Sandeep Sahu

Access to top politicians is an essential requirement for a journalist. It gives you information, inside dope and insight that helps you do your job better. If you are ‘close’ to the powers that be, it gives you a better chance of getting info that others are not privy to and thus helps you do an ‘exclusive’ that keeps you ahead of your rivals. The snob value that you get by flaunting your proximity to the rulers is an important fringe benefit. When the Chief Minister or a top minister lands at your marriage ceremony or that of your son/daughter, it raises your profile among those who know you!

But there is also a flip side to it. Turning the adage “Familiarity breeds contempt” upside down, ‘familiarity’ often breeds a cozy relationship with political leaders that clouds your judgment, colours your sense of fair play and evenhandedness and adversely affects your reportage - wittingly or unwittingly. Over time, such relationships inevitably turn into a ‘give and take’ arrangement that proves mutually beneficial for both sides. The politician gets the kind of coverage s/he wants. The journalist, in turn, gets what s/he wants – whether in terms of fringe benefits, bragging rights or something else. Before s/he realizes, the journalist gets branded as that particular leader’s stooge – the ultimate slur for any self-respecting scribe.

Watching pictures and videos of some leading journalists, some with bouquets in hand, paying their ‘courtesy calls’ to the new Chief Minister, Mohan Charan Majhi, I wondered why journalists, with camerapersons in tow, should pay courtesy calls to the new CM in the first place? Meeting the new CM as part of a group of journalists, with or without affiliation to a journalists’ union, is understandable. There are several issues of interest to journalists – most of them spillovers from the last government – that have to do with creation of a proper environment for the media to operate freely, fairly and uninhibitedly. And these issues need to be discussed and thrashed out with the new dispensation as it settles down to the task of governance. But why on earth does an individual journalist need a ‘photo op’ with the new CM? Far from enhancing their bragging rights, such ‘photo ops’ actually demean the journalist concerned in the public eye, more so when those paying their respects to the new star on the horizon have been known as apologists of the ancien regime.

If proximity to politicians impairs your power of judgment, distance gives you a measure of clarity and objectivity. Writing objectively and dispassionately about someone becomes difficult when you know the person well. Even when you consciously try not to allow your personal relationship to come in the way of your reporting/writing, there is always a possibility your bias would creep into the story one way or the other without you realizing it. If you consciously go to the other extreme and be harsh on the politician, you run the risk of spoiling your relationship with the person because no politician would have someone in his/her list of ‘friends’ who writes disparagingly about him/her. In doing so, you not only burn your ‘source’ cultivated over years but also lose your bragging rights. Hence, instead of burning their bridges, most journalists prefer to keep singing hosannas to the leader, even at the cost of their own credibility and the respect of the concerned politician. A lesser known or unknown journalist who writes objectively, in contrast, is likely to command greater respect from the politician than someone who only sings paeans to him/her.        

This ‘Access Vs Objectivity’ tug of war has occupied my mindspace right through my career as a journalist lasting nearly four decades now. By instinct and by inclination, I have always been rather averse to getting close to the powers that be. The price that I have had to pay for this innate disinterest is that there are not many politicians who know me well personally. As a result, I haven’t got too many ‘breaking news’ stuff, especially of the political kind. I have no pictures with political VIPs adorning my drawing room wall to boast about nor selfies with them to share on social media. No political stalwart has ever come to a family do or invited me to his/her family do. But believe me, I have never faced a problem in getting an interview – or a byte – with any politician in connection with a story in the last three decades – with the exception of outgoing Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

Mercifully, I am past my active reporting days when lack of access/proximity to the Who’s Who of Odisha politics used to be a big handicap and showed me up as a ‘good for nothing’ journalist for family, friends and acquaintances. But I have never really regretted not having too many ‘friends’ among politicians. I am perfectly happy doing what I am doing: trying to write as fairly and objectively as humanly possible – from a ‘safe’ distance!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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