its thanks to what happened to the friend I mentioned earlier in the post. We are a status message generation I could say. So this friend of mine, who writes a no-holds barred, sarcastically yours blog loves to proclaim his world view once in a while. He puts up something about a recent much talked about event on FB, the only glitch is that it involves some higher ups in his organisation. Suddenly he is branded as a rebel without a cause and asked to change his status, which due to professional pressures, he eventually does. Now I am not taking sides, not saying whether he was right or wrong. But it made me wonder how insecure we fourth estate people ourselves can be of the one thing we keep talking about upholding – ‘Freedom of expression’. My friend had been ‘Tharoored’, as he put it.

While I was in college, I remember avidly reading this blog called War For News. This blog was started when the English news channel scene was hotting up in the country with the launch of two new channels. The blog started out as a sharp critique of news room decisions and on air presentations of news channels. As a student, struggling with an ancient syllabus that was divorced from reality, this blog was one of the places I used to go to get an idea of what happened day to day behind the studio lights so to say.

Some might say it was a warped view of the news industry. Indeed some of the comments were too personal in nature and the site was reportedly blocked in many a newsroom, but it was the only place where media men themselves critically looked at what was being dished out. At first it was all the rage, but then later on the site degenerated into accounts of who was seeing whom and who was whose favourite, clearly losing the aim of being the watchdog of the watchdog. Stories still abound about the forceful closure of the website after it indulged in unethical leaks of corporate mails and such.

The only other well-read media watchdog is probably The Hoot, but it sticks to the basic debates of journalistic integrity rather than day-to-day decision making in newsrooms. The Hoot was the Indian express to the Mumbai Mirror of War For News. The slew of copycat websites after War For News either died a neglectful death or degenerated to gossip magazines about media celebrities.

Social media makes freedom of expression a dicey concept. The lines between professional and personal blur on most of these sites. Recently a friend’s twitter account was added into the official twitter list. She had to now refrain from posting all the personal updates she did till then, because now it had been made into a professional mouth piece. What she tweeted now would be seen as the view of a responsible journalist. Some editors recognise this power of the new media and make wonderful use of it to serve the cause of expression.

But introspection is not a strong point yet in world media. And criticising your own system is a big no no. Tharoors of the system are mostly strongly dealt with world over. The Washington Post, the BBC and the Wall Street journal all have a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ in social media for their journalists. The Post circular says ‘We must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists’, and that, ‘[we must] relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens.’

‘Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.’ (http://www.editorsweblog.org/newsrooms_and_journalism/2009/09/should_journalists_self-censor_on_social.php )

While a certain amount of responsibility is required of any media professional using a free for all medium like FB or Twitter, the question arises if we are taking ourselves too seriously? Are we taking these mediums of communication, that cater to less than a tenth of our population, and as Rajdeep Sardesai puts it ‘perfect to express a strong opinion without having to actually get involved in the muck of public life’ (http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/rajdeepsardesai/1/54062/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet.html ) too seriously? Would censoring opinions of their own vocal employees amount to negating all that the fourth estate stands for?

The question shouldn’t be whether to express an opinion or not. The actual question is where to draw the thin line between constructive criticism and disrespect, the line between rebelling with and without a cause. Maybe the day we as the fourth estate figure it out, we would be able to decide more precisely whether bigoted views of right wing politicians and idiotic or insensitive representations of issues in various art forms should be given a voice in the name of ‘Freedom of Speech’ or not. Should it be a voicing of opinions or informed opinions, maybe that is the bigger question.